Friday, May 15, 2009

Drones, But With A Real Sting

We've all seen mention of late of the increasing role played in Iraq and Afghanistan by unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) but it wasn't until I saw this video did it hit home quite how powerful a weapon they have now become. It's a web-version of a 60 Minutes piece (US television documentary show) that goes inside the control center for surveillance missions flown by these vehicles and really helps explain why they are changing the nature of how war is being waged in the 21st century.

Near the end you will see a segment where the reporter is shown, via an overhead view, standing on the apron in front of a hanger talking to two men. It's clear who is who and is obviously a real-time feed. However, tt was then pointed out that the images were taken from a UAV flying at a quie remarkable altitude of 10,000 feet over the airfield. And despite being told exactly where it was, the reporter could neither see nor hear it. Now, hold that thought.

In an earlier segment combat footage is used, this time taken in the infra-red spectrum. According to the commentary, what's being shown is a pair of insurgents that have just attacked a US patrol. You can clearly see one of the men is holding a "hot" object that looks like a rifle, the heat signature apparantly due to it having just been fired. For them, the bad news was that the UAV monitoring them has a laser targeting system and carries matching bomb accessories. The vengeance metered out from on high is therefore swift, merciless and delivered without any warning whatsoever. The result is not pretty, but it is devastatingly effective.

The eerie thing is that all these missions are "flown" from a command past in California, with only the take off and landing being managed my operatives in-country. Pilots have breakfast at home with their families, drive to the office, clock on, fly remote surveillance and combat missions, clock off and drive home in time for dinner. "Good day at the office, dear?" "Not too bad. Killed some insurgents and helped track the safe withdrawal of a covert ops team. What's for dinner?"

Change has a habit of creeping up on you unannounced. It taps you on the shoulder and makes you jump rather than coming at you from the front where you can track it as incoming. And ans you will see, this is one big change that's sneaking around out there.

So far, this is largely an airborne capability that's being deployed, but how long before there are ground-based equivalents, all handled from somewhere safe, air conditioned and softly humming, connected to the sharp end of war by nothing more tangible than a satellite link? It's not hard to see how a tank could be managed via the same capability so likely the next step is not that far off. Combine the two and you can now see a way to have entirely remote missions, comprising joint air and land-borne assets, all deployed and managed from far away and handled via satellites. Terminator 4 anyone?

On the plus side, there are clearly costs to be saved both in terms of human life and equipment, and it offers a very powerful way to support existing ground operations. But on the down side, you have to be concerned at how much more likely it will be that civilian casualties increase as a side effect of boots on the ground instead becoming eyes in the sky. Regardless, life - and now war - increasingly becomes a video game. We in Silicon Valey are not surprised.

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