The recent drone attack on an air base in Jammu made clear the reality of a technology that has rocked global conflicts for years now.
On January 3, 2020, an American hunter-killer drone called Reaper fired three missiles at Iranian General Qasem Soleimani’s convoy. 6,200 miles away. Then-US President Donald Trump watched in real time, as a soldier said live, “They’ve got a minute to live, sir, thirty seconds, eight seconds, they’re gone sir.”
You might be worried that these Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) are dragging us into a Terminator-style dystopia, or you might prefer their precision targeting to expensive and bloody mass combat. Anyway, the future looms in the fog, writes Seth J Frantzman in his new book Drone Wars: pioneers, killing machines, artificial intelligence and the battle for the future.
The book traces the path of change from the mid-1970s, when Israel led the way. Drones work best for D-cubed missions – “boring, dangerous and dirty” – explains one of these Israeli pioneers, Yair Dubester.
The book reveals the US military’s stop-start enthusiasm for advanced technology, which far outstrips military decision-making. Drones were the iconic weapon in the war on terror in Afghanistan and Iraq, especially under the Obama administration.
And yet the United States is not a drone hegemony, having been smug in its dominance and reluctant to provide the technology to other nations, who then improvised their own solutions. Today, nearly a hundred countries have acquired drones; Iran, Turkey and China have serious arsenals, drone alliances are emerging around the world. Civilian use has also exploded since the mid-2000s.
The drone war has humiliated the most powerful powers, from the United States to Russia to Saudi Arabia. Iran shot down a US sentry in 2011. In September 2019, a swarm of drones escaped air defenses to attack Saudi Arabia’s oil fields. Yemen’s Houthi rebels claimed responsibility, aided by Iranian technology. Drones also clashed in Syria, as Turkey attacked Russian-backed forces.
Insurgents, militants, and terrorists see drones as a way to reverse their disadvantage, often simply by purchasing off-the-shelf quadcopters and supplementing them, for sophisticated attacks. Isis, Hezbollah, Boko Haram all have drones, as do groups in Ukraine and the Philippines.
How to stop a drone attack? Drones can be slowed down by blocking GPS signals, but if guided by their own optical system or intelligence, they must be shot down with lasers, missiles, or guns. Israel is now also a pioneer in the defense of drones, with its formidable Drone Dome.
Drones will undoubtedly play a role in any future global confrontation. In 2018, China made a dramatic reveal of its capabilities, a swarm flying in formation in a stunning light show. It exports combat drones to nearly 20 countries. Right now, drones are deployed piecemeal, says Frantzman. On the military level, the first country to integrate drones in all operations will have the advantage, he argues.
Big names in technology, science and philosophy like Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking have called for harnessing the uncontrollable power of autonomous weapons, which threaten the principles of proportionality and distinction. Frantzman also hints at the future of war with an artificial intelligence arms race, but does not dwell deeply on these grim possibilities.
The opinions expressed above are those of the author.
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