Sky Death Has Never Been So Effective, So Economical, So Safe Nor So Sinister
My first experience of death from the sky (admittedly second hand) was when I saw the video leaked by Bradley Manning and Wikileaks of the massacre of a dozen innocents, including a two-man Reuters news team, on the streets of Baghdad in 2007 by U.S. army Apache helicopters armed with 50-caliber machine guns. It was heart shrinking. And the most dramatic part was when the choppers did another pass to kill the people in a van that arrived to try to rescue the survivors.
Two children wounded in the van were evacuated by U.S. ground forces arriving at the scene as the helicopters continued to circle overhead. “Well it’s their fault for bringing their kids into a battle,” one of the U.S. fliers was heard to remark over the audio track of the helicopter gun-sight video.
Yes, as you can understand, clearly it was their fault.
That was 11 years ago. Since then helicopters and planes have given way progressively to armed drones. Now the victims do not see their killers hovering overhead or hear the jets rush in on their strafing and bombing runs. The drones are 20 or 30 thousand feet up and, from that distance, silent to the people on the ground. The targets are dead before they know it.
A series of technological miracles makes it possible for this process to be carried out from cozy bunkers in places like Nevada and New Jersey, thousands of miles from the scene of the action. These tactics constitute a first in the annals of warfare and they bring with them a long tail. To begin with, the day of air forces as we conceive them is over. Drones rule. (In their tradition of innocuous-sounding euphemisms military authorities prefer the term “UAV,” for “Unmanned Aerial Vehicle,” instead of “drone.” Here we shall refer to them as “drones.”
N.B. Something to keep in mind whenever talking about military technology development is that almost all countries have top-secret programs. While it is possible to get a good sense of where things stand based on public data, the picture will always be incomplete.
The Central Question
The central question we shall be dealing with here is this: is there any plausible ethical justification for targeted drone killings, particularly of civilians? Beyond that, are drone killings legitimate under any circumstances, even warfare?
There is plenty of room for controversy here. Armed drones operate under a dubious legal umbrella and secret legal criteria. Their obscure process of target selection has been denounced both by the UN and the American Civil Liberties Union. Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, Colin Powell’s former chief of staff, asks in a recent Guardian video: Are targeted drone killings warfare or murder? U.N. official Christof Heyns goes even further. He suggests that the use of drones in targeted killings may constitute a war crime.
Nevertheless, U.S. American administrations going back to George W. Bush have defended drone killings unconditionally and cite what seem to them to be “plausible reasons.” But then, as Shakespeare reminded us, “The devil cites scripture for his purpose.” The truth is that we’re not sure that ethical considerations even figure on the Bush, Obama, or Trump agendas. Or should we take President Obama off this list, as he was a sane, liberal, humane person? He may very well have been all of that, but farther along in this chapter we’re going to take a close look at his record on drone killings.
Why This Fascination with Armed Drones?
The armed drone is a dream come true for some of the most important people in Washington: politicians, generals and accountants. (Our history books have always been filled with kings and generals. History books of the future will be full of accountants.) How much weight (and cost) can be saved in building a fighter plane without the necessity of life support and safety systems for the pilot? In fighting drones there are no pilots. Weight saved in a combat aircraft is performance and economy gained. Today military drones are cannibalizing air forces as we know them. They are cheaper to build and fly, with no risk of pilot injury and death. They are smaller and thus harder to detect. Pentagon sources affirm that the F35 joint strike fighter is the last traditional piloted fighter plane the United States will ever build.
The Top of the Line
As of 2017 the top-of-the-line MO-9 Reaper drones cost around $14.5 million each, admittedly a lot of money. But the cost of the cheapest F-35 Joint Strike Fighter plane was $94.6 million, and that was before they charged you for the windshield wipers. (And that’s an incredible amount of money for an airplane that doesn’t actually work very well.) Armed drones are not only less expensive to buy than conventional piloted fighter planes but are cheaper to operate, can stay aloft much longer and will soon (if not already) be better dogfighters. According to Techemergence.com, Psibernetix, an Ohio-based artificial intelligence company, has developed a fuzzy-logic artificial intelligence they named ALPHA. They claim their AI now easily bests highly-trained pilots in simulated aerial combat where opposing planes try to shoot each other down. This AI has not officially been incorporated into any military system yet, but it indicates what can be theoretically done and it may be deployed in the near future.
The Reaper is built by General Atomic Aeronautical Systems, with headquarters in San Diego, California. The company was founded in 1955 as the atomic division of General Dynamics “for harnessing the power of nuclear technologies for the benefit of mankind.” It has come a long way since then. The latest in their Predator series, this drone has a top speed of 240 KTAS (“KnotsTrue Airspeed” of an aircraft is its speed relative to the air mass in which it is flying), and a maximum altitude of 50,000 ft. It can carry a 3,750- pound payload, and operate for 27 hours non stop. Each is equipped with advanced infrared sensors, cameras, laser range finders, and several possible ordinances. They can be controlled remotely or fly autonomously. According to General Atomics, as of 2017, its Predator-series vehicles had clocked a total of four million flight hours.
Early Development of Drone Technology
Pre-drone folklore dates back to an Austrian attack on Venice in 1849 with bomb-carrying balloons, but real remote-control or self-controlled artificial intelligence (AI) drones are more recent. Curiously, it was Nicola Tesla who registered the first patent on a technology that was to become a foundation stone in modern drone development. On November 8, 1898, he was granted U.S. Patent Number 613809 for what was likely the first remote control and unmanned vehicle ever envisioned. The patent, entitled “Method of and Apparatus for Controlling Mechanism of Moving Vessels or Vehicles,” covered “any type of vessel or vehicle which is capable of being propelled and directed, such as a boat, a balloon, or a carriage.”
By 1915 drone technology made it possible for the British to use aerial photography in the Battle of Neue Chapelle, where they shot more than 1,500 overhead maps of German trench fortifications. The following year the U.S. Americans had their own pilotless aircraft and shortly thereafter created the Kettering Bug, an experimental, unmanned aerial torpedo, a forerunner of present-day cruise missiles. The Bug, built by the Dayton-Wright Airplane Company with Orville Wright acting as the aeronautical consultant on the project, was capable of striking ground targets up to 75 miles away while traveling at speeds of 50 miles per hour.