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.