Essay: The Rise of the Bloody Machines

Despite all we’ve heard lately, with drones slaying terrorists, random Pakistanis, and being hacked by Iranians—drones are not a new thing. Today’s high-tech unmanned aerial vehicles are just in a long line of drones dating back to 1849—when Austrian armies invading Venice loaded hot-air balloons with explosives. Ever since then, militaries have been trying to spy on their enemies or kill them from afar—without risking the lives of their own. One of the most notorious of unmanned weapons was the V-2 missile, launched by Nazi Germany to terrorize the Brits. Well, after the war, guess who got that technology? Yep, you betcha. The Good Ol’ U.S. of A.

Now, the Department of Defense really likes drones; their surveillance was partially responsible for Osama bin Laden’s death. But in order to protect freedom and security, it would be in the best interest for the United States to show some restraint in its use of drones because of their threat to civil rights, the collateral damage inflicted, and the escalation of the global drone arms race.

First of all, what constitutes a drone? Well, the term “drone” is commonly used to describe unmanned aerial vehicles that can be utilized for surveillance and offensive means. The most common American drone, the MQ-1 Predator, is essentially a remote controlled airplane equipped with cameras and Hellfire missiles.

The government prefers drones such as the Predator because they are quiet and stealthy, do not risk soldiers’ lives, and above all, are cheap. Predators cost as low as $4.5 million a pop.  Compared to the exorbitant cost of one $150 million F-22 fighter jet, they’re a steal.

Seeking more effective tactics in the War on Terror, the Bush and Obama administrations vastly expanded drone warfare. At the beginning of the decade, the Pentagon had less than 50 drones. Today, the Pentagon possesses over 7,000. This fleet of unmanned aircraft has killed about 1,900 insurgents since 2006.

Their usage in war depends on the rules of international law. If a country is at war with another country, then they are allowed. If they are not at war, then the attacking country is violating the sovereignty of the attacked country.

But the United States does not obey that law. Though there have been drones used in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States has used drone attacks in Libya, Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan, countries that the U.S. simply isn’t at war with. The Pentagon justifies the attacks by the “imminence” of the threat.

“Imminence” is a relative thing. Most experts agree that the attacks temporarily disrupt insurgent groups, but their lasting effect is anything but certain. This new era of guerrilla warfare requires the military to use more flexible strategies than in those in traditional wars.

In recent years, drones have had mixed success. As mentioned before, a stealth drone helped locate Osama bin Laden’s compound. A drone attack killed Anwar al-Awlaki, a known terrorist. However, he was a citizen of the United States. His killing is justified by the fact that he committed treason and was an enemy combatant against the United States. But where does the line blur? When will, say petty thievery, become grounds for assassination?

It becomes more troubling, as the FAA has proposed rules that would make it easier for drones to be used by police forces within the United States. They have already been used in North Dakota, to apprehend three cow thieves (seriously!), and on the border with Mexico, albeit with (thank God) only surveillance purposes.

But if they are equipped with weapons, then they will trample over the Constitution. Every citizen deserves the right to stand trial. If a machine can kill you because you are an “imminent” threat, then doesn’t that scream Terminator?

Which begs the question—if drones are wrong in America, aren’t they wrong for the rest of the world?

Pakistan—a nation who professes to be our ally, but double deals all the time—is one of the worst victims of collateral damage. 391 to 780 civilians have been killed out of the 1,658 to 2,597 killed in Pakistan. The mere fact that the exact number is uncertain implies that there has been enough collateral damage to warrant such “countless” deaths. Pakistan, in retaliation, has vowed to shoot down any drone that comes across its borders, demonstrating the United States’ thorough alienation of Pakistan, the nation which encompasses most of America’s supply lines to Afghanistan.

If we cannot use drones without hurting others, deepening the conflicts in which we are embroiled in, then how can we ever achieve peace in the Middle East? How can we ever achieve peace with the world?

Remember Iron Man 2? Remember when Tony Stark claims that foreign nations are five to ten years away from developing exo-suit technology? Well, the same applies to drones, as illustrated by Iran’s capture of an RQ-170, a high-tech stealth drone.  While photographing Iranian military installations, the drone was allegedly hacked by Iranian engineers and fooled into landing at one of their bases. Thus, the drone’s capture will accelerate the rapidly closing gap between the United States’ drone technology and the rest of the worlds’, as Iran will surely pass it on to Russia and China.

A world with every nation possessing drones, spying and blasting away wherever they like, is not a bright future for our children. In fact, it even resembles aspects of George Orwell’s 1984, where war is perpetual, much like the War on Terror; no ground is gained between superpowers, illustrated by the frequent Western and Eastern interference in African and Middle Eastern affairs; and there is considerable loss of life, because the superpowers fire missiles, or in our own case, drones, against their adversaries.

The global race for drones, the collateral damage, the infringement of civil liberties; all these beg to restrict drone technology. But the government, enmeshed in economic turmoil and the widespread War on Terror, resorts to robotic assassins because they are cheap; because they are easy.

However, as we have learned time and time again, from Vietnam to Iraq, once something has begun; there is no easy way out.

Featured image: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Predator_Drone_021.jpg

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