Sunday, 27 July 2014

Will drones threaten us?

Who fired that rocket?

The debate and accompanying theories, claims, ‘proofs’, accusations and generall, all-around confusion over the shooting down of Malaysian Air flight MH-17 may be a harbinger of things to come when drone technology spreads, as it inevitably will, around the globe.

The fact that the rocket used to down the civilian airliner was made in Russia has been quickly debunked as proof that the Russians did it. Not only do both sides have access to Russian military hardware, the point of manufacture of any weapon means virtually nothing in today’s global arms marketplace.

It’s not hard to foresee a time when drones start circulating through the skies regularly, especially as the manufacturers will be pushing intensively to open up sales for ‘civilian uses’. The parallel with atomic energy is almost too obvious—to soften up the public to the era of nuclear warfare as a permanent feature and the Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) that we lived through during the Cold War, policymakers quickly hit upon pumping up nukes as a wonderful way to provide cheap electricity.

That didn’t turn out so well, but it worked as a PR strategy despite the fact that one probably shouldn’t be eating fish from the Pacific Ocean these days. But imagine what will happen in coming years as the drone builders—Northrop Grumman, Boeing, General Atomics and Lockheed Martin—start peddling their wares to one and all buyers.

Countries with whom the U.S. could conceivably have a hostile relationship at some point can now be sold as many drones as they want. The Guardian article linked to above says that there is no restriction on selling them. Legally, Kim Jong-un could line up to place an order.

If anyone gets nervous, I’m sure we’ll hear that drones have wonderful civilian uses like delivering your Amazon order direct from a slave laborer in one of their warehouses. Or maybe that will be the final nail in the U.S. Postal Service’s coffin—packages droned in 7 days a week, right to your mailbox.

But what happens when a militarized drone attacks a target, assassinates a citizen, blows up an arms depot, or even downs an airplane? How will anyone know where it came from, who programmed it, or who ordered it?

The United States has enjoyed a remarkable advantage over the centuries due to its placement between two oceans, thousands of miles from potential enemies. As a result, wars have been costly to its soldiers but, 9/11 notwithstanding, infrequently to its civilians—what other country on earth can say the same?

Drone technology, however, has the capacity to change all that and bring the wars home in unpleasant ways. If anyone in power had been thinking ahead, they might have counseled caution in setting some international guidelines or even laws for when and where these weapons can be used.

Obama, however, is expediency made flesh: he needed to get the troops out of harm’s way, so he went to the convenience of computerized assassination from afar. Some day, we may look up to the sky and wish he had deployed a little statesmanship instead of exploiting a short-lived monopoly on death-by-remote-control.

No comments: