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More on drones and their use

The other day I wrote a slightly lighthearted short item about the use of drones (in this case, by civilians). But it is clear that the use of these things, such as by the Coalition forces in the Middle East, for example, or by other agencies of states and private entities, raises a number of important ethical, military and related points. Over at the Cato Institute, there is an interesting collection of articles on this matter, which I recommend if you have the time to go through them.

An issue that bothers me, although it is not clear what the solution is, is when terrorist forces get their hands on such things and put WMDs in them. We cannot just assume that this is the stuff of Hollywood movies – the threat must be plausible in the not-so-distant future and I imagine and hope that our own defence forces are thinking about what to do about it. Another serious worry is that if we can send thousands of remotely controlled aircraft or sea vessels and destroy targets without putting our own humans in danger, that might encourage governments to get increasingly arrogant and reckless in the projection of force. (Think of how British forces thought they could easily control most of Africa via the Maxim gun, only to find how this technology would eventually be thrown at them in the First World War).

And this book, Wired For War, is an eye-popping tour around the use of modern technology and how it will effect warfare, including issues surrounding non-state actors. But remember, before getting nightmares, that the impact of this new tech will not, in terms of its impact, be necessarily any more severe than say the development of the muzzle-loading gun, the ironclad warship or the helicopter. And principles of self defence and the need to stand up to bullies while having the humility to realise the limits of state action, are unchanged.

6 comments to More on drones and their use

  • I’m not entirely sure how UAVs change the threat profile of non-state actors acquiring WMDs. If terrorists have WMDs, that they will use UAVs as the delivery mechanism is not your main problem…

    What *is* interesting is that in many ways the history of weaponry is the history of government. It is the armed forces who maintain the monopoly of the stationary bandit, so their incentives must be aligned with those of the State. Thus the age where the Knight is the unstoppable killing machine lends itself to a feudal system of government. However as cheap and accurate firearms make peasant mobs militarily effective, States become more democratic, expanding the franchise to offer citizen-soldiers an incentive to maintain the status quo.

    But the untrained mob is not today an effective military force, nor has it been for at least a century. An argument could be made that the free market policies of 19th century England and the US were driven by the increasing industrial requirements of the modern army.

    War today is shaped by nukes, drones, and the ‘net. How has the shape of war today shaped our governments?

  • Hmm

    How good is any solution to a theoretical problem. The biggest problem is determining what problem to concentrate on. Are drones actually a major threat yet? If it is a threat or becoming a threat can that possibility be reduced/neutered? Is the defence to be against large or small scale? Is it to be against explosive, bio, nuclear, electromagnetic, neural/psycho, or a mix? Drones provide an interesting topic for stories, but until they start to be used. The easiest solution to any of these is to start by having a countermeasure against drones. If you can take down the drones then you can start to deal with the problem of their payload.

    There’s loads of different pathways I can think to take Thriller/Sci-Fi screenplays using drone tech. Dreaming up narratives for their use and destruction is also probably a fairly good way to get a grip on what the real problem is. Most of the current drone tech appears to be fairly easily dealt with. Anti-drone drones (both singular and in flocks) are the first thing that spring to mind.

    It’s almost tempting to write a few quickies and stick them on amazon just to see if they take off, or would drone novelettes drag on and on? :)

  • Ed Snack

    Jonathon, don’t get the point about the Maxim gun and WW1, the British Army was very well aware that the German army had roughly 4 times as many machine guns per establishment as they did, they originally asked for 8 a battalion, the government allowed 2. They were also well aware of the effects of firepower, the Boers if no one else taught them that.

    Perhaps more correct to say the the professional part of the army were well aware of it; the large numbers of superannuated officers dragged in to command Kitchener d=formations were often far less competent.

    Was there hubris, probably, but not, I suggest, in quite the way you seem to imply.

  • lucklucky

    In the future as technology evolves everyone will be able to destroy the world. The only option is for us to have many worlds.

    For now Robots will be everywhere by everyone. For good and bad. If you have a cute daughter maybe the kid next door will have a robot with camera to peak at her or vice versa…

  • Dale Amon

    if you discuss drones as a threat, you need to specify the threat. I do not put WMD’s high on that list for non-state actors. Look at the options:

    * Radiological weapons (dirty bombs sic.)
    by the time you stuff in the electronics and the explosive
    dispersal charge and have added in heavy radioisotopes
    in some quantity, I am not sure you have much of a
    weapon. Messy and annoying but not terribly deadly.

    * Biological weapons.
    Weaponizing bio weapons is not easy. Delivery is not the
    real problem for folks wishing to do this. It’s making the
    bugs actually disperse in an ‘effective’ way.

    * Nuclear weapons.
    U235 is heavier than lead. Even with a shotgun style
    you still have a fairly hefty bit of kit. Not something you
    are going to fit in a little homebuilt drone.

    * Chemical weapons.
    You could actually kill people with this even on a small
    craft if you had deadly enough stuff like Sarin. But even
    then, you have the issue of the quantity you can
    carry, the rate of dispersal, how to get a killing
    concentration over a significant size crowd in open
    air despite winds, etc…

    * Conventional small arms.
    A few hundred rounds of 9mm on a crowd could be
    nasty but it just doesn’t have the mass terror effect
    that terrorists want.

    * Explosives.
    You are limited by the carrying capacity. Perhaps a
    few pounds or tens of pounds of C4 at most. Damaging
    as a military weapon for a pinpoint unhardened targer
    but not much of a fear weapon.

    Probably the most likely use is just plain intel for on the
    ground self-mobile self-detonating exploding islamists.

    dispersal a