Drones: A Big Bad Nightmare

The unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), better known as the drone, is revolutionizing military power around the world. Despite the Pentagon’s Sequester, certain programs, like drone procurement have emerged unscathed, in part because the last two US administrations have embraced use of drones in combat theaters overseas. Meanwhile, a “drone caucus” has emerged in Congress that fiercely protects UAV funding and touts them as a way to help save money on defense, protect the lives of US soldiers, better patrol America’s borders, and assist domestic law enforcement agencies in surveillance.

In 2013, President Obama made a high-profile speech announcing plans to curb US use of drones. But events in the Middle East and North Africa, especially the rise of ISIS, have forced the US to shelve those plans. Yesterday, the Wrongologist reported that China was selling drones to Saudi Arabia. Consider this:

• More than 70 countries have acquired UAVs of different types. Of these countries, the US holds the largest share of UAVs
• 23 countries are reportedly developing armed UAVs
• The Teal Group forecasts an increase in global spending on UAVs from $6.6 billion in 2013 to $11.4 billion in 2022
The Diplomat reports that China will be the largest UAV manufacturer over the next decade

Many countries want drones, and many will turn to China with its lower manufacturing costs, and similar drone technology. A report last year by the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission stated:

Chinese companies appear to be positioning themselves to become key suppliers of UAVs in the global market.

Chinese UAVs are especially attractive to countries in Africa and the Middle East given their low cost and China’s the lack of export restrictions compared with their Western competitors.

Even the new US drone export policy is not competitive with China, since it requires countries buying our armed drones to assure the US that they won’t use them to carry out illegal surveillance, that they will abide by international humanitarian laws, and that they use them for legal purposes. Just how will we enforce that? Will the US assign personnel to the control vans and centers to monitor each flight, or depend on self-reporting by foreign governments?

In the past year, drones have crashed onto the White House lawn, placed radioactive cesium on the roof of the Japanese prime minister’s office in Tokyo, and worked the battlefields in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Iraq.

It is a formidable weapon that we are only beginning to understand. The concern is that they can be used against a nation’s homeland, since they are hard to detect and difficult to bring down. With drone proliferation, what will the impact be if large public gatherings become indefensible targets? Will sporting events like the Super Bowl be “protectable” by the city and state that hosts the event? Probably not. So, will they have to be protected by the US military? Images of US military patrolling the streets around the Super Bowl would provide an Orwellian cast to the big game.

The small quad-copter commercial drones that anyone can purchase (for between a few hundred and a few thousand dollars) signal the biggest problem for the future. They are equipped with GPS technology and high-resolution cameras. They could carry (small) loads of plastic explosive, or even chemical weapons to a precise location and cause havoc. Jamming GPS signals could be an effective solution, provided we had some idea about a targeted area. Universal GPS jamming probably would be impractical, since GPS is so important to our everyday lives.

We don’t seem to have much of a clue as to what to do about this emerging threat.

How will we adapt when drones (commercial or military) become ubiquitous? What would be the societal impact? Fear is already a great driver of our domestic politics. It is difficult to imagine how much more of our 4th Amendment rights could be sacrificed to protecting us from terrorist drones. Armed drones deployed against a densely-populated Western country is a terrorist dream!

Drone design of the future is receiving huge amounts of venture capital. The current new idea is swarming drones. The US Navy is currently testing a weapon that can fire 30+ small armed drones at once. The Navy calls the program “Low-Cost UAV Swarming Technology”, or LOCUST. The Navy is also concerned about defending drone swarm attacks on its ships, since the vessels are relatively large targets.

Imagine if a terrorist could fire a “drone swarm” at Manhattan.

We won’t be putting this genie back in the bottle. Think of all the things that could possibly go (horribly) wrong by the US making drones the AK-47 of the future.

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