Drone Wars: Experts ponder implications of remote, robotic warfare



They are watching you.  Thousands of feet above, circling endlessly with cameras that record your every move.  They are quiet, they are deadly, and you cannot stop them.  They are Predators, drones sent into areas where the U.S. Army needs surveillance, where the Air Force needs to execute precision strikes, and where the CIA seeks to conduct covert operations.  The revolution in unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) technology that has swept the U.S. military over the last decade has generated massive amounts of reconnaissance data and increased the cost efficiency and safety of precision aerial combat missions, dramatically altering the psychological landscape of war.  

“My entire career was removing or displacing the cockpit pilot from the battlefield,” said Lt. Gen. Tad Oelstrom, speaking at the symposium of the National Security Journal and National Security Law Association on March 5th.  From his time guiding the AGM-12 Bullpup missile as an F-4 pilot to the later introduction of the F-15 Eagle, Oelstrom, who is the head of the National Security Program at Harvard’s Kennedy School, saw the engagement of pilots with the enemy move progressively farther from the location of the target.  The greatest challenge created by recent change, says Oelstrom, is that doctrine has not kept apace with innovation.  The three elements of strategy, doctrine, and vision, he says, are each essential to maintain a proper balance between robotics and the other tools of modern warfare.  

Gen. Oelstrom’s greatest fear is that we will fall down the slippery slope of unpredictable implications of technology that we put into action before it is fully understood.  “How is the U.S. looked upon by the rest of the world in terms of the way we go to war?  What would we look like as a nation if we showed up and all our robots got off the back of the C-17?” Oelstrom believes that as the cost of warfare in lives and money falls due to innovation, strategies like those employed by Gen. Stanley McChrystal in Afghanistan – reducing civilian casualties, even at the cost of greater risk to one’s own troops – will be an important part of maintaining the support of the local population in future military engagements.

Speaking in a later panel, Afsheen John Radsan ’87, a professor at William Mitchell College of Law, questioned the legality of the Predator operations currently being conducted by the CIA.  “If we are going to have a symbol of Obama’s war, it is the Predator. This is Obama’s tool.” Prof. Radsan, who worked in the office of the general counsel of the CIA from 2002 to 2004, pointed to the weaponization of the Predator drones as an example of the CIA’s unique legal status having made it an attractive candidate for Bush-era programs of questionable legality.  “Should the CIA be involved in the Predator program?  Should the CIA be running secret prisons?  Should the CIA be involved in rendition?” The key, he noted, is that as a non-military agency, the CIA is accustomed to conducting covert operations and espionage activities outside the view of the public. 

Because of the sensitivity of national security issues, Prof. Radsan believes that Congress and the courts are less effective checks on legality than internal review boards and the inspector general, but the most effective check is the scrutiny of the public.  “What is the CIA most worried about?  It’s not Congress, it’s not the courts.  It may be the internal agencies, but mainly it is the media.”

While legal norms and military doctrine evolve in response to new applications of technology, the success of UAV technology on the battlefield has only served to further stimulate innovation.  But according to Missy Cummings, Director of the Humans and Automation Lab at MIT, unmanned systems are less interesting as weapons systems than they are due to the novel challenges they create in the organization of the command structure and work load of flight missions.  “There is functionally no difference between firing a hellfire missile from a UAV and reprogramming a Tomahawk [cruise missile] mid-flight.” Under the traditional model of Air Force combat missions, officers were in the cockpit to pull the trigger for authorized weapons release.  But with UAVs being increasingly controlled by automated systems and operated from the comfort of a command center, the decision to release weapons can be made by an entire team, usually including a lawyer.  “The pilot is a mere voting member in the system that decides how to control the vehicle.” While the Air Force has held to the old model and employed officers with two years of special training as unmanned mission pilots, the Army has successfully run the same missions using enlisted personnel with ten weeks of training.  Soon, she predicts that the increasing automation will make it possible for each pilot to command multiple UAVs at a time.  The result will be that the pilots of the future will be more like video game players than the Chuck Yeager daredevils of the past.

Cummings also foresees UAVs having a dramatic impact on personal privacy, since as they become easier to fly and cheaper to build they will be used more frequently for civilian and police purposes.  Gen. Oelstrom also pointed out the serious security implications UAVs will present once they are employed by terrorists as weapons. “You could imagine 30 simultaneous attacks occurring around New York City with WMDs.” Regardless of these dangers, Oelstrom was bullish about innovation, expressing fear that the enemy is “one step behind us.” “We need to press technology as hard as we can, as long as we have the framework around it that gives us the strategy, the doctrine, the vision that comes with it.”