The Abuse of Power Is a Downward Spiral
What we have seen in the transition from the Obama to the Trump administrations is that the abuse of power under one administration leads to the abuse of power under another. Trump may be driving it more recklessly, but he’s still operating a machine the Obama administration built.
During his last year in office, responding to increasing criticism, Obama gave a speech attempting to clarify the boundaries of his drone target selection and his “signature killings,” based exclusively on behaviors observed on the ground considered indicative of possible terrorist activity, whatever that means.
“America’s actions are legal,” the president asserted of the drone war, which he claimed was being “waged proportionally, in last resort, and in self-defense.” Self-defense? Obama might be able to claim the self-defense justification if he were killing enemies in the heat of battle in Ohio or Utah, but Iraq or Somalia? Not quite. This is just another case of clear and present bullshit.
Virtual New-Age Pilots
According to Military.com in March of 2017, perhaps the single most telling indicator of just how dramatically armed drones are changing the nature of American air power is the impact they’ve had on Air Force pilot allotment. The Air Force now has more pilot positions for operating Predator-series drones than any other type of pilot position. The Department of Defense projects that by 2035 unmanned or optionally manned vehicles will make up 70 percent of its entire fleet.
What are these new-age pilots like? Where do they come from? How are they selected and how are they formed in their craft? In the early days of the Predator at the outset of the 2000s, drone pilots were selected from among Air Force flyers. These pilots controlled everything, actually piloted the drone aircraft as if they were sitting in it. When the commanders saw the results of these first real-life experiments it became clear to them that they would soon need many more drone pilots that the Air Force could turn out. It occurred to someone to re-design the pilots’ interface to video-game mode and introduce AI into the mix. The change brought immediate results and changed recruitment procedures. The Air Force officers responsible for the program found that kids who had misspent their teens in darkened rooms playing video games already dominated the star-wars skills necessary to fly armed drones on combat missions, more so than experienced fighter pilots. The recruiting rush was on and parents were delighted to find that their previously unemployable adolescents could get well-paid jobs flying killer drones.
Then There’s the Down Side
There were, however, a couple of hitches in this joyous panorama. The kids were not only severely overworked, but the business of killing strangers anonymously from the sky was taking a toll on their mental health. An Air Force study done in 2013, the first of its kind, found that drone pilots experience the same problems as pilots of manned aircraft deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan: depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress.
“Air Force officials and independent experts” have suggested several potential causes, among them “witnessing combat violence on live video feeds, working in isolation or under inflexible schedules, juggling the simultaneous demands of home life with combat operations, and dealing with intense stress because of crew shortages.” For some reason the”experts” forgot to cite killing people (often wholly innocent) on the ground as a potential cause of stress for the drone pilots. One wonders if they’re paid to forget.
In response to the video pilots’ mental problems the Pentagon “began taking steps to keep pace with the rapid expansion of drone operations.” It created a new medal to honor troops involved in both drone and cyber warfare. To deal with the serious mental health issues, including a heightened propensity for suicide, the Air Force has expanded the drone operators’ access to chaplains.
The young drone pilots have their own psychotherapy for job-related mental health problems: humor. They don’t refer to “killing suspected insurgents,” rather, “cutting the grass before it grows out of control” or “pulling the weeds before they overrun the lawn.” When they were flying Predators over villages and smaller figures appeared on their screens, indicating children on the scene, they would refer to them as “fun-sized terrorists.”
Who Else is in the Game?
In 2001 the United States became the first country to use an AI armed drone in combat. Now there are at least 28 countries using armed drones , and we know at least nine (the United States, Israel, the United Kingdom, Pakistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Iran, Turkey, and Azerbaijan) have actually used them in operations. Six of those countries used their first armed drone in just the last two years.
There appear to be three leading countries in the drone-development race, the U.S. Israel and China. We’ve discussed the U.S. Let’s take a look at the competition.
Israel is Selling Them
Israel is believed to be the largest military drone exporter in the world. A 2013 report from Frost & Sullivan estimates that Israel’s unmanned-aircraft export revenue was around $4.5 billion between 2005 to 2012. Israel owes this dominant position to a few factors. First, Israel had some of the earliest uses of UAVs for surveillance. Second, it has a highly developed defense industry which focuses on technology as a force multiplier. Third, the longtime reluctance of the United States to share its drone technology has created a clear market opportunity for the Israelis. Reliable reports indicate that the Israeli military has more than 100 drones, and they account for around 70 percent of the Air Force’s flying time.
Then There’s the Dragon in the Room
China has become a major drone user in its own military and an exporter of these systems to other countries. It has found a lucrative market for drones among countries that would prefer not to buying from Israel and don’t meet the United States’ tight requirements for export. For example, early in 2017 the Saudis announced they had reached a deal with China to build a military UAV factory in Saudi Arabia. While details are limited, it could be one of the largest international drone deals to date. China is a major source of drones for countries in Africa and the Middle East.
The Chinese recently announced that the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation is ready to start mass producing the Cai Hong 5 (CH-5), the country’s most advanced publicly-acknowledged drone. They claim the CH-5 is equal to the MQ-9 Reaper in technology. It is said to be able to operate for 60 hours and fly at 30,000 ft.
The Chinese government is rather tight-lipped about plans to use Artificial Intelligence for its military, but it has made clear that it sees heavy investment in AI as critical to the country’s future. The Chinese have a leg up in AI thanks to its use in their civilian sector. Last year the China Electronics Technology Group Corporation claimed to have launched a record-breaking intelligent drone swarm with 119 UAVs. They claim the drones were flown with ad hoc networks and under autonomous group control. Chinese companies have been making large investments in American AI companies, and the United States government is weighing whether to further restrict these investments to prevent technological transfer.
The Very Real Possibility of Being on the Receiving End
As we have learned from a couple of millennia of world history, what goes around comes around. Today the US and Israel are allegedly in the lead in drone technology but it may not always be that way. Other countries have drones and we can safely assume they are constantly improving them. So, we’re already seeing a “drone race.”
There’s another fascinating possibility. Imagine for a moment that there’s a Yemeni undergraduate at MIT or Stanford at this very moment who is destined to get PhDs in physics and aeronautics and will, in time, design a drone that will dethrone Uncle Sam. Stranger things have happened. Einstein was a refugee from Nazi Germany.
Questions of Ethics
Ethics? What ethics?