Rise of the robots

This is an article I published in May 2006, in my World Affairs column for The Spectrum and Gannett Newspapers.

preduavUnmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and other reconnaissance technologies represent an even deeper, tectonic shift in the very nature of military power. A nation with such an unprecedented capacity for discerning and monitoring from afar, and for targeting adversaries anywhere on the planet, exerts influence in unique ways and that power raises new issues.

I was going to write about world peace this week. No kidding. But then I spent a couple of days at Nellis Air Force Base, with fighter jets roaring into the sky at all hours, filling the air and my thoughts with that inimitable “sound of freedom”.

Located in Las Vegas, Nevada, Nellis is the center of the tactical air operations world — not just for the U.S. Air Force, but also for Navy and Marine aviation, and even for allied air forces. The sprawling base is justly known as the “home of the fighter pilot” and is one of the busiest in the world.

Today Nellis is also the epicenter of an unfolding revolution in military tactics and doctrine, involving the increasing use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and their role in the exercise of American power around the world. The most well known UAV is the “Predator”, which has played a starring role in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

The Predator is essentially a large, remote-controlled aircraft with very sophisticated video cameras and sensors. Flown from a ground station by a rated pilot using data-links to control the aircraft, the Predator can loiter for many hours over a target beaming amazingly clear, live video images directly to commanders and decision-makers. This real-time surveillance, and the ability to rapidly (sometimes instantaneously) distribute Predator video around the world, is fundamentally changing the way U.S. forces operate.

In March, the USAF revealed that operators located at Nellis routinely control Predator UAVs flying over Iraq and Afghanistan. While aircraft are launched and recovered from overseas bases, their virtual “crews” — a pilot and a sensor operator — sit at consoles in Nevada controlling the missions on a daily basis. Nellis-controlled Predators were involved in the the capture of Saddam and the rescue of Jessica Lynch. Predators have also successfully engaged ground targets with Hellfire anti-tank missiles on several occasions.

Controlling UAVs over a combat zone from 7,000 miles away is just the tip of this trend, though. Already, another UAV known as Global Hawk operates higher, faster and longer than the Predator, and can navigate autonomously — without any human control. All US services are investing billions in newer, bigger and better UAVs and developing new technologies and methods for operating them.

One of the most ambitious development efforts is the Unmanned Air Combat Vehicle (UCAV). The UCAV concept is meant to produce a full-fledged jet fighter, able to engage both ground targets and other aircraft and operate autonomously, without a pilot in control.

Development of robotic fighter aircraft, of course, causes serious consternation and controversy among pilots, who have always been the ruling elite in the Air Force. But the pilot-centric, and fighter-focused culture of the USAF is not exhibiting the same kind of entrenched conservatism that cavalry officers exhibited long after their military avocation was a thing of the past. The success of, and accelerating investment in, the Predator is proof that UAVs are a wave that is just beginning.

But UAVs and other reconnaissance technology represent an even deeper, tectonic shift in the very nature of military power — perhaps better expressed as national, coercive power. A nation with such an unprecedented capacity for discerning and monitoring from afar, and for targeting adversaries anywhere on the planet, exerts influence in unique ways and that power raises new issues.

Already the advent of precision-strike technologies means that accuracy has replaced destructiveness as a measure of effective firepower. In the next evolution, knowledge (detailed target information) can replace firepower altogether. Let’s take the hypothetical example of a terrorist weapons lab. Instead of using precision-guided bombs to destroy the lab, stealthy surveillance drones might well track the key people running the lab, enabling their capture and questioning. Those arrests could lead to other terrorists and facilities.

In a macro-sense, this is exactly how Libya’s WMD programs were dismantled. Ghaddafi was confronted with the overwhelming intelligence/information advantage held by the United States and gave up his WMD without a shot being fired.

Which brings me back to world peace. I’ll have to get to that next week’s column — unless war breaks out again.

–Ajax

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