Drone strikes against terrorism suspects have become such a hallmark of US policy, it's easy to forget the technology is only a couple of decades old.
Also known as unmanned aerial vehicles, or remotely piloted aircraft, drones are part of a much bigger robotics revolution sweeping the globe and shaping the contours of conflict in this century.
“Eighty-six different countries have military robotics today,” says Peter W. Singer, strategist at New America. “And it’s not just countries.” Non-state actors use drones too, including the kind of consumer quadcopters, often used for photography, that anyone with a few hundred bucks can buy.
There are "good guys” like environment groups tracking down poachers, and “bad guys” like ISIS which, Singer says, conducted 60 different drone operations around the battle of Mosul in December 2016 and January 2017. “A rebel group, a terrorist group operating a little miniature air force, that’s not something we saw before," Singer says.
Singer, author of “Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century” and “Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War” says all this proliferation poses constant new challenges.
Robotics are also in play in high tension zones like the Persian Gulf and the South China Sea, where China recently seized and later returned an American underwater drone. Singer also worries about unmanned aircraft jousting with each other in the skies, the way Chinese and Japanese drones have done recently.
“What happens when one of these things crashes? Or what happens when one of these things accidentally bumps into a manned machine?,” he asks. “I have my own opinions on how the different laws of war apply, but the point is not everyone shares these understandings."
“The technology continues to move ahead and our politics, our policies, our laws, they have a hard time keeping apace with it,” he says. “I like to describe it this way: technology moves at an exponential pace, whereas our laws move at a glacial pace, if that, and the disconnect becomes wider and wider.”
Some critics believe the US executive branch now wields too much unchecked power to kill individual terrorism suspects overseas, without oversight from other branches of government. The use of targeted drone strikes that started under President George W. Bush and sharply increased under President Barack Obama, is expected to continue under President Donald Trump.
Even within US borders, ethical issues have arisen over how and when to use robotics in law enforcement. “Last summer we had this episode where the Dallas Police Department used a robot that had been originally designed for bomb disposal and instead they jury-rigged it with a bomb and used it to blow up a sniper,” says Singer. “So we had an ad hoc weaponized robotic system used in a lethal manner inside the United States.”
Singer isn’t necessarily saying “yay” or “boo,” on this, as he puts it. “This is something new, and this question hasn’t been figured out,” he says. “My personal take on it is I’m not comfortable seeing each and every little local police department figure this out on their own.”
It's too early to say how Trump will use drones and other robotics for law enforcement at home, anti-terrorism efforts and in conflict abroad. Ethical questions persist about Obama's use of drone strikes — more than 500 strikes, or 10 times more than George W. Bush, but with a tiny fraction the number of civilian casualties caused by the US conventional warfare in Iraq.
Beyond ethical concerns, Singer is also concerned about the new administration’s dismissive attitude toward science, research and development, what he calls the "crown jewels" for America.
"And when you threaten those, either by defunding programs or restricting access to data, or kicking out or keeping out scientists, you jeopardize the crown jewels, this thing that's been so important to America. ... If we’re seeing a revolution in technology, in business, in war, the worst thing you can do is try and take away the assets that will allow you to succeed in that revolution.”
The United States still has an edge, globally, in military robotics, Singer says, but China is gaining ground fast, and Japan and some European players have an edge in other areas. "If you think about this as a race, and you slow down to a walk and the other guy is running, even if they're behind you, at some point they'll catch up and pass you."
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