Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Drone Warfare: How UAVs are changing the 'rules' of 21st century conflict.

    Warfare is taking a new turn in the 21st Century.

    If there's one weapon that proves we're living today in some kind of dystopian future sci fi novel it must be the existence and increasing capabilities of unmanned attack drones. The deaths of 24 Pakistani soldiers at the hands of NATO last week and the resulting diplomatic shitstorm shines a big fat xenon flashlight on how future proxy resource wars are going to play out.

    The future will be war by remote control.

    All those drones you read about hitting targets in Pakistan or Yemen or whatever other strategic desert the US gets interested in these days are piloted remotely by US Air Force personnel operating from air conditioned rooms on the far side of the planet from the target zone. How sci fi is that? The base of operations is Creech Air Force base just outside Las Vegas in the Nevadan desert. From here pilot commands get relayed around the globe by a network of military satellites and deliver precision death from the sky on the cheap. Drones can deliver a Hellfire missile for far less cost than a $350 million F-22 Raptor can. And target damage is the same no matter how that ordinance gets delivered. Pilot training is cheaper too with the added caveat of not risking a pilot's life in the process and, let's face it, with a whole generation of unsupervised 12 year old Xbox Live kids sitting home alone with an overworked mom and a dad who bailed to Reno with the babysitter, the US Air Force already has a built in supply of semi trained potential pilots on standby. That is, of course, if the Air Force brass don't mind their com channels filled with terms like homo, faggot and fuck this lag.

    But the real question posed by unrestricted drone warfare is how drones change and re write the rulebook and ethics of modern warfare itself. Brookings Institution policy wonk PW Singer makes a chilling observation:
  • IF armed unmanned drones are used against legitimate military targets in, say, Pakistan
  • AND these drones are piloted out of the suburbs of Las Vegas, Nevada
  • THEN is a Pakistani 'radical' car bomb in the Walmart parking lot outside that Air Force base in Las Vegas an act of terrorism... or a legitimate act of military retaliation?

        That right there my friends is one of the most interesting military questions of our time.

        Is the 'War on Terror' justifiable if you can remotely deal death from the skies on the other side of the planet and call it 'military action'? By that very logic, a Pakistani or Yemeni national chucking a grenade into an American Mall food court during the Christmas shopping season is a military strike and not terrorism. The only difference between terrorism and legitimate military action here seems to be the intended target. The brass at the Pentagon will say drone strikes only reign down on the bad guys and they're ever so sorry if their wives and children get vaporized because they were sitting next to them when the Hellfire missile 'eliminated their mountain dwelling'. By the same logic, any pissed off Pashtun with a beef against the US who plants a pipe bomb at a strip mall outside Creech AFB can say the target was USAF personnel and he's ever so sorry the blast took out some women and children shopping next door at JC Penney.

       Same difference morality wise, right?

       That's how drone warfare looses you the moral high ground. The new paradigm of 21st century US drone warfare makes all civilians targets and covert operations 'outside theater' on US soil by Middle East nationals legitimate acts of war.

       The other interesting thing about drone warfare is that it pits high tech versus low tech.

       High tech industrial economies versus low tech desert strongmen sitting on the oil everybody wants. Those on desert sands who don't play ball in the global energy chess game get called 'terrorists'. Those who go along with the program get called 'allies'. It's a global petro dollar game of Risk and it sure is fun to watch if you're a fan of how 21st century proxy resource wars are going to play out.

      Drone warfare offers high tech societies a future where they can minimize casualties by using machines. It's easy to see why Western war planners like the concept. In Western countries human casualties still matter. Volunteer armies are not easy to recruit. Sure, the current state of Western economies makes recruiting easier simply because there are a whole lot more people in search of a paycheck. But in the US right now the Army still buys air time on TV and runs commercials showing how cool it is to run around in foreign deserts dressed as a soldier and shoot 'enemies' while omitting the unfortunate fact that you might die while doing it. Not dying in a war has always been a key goal for every soldier. It's kind of important. Bodies coming home pine boxed from foreign shores always put a dent in the war aspirations of politicians. Kitchener's WWI "I Want You" posters were similar beguiling motifs back in 1914 but that was a different time, when throwing generations of young men onto the Somme didn't lose you street cred. Today, shit's different. Casualties matter more than ever in our corpo sci fi dystopia because everybody wants to live forever so they can continue buying cool new TVs.

        Let's face it, we're living in Blade Runner.

       The US is way ahead in drone technology but that doesn't mean there are not a whole bunch of other nations fast tracking their own remote machines to give their generals something new to play around with on their war planning desks. Drones are such a hot commodity right now and their worth so precious that the US won't sell them except to "trusted partners" (code speak for the UK and Israel). And even those sales are only previous generation stuff (unarmed Predator recon types) while the US keeps all the serious stuff (armed stealth drones) for themselves. When the US restricts arms sales, you know they're pretty serious about drone warfare and future tech.

         The standard vanilla US drone is the Predator MQ-1.

        Designed in the early nineties as an unmanned reconnaissance aircraft, it didn't take the Air Force brass or the CIA long to figure out that fitting some AGM-114 Hellfire's on that baby could make it a pretty potent interdiction craft. The Predator family soon expanded into four variants, all rear prop driven and they've been used all over Yemen, Pakistan, Iraq, Libya and Iran though the US government refuses to acknowledge their attack role even though you can read about it in every newspaper every day.

        The fun part of this story is that the US just lost one of their top secret RQ-170 Stealth Drones over Iran this week. That sure must have pissed the CIA off and earned some X-Box kid at Creech AFB a sizable pay cut. I mean, that wreckage is liable to wind up in some Chinese science lab pretty soon just like the wreckage of the F-117 Stealth fighter that was shot down during the Kosovo War did, downed by the Serbs with a shitty Soviet SA-3 system that proved awesome back in 1999. The US responded by "accidentally" dropping five 2000lb JDAMS on the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade two months later but it still wasn't enough to prevent the wreckage boarding the fast train to China. The RQ-170 'wreckage' in Iran is probably bound for the same fate. [UPDATE] Iran just displayed the captured drone and it looks perfectly intact!

        The Iranians are claiming they jammed it and hacked the controls by way of a 'cyber attack' and I, like everyone else, thought that a bit of a stretch considering their whole nuke program got grounded last summer by a computer virus. But that intact drone footage sure seems like a 'controlled' landing to me. I'm sure the CIA are having a shit fit behind the scenes. They barely even acknowledge the existence of the RQ-170 Stealth Drone in the first place. To have one on display in Tehran and picked over by Iranian tech crews has fail written all over it from a US point of view.

     An RQ-170 was spotted in 2009 at a remote airfield in Kandahar, Afghanistan which is funny when you consider the Taliban have no radar to track it in the first place and rely on good old goat panic as an enemy early warning system. The RQ-170 was stationed in Afghanistan but obviously had bigger prey in mind. That Stealth Drone is the system that kept an eye in the sky on Bin Laden's house in next door Pakistan while the SEAL Team raided it and, incidently, where the US lost that 'Stealth Helicopter' that nobody even knew existed.

    Iran's new perfectly intact wreckage!

        These latest developments in classified robotic warfare, projects like the RQ-170, are developed at the famed Skunk Works facility in the Californian desert. That top secret tech development center and the experimental aircraft rolling out of there bring up another fun question in all of this and that is the very nature of Air Power itself. The US Air Force branched out of the Army in 1947 after the strategic bombing program over the Reich proved so successful if you didn't give a shit about civilians. Hell, Hiroshima and Nagasaki proved that in spades when civilians were the actual target.

       However, in our current logic, this does tend to cause problems. Especially when you're fighting the smaller proxy resource wars the US finds itself engaged in on multiple fronts today. There was even one fun report by way of Wikileaks a while back, that revealed that British forces in Afghanistan had actually put in a request for the US to stop bombing by drone because they were missing their targets too often and killing civilians; acts which made the whole ground war over there more difficult since landing a bomb on a goat herder's mud shack and wiping out his whole family is likely to turn that goat herder into a fully committed IED laying enemy combatant pretty fast.

    UPDATE 2013: Check out ARGUS. If they're showing you this on Nova (a PBS documentary), that means it's already old technology. With these drones now flying over US cities, say goodbye to that quaint idea known as privacy.

        The truth is, there is no stopping the robot future. No US politician and no sleazy defense contractor is going to sit back and let the Chinese or Russians catch up. We're on the fast track to robotic war. The scope and theater of this war is unlimited when you consider the retaliatory strike options on US soil from low tech guys with no access to RQ-170 stealth aircraft of their own but plenty of access to U-Haul trucks and fertilizer. No one knows what UAVs will unleash in the future.

        Only one thing is for sure about the future when it comes to us humans.

        There will be warfare there.



    1. A big thank you from a long time Finnish follower of your blog. Your writing is among the best stuff on the Internet. Keep up the good work!

    2. best line in a blog:

      That is, of course, if the Air Force brass don't mind their com channels filled with terms like homo, faggot and fuck this lag.

    3. Whether that downed drone was hit by a missile or downed by a "cyber attack", I can't imagine an object flying at an altitude of 4 miles and a speed pf 90 miles per hour would leave much serviceable debris to study. Plus, I'd be a bit surprised if these "top secret stealth" models didn't have some kind of built in fail safe. But there was that whole incident where these drones were controlled through unprotected remote links so I guess it's not that improbable.

    4. Classic War Tard line: "...the Taliban have no radar to track it in the first place and rely on good old goat panic as an enemy early warning system."

      Purely poetic! What a brilliant post.

    5. -IF armed unmanned drones are used against legitimate military targets in, say, Pakistan

      -AND these drones are piloted out of the suburbs of Las Vegas, Nevada

      -THEN is a Pakistani 'radical' car bomb in the Walmart parking lot outside that Air Force base in Las Vegas an act of terrorism... or a legitimate act of military retaliation?

      This is such a poignant question, it's a wonder why it isn't being asked regularly in the mainstream...

      1. Because Hoi Polloi is brainwashed. We kill them; righteous war. They kill us; savage terrorists. If Hoi Polloi actually realized the truth it would $hit it's pants.

    6. Obviously 9:54, it's because not enough people at the Pentagon are reading Wartard's blog!

      But yea it's a question that needs to be addressed by 'war planners'

    7. War Tard, you got one hell of a blog. Keep em coming...

    8. No need for war, Sanctions,Drones, Virus, Small excursions and assassinations of their scientists are the best way to keep Iran from getting the a bomb.

    9. Coaltopia - Personally, I'm feeling more of a Terminator vibe with these Hunter-Killer style drones. Here's to hoping they don't become self-aware ;)

      War Tard - Excellent stuff as always. Great to read while munching on some of my stockpiled popcorn.

    10. Enders game baby if they give us gamers half the chance we will push the big red button. Fuck these pussy powers that be nuclear launch detected. No more fucking around, you want to win fucking nuke there population centres until they completely surrender or its gameover.

    11. Enders Game reference...Awesome!!

      Good shit, tard! Entertaining as always.

      How bout a post on H.R. 1540; sections 1030, 1031, 1032, 1033, & 1034. Would love to hear your take on the future of our police state.

    12. ^ With those sections a terrorist doesn't even have to blow shit up anymore. Just host a party at your local country club and take all those greasy fingerprints from the punch bowl and deposit them on a fert-filled-uhaul. Cya at Guantanamo, friends.

    13. You're like the spider jerusalem of blogs

    14. The question of "military" vs "terrorism" has been presented numerous times int he past 10 years- incessantly, even. It appears to be too scary for a media outlet. It's nothing new, and I'm not certain why the question, when merely asked by a person at the Brookings Institution, suddenly gains "Serious" status. This notion of 'terrorism' itself becomes completely muddled, even if it had any meaning at all before.

      Military efforts of developed nations become scarcely more than mere economic exercises from taxes paid by civilians. The efforts become hopelessly diffused among small boutique optical vendors in random Scottsdale strip malls, machine shops run by part time farmers in North Dakota, and composite technicians in Kansas who take time from boat repairs to make radomes in St. Louis.

      These efforts culminate in very conventional warfare outcomes towards less developed 'enemy' forces. In this very real scenario, where do 'legitimate' targets end, and something else ('terrorism'?) begin? If there is no way for an 'enemy' nation to react against conventional 'legitimate'targets (defined and demarcated by the aggressor), then doesn't the concept of 20th century 'legitimate' targets simply become laughable and meaningless?

      Drones make few, and generally poor, distinctions between 'legitimate' and 'not so legitimate' targets inherently because, in a drone war, fewer assets exist to establish facts. The 'moral' hazard is conveniently left unmeasured, and may be immeasurable. In addition, there is less interest measuring- with less skin in the game, and with no potential measured repercussions (press, opinion, embarrassment), why bother?

      In this case, it seems perfectly acceptable for car bombs at random Scottsdale strip malls, St. Louis boat repair shops, and North Dakota machine shops to be considered perfectly 'legitimate' military targets by comparison. How could they not be?

      The real question is, "Why is that kind of scenario worth it for the US?". There is obviously nothing it can do to prevent these kinds of attacks, and there is nothing that prevents the evolution towards this dystopia as long as hegemony marches forward unencumbered by retaliatory hazard.

    15. It is maybe possible that I'd rather let Iran have the atom bomb than have a cutting edge prototype for the _entire_ future of air combat...

    16. Why not leave em the f*** alone? All we do is create our future wars.

    17. You are allowed say 'fuck' here bro. I do it a lot.

      Also, to Anon 7:51 above, I hadn't heard of 'Spider Jerusalem' before so I Googled it. Holy shit, it's like my comic biography. Thanks for the heads up :)

    18. That is, of course, if the Air Force brass don't mind their com channels filled with terms like homo, faggot and fuck this lag.

      I "loled" at that one.

      If this isn't some "conspiracy" that drone had to have been taken down via cyber warfare. The Chinese are in Iran helping build their technological defenses so another susnext virus doesn't set them back two years. I'm sure while they are delivering these defenses they are also given a few helpful pointers here and their on the, like you said, Blade Runner warfare.

      What's really hilarious is how these countries, like Iran, display stuff like this. It's always the guys involved in the dick measuring contests that really amount to nothing. They are sitting on a bunch of oil and are probably shit fucking scared the Israelis are going to stage a fake attack on themselves and Western nations declare all out war on them.

      I would be too.

    19. He's spot on with the Spider Jerusalem comment - cyber punk gonzo!

    20. On the subject of Drones look at these bastards,

      Although the picture shows a digital camera in place, its obvious to see from the X8's frankly terrifying looking frame that it can carry much more. I got in touch with the company that produce them some time ago (I make music videos and wanted to get real creative) and during our email convo was reliably informed that it is possible to attach almost anything up to a certain weight limit which includes weapons. This shit costs £30000 and I know that Police forces in the UK are looking into them. Scary times indeed.

      Im keeping the 12bore loaded and by my bedside from now on.

      Great post as per WT.


    21. And PW Singer was jerking off. Drones are a contingency. They do represent the dawn of end of fighter jets as a practical war fighting machines but beyond that the asymmetrical respone idea is bullshit and fear wanking. Drones are in the air in the Tribal Areas BECAUSE the Pakistan government is letting them be up there.

      The appropriate response is to scream at the domestic Pakistani government why the fuck they're letting this shit happen. That's why the direct target *cough* *cough* is the Pakistani government.

      But apparently you lot hate Las Vegas and jerk off to the idea of it getting attacked. Singer needs to find a better way to channel his Anti-Las Vegas bent.

    22. Oh and this article

      represents why in a comment on your last article I said "Wasn't the Cold War supposed to end with a mushroom cloud as well? Especially if you were sitting in the early to mid 1980's?"

      Good to know the Atlantic is only three weeks behind me.

    23. TLW: Apologist for Pakistan much?

      I love War Tard's blog because I get some truth from a layman's perspective. Even if reality is horror, I can deal with it. You are so far off base, and so "in the corner" of your chosen faction, that you miss the wider point completely.

      You hate War Tard and spam his comment section because you hate hearing the truth.

    24. Richard, please don't accuse me of 'telling the truth'.

      There is no 'truth' anymore. There are just myriad voices. Actual 'truth' is a subjective experience. Every bomber drops his bomb believing he's doing it for some cause, usually truth based, fully justified in that bomber's world view.

      Truth these days is a commodity.

      It's an idea that gets sold in the world market place. Truth is a manufactured version of reality that gains its legitmacy through numbers. If the majority of people agree that something is true, it becomes 'true' by simple weight of numbers.

      What is 'true' in our sci fi dystopia is merely a consensus dream.

      Actual truth, Plato style, is reserved for the thinking few, alone at their computers, a silent minority watching the world go to shit.

    25. Thats it! No more sitting on the sidelines...

      War Tard, I think I love you.

    26. On the Terrorism/Warfare question:

      Even though it may seem overtly pragmatic, the main difference will still be: chain of command, accountability and legitimacy. The soldier has a direct order he/she has received from a commander and that commander had another guy above him, telling him waht to do. At the end of the chain, you can find the nation who put these guys into office (and there you go with the legitimacy). From this comes the accountability: regular armies have ROEs and most of the time they are not above the laws and of yourse the commander in chief will have to answer for his/her decisions if no sooner, than in every election.

      This system is flawed as democracy itself, but still tries to controll the madness that is war. Terrorism has no such controll mechanisms whatsoever and I really find these comparisons far-fetched and more fitting for a tabloid, not for an otherwise great blog.

    27. Agreed with Anon 12:20. Also, I think the intended target should be taken into account. A drone strike on a military or militant target is generally considered legitimate for obvious reasons. An indiscriminate strike against non-military or non-militant people (e.g. families shopping at Walmart), the bulk of the victims will be 'innocent', non-military or militant people. Deliberately killing innocent people makes you a douche. Period.

      I'd like to add that I obviousy don't support drone strikes on unverified targets, but the harsh reality of a war is that sometimes you will hit the wrong guy.

      On another note, I'm looking forward to WarTard's view of Kim Jong Il's death :). I, for one, am stockpiling popcorn for this.

    28. I think the CIA is pulling the wool over your eyes and you are just continuing the official narrative of "clever Iranian hackers first stole control codes for UAV's, now they've downed one - intact - after 'hacking' its control systems and are reverse engineering it with their Chinese buddies, and we can expect an attack against Western assets using a reverse engineered or repurposed US drone any day now) ... all rather neat, huh?
      What if it's all lies, and they're just preparing the ground and laying down the narrative for a false flag drone attack on the USA?

    29. ^ go back to your truther hell, dumbass.

    30. Drone warfare is not just a one way street, the technology is not that crazy complex compared to say a nuke and sooner or later, one of the less developed powers is going to have a good one, very possibly with long range and nasty weapons.

      If/When its used in a retaliatory strike on a high value target in a 1st world country (political or business class) all hell is going to break loose.

      This won't happen but it probably would be wise to have and enforce a "no armed drone" treaty before the merde hits the air distributor

    31. Rink Dec 7 above in comments.

      You said: "Whether that downed drone was hit by a missile or downed by a "cyber attack", I can't imagine an object flying at an altitude of 4 miles and a speed pf 90 miles per hour would leave much serviceable debris to study."

      Looks like you were totally wrong and War Tard was totally right.

      I think an apology is in order.

    32. I couldn't help but think how easy the trojan horse strategy would be with these countries ever since I read this story. Maybe this is a trojan horse?

    33. Where I live (rural Cincinnati) there are quite a few "good ol' boys" that wouls love to take down a drone. Shit they go to the shooting range on Sunday for religion. Don't tell me they wouldn't love to aim their quasi legal guns at something other than fake clay birds. Bring it I say, I'll read about the next day and just laugh.

    34. Call me an ignorant romantic, but the goal of drone warfare isn't to kill hordes of civilians randomly to seed fear and discontent, as opposed to disaffected former goat herders lobbing grenades to malls. Targets in drone warfare are still, by and large, legitimate military targets. The reluctance to risk lives and the whole effeminate state of affairs in western military is the same circumstance that makes killing civilians _by accident_ reflect so bad on governments. BTW, am I still allowed to call anyone "terrorist", or is it the highest act of political incorrectness?

    35. Drones can easily be jammed. They rely on communicating back to the operator and just like all communications if you have a powerful enough signal you can jam it. That's just basic physics. Google "drone jamming" and you'll see how low-tech and affordable such technology is. Robotic future warfare may be a nice tool in occupational or policing duty or in extreme reconnaissance and long-term surveillance but in terms of intense warfare it's a fruitless tree.

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