Use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles makes war virtual
By Moriah Petty
Airplanes cross the sky overhead so often that few Americans take the time to notice them. But next time you hear the rumble of an engine from high above, consider this—there is a good chance no one is inside. It could be an automated plane that has the ability to fly, record visual images and perform combat operations without a human being inside. The eerie nature of this concept has earned these planes the name Predator drones, but they are technically called Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, or simply UAVs. Operated by joystick from bases inside the United States, UAVs have the ability to traverse the globe while their pilot remains safely at home.
The planes fly over enemy territory on reconnaissance spy missions to collect visual evidence of militant activity, but they also drop bombs on targeted locations and individuals. One base is, in fact, located in Syracuse, NY, where planes fly out of Hancock Field daily to travel the 7,000-plus miles to destinations in the Middle East. The first UAV mission sent to attack a specific target was in 2002, when the C.I.A. used a Predator drone to kill six Al-Qaeda members in Yemen. The American government recognized the value of this technology and steadily increased funding to UAV operations to the point that today, there are multiple drones in the air at any given moment.
Peter Ryden, an air traffic control student at the University of North Dakota, provided a concise description of UAVs and why they are such a hot item, saying, “Drone technology is all about stealth, but more importantly, saving lives. UAVs are used for the missions, which are too deadly for cockpit-piloted planes. This means families [of fighter pilots] have to deal with crash deaths less frequently. Also, UAVs are cheaper than regular planes to operate, so the efficiency is an enormous benefit to our nation’s economic welfare.”
UAVs certainly seem to come with significant advantages, but they are currently causing a storm of controversy.
The UAV operating system is nearly identical to an XBox 360 controller. While the military denies acquiring consumer software, video games have undergone such intensive development that replicating their programming is the most practical and financially efficient option. As a result, the operating rooms of UAV bases look similar to a typical gamer’s basement, complete with multiple screens and wired controllers.
So who should be chosen to run this vital form of weaponry? Senior military officers? Fighter pilots? How about young adults who have dedicated their adolescence to playing video games? Army recruiters focus heavily on this last demographic, since the recruits already have experience with the operating system and have developed the skills required to operate a UAV’s sensitive technology.
According to a report by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the requirements for being added to the list of targets are two verifiable human sources and substantial additional evidence, generally through overhead surveillance that can generate “pattern of life” evidence. An analysis of public reports by the New America Foundation indicated 82 U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan since 2006 have resulted in the deaths of between 750 and 1,000 people. Up to 320 of those may have been civilians. These numbers are mainly speculation, because the Pakistani government bans reporters from tribal lands, where most of the attacks occur.
While the United States is not officially at war with Pakistan, drone strikes fall under the broad domain of the War on Terror. The CIA collects information on suspected Al Qaeda leaders, then informs the Pakistani government on any drone missions targeting these individuals. Since the CIA, not the military, runs the operations, it is questionable whether they follow legal regulations for international conflict. The only statistic provided in government reports to the public is that 20 senior terrorist and militant leaders have been eliminated in successful UAV attacks.
When the Obama administration inherited the American military involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq, they chose UAV drones as the principle tool to accomplish this goal. The role of fighter pilots, which was so critical to 20th century warfare, is becoming insignificant in the 21st century, as the military now trains more soldiers to operate UAVs than to become pilots.
The United States is currently the most active employer of drones, but nations with enough military funding and access to sophisticated technology are rushing to implement drone programs. Forty nations, including Great Britain, France, China, Russia, Israel, India, Turkey and Iran, currently possess UAV technology capable of firing missiles. The global phenomenon is similar to the Space Race, where nations compete to be the first to invent the most sophisticated drones possible and keep up with the trend that is defining modern warfare. Ruden compared the invention of drones to the invention of video chat. “Business men and women can stay in their home city and still conduct business overseas without taking long trips,” he said. “This is exactly the scenario UAVs have allowed for military aviation.”
The numerous advantages of UAVs have earned them popularity around the world. The U.S. has employed them to protect soldiers and remove the chaos, death, messiness and risk of war. However, their clinical nature also presents a danger. As war becomes more convenient and easy to win based on your access to technology, the line between reality and virtual reality blurs. War now looks and feels like a video game. How do we remember that the people on the screen are real human beings, not graphics? This fear is called the “finger-press war factor.” War is dehumanized when killing the enemy is as easy as pressing a button, and it becomes impersonal when your victim is 10,000 miles away. The War on Terror is heading toward its 10th year, but once Americans can be isolated from the combat, it could go on endlessly, as there would be no incentive to stop.
Another term for this phenomenon is the “Playstation mentality,” a phrase created by Philip Alston, the United Nations reporter on extrajudicial executions. Alston recognizes that the rapid proliferation of UAVs has already had serious global consequences, yet there has been little international response. From his position on the UN Human Rights Council, Alston is attempting to demonstrate that using UAVs for targeted killings violates international humanitarian law and undermines global constraints on the use of military force. On Oct. 22, Alston wrote a report to the General Assembly with an appeal to “address the legal, political, ethical and moral implications of the development of lethal robotic technologies.”
The United States maintains that UAVs do not break any laws or violate ethical codes because the drone attacks are a legitimate response to terrorist threats. The attacks are still self-defense, just anticipatory or pre-emptive self-defense. In fact, the military responded to fears of the Playstation mentality by declaring that unmanned weaponry actually makes war safer due to the “hover feature.” Drones have the ability to hover unseen, far above a target, tracking it until they reach an appropriate location to drop the bombs, ideally, far from civilians or military bases. Government officials claim that drones have a 20-1 ratio of militant to civilian casualties. On the other hand, The New American Foundation reports a 2-1 ratio for the drone strikes. The Long War Journal, a publication dedicated to the War on Terror, came up with a statistic in the middle: 9-1.
UAVs and Psychology
The issues discussed in debates on UAVs include economic practicality, safety and convenience, national prestige, war ethics and violent video games. However, one of the most important factors to examine is human nature. After all, it is humans who declare war on each other even if drones commit the acts of violence.
Linda Smaller, a psychologist employed by the St. Paul Public School District, applied her expertise in human behavior to this issue. She proposed an alternate view that UAVs have the potential to limit our tendencies to go to war rather than facilitate an increase in global violence. Smaller reasoned that humans perpetrate violence in intimate situations on purpose. Even most civilian crimes are committed by people who know their victims intimately, as in cases of domestic violence.
Making war less personal by increasing the space between the two sides could actually make humans less interested in war because the environment plays a key role in our motivation to commit acts of violence. Smaller said, “What causes violence to occur usually is affiliation. We are part of something larger than ourselves, aligned with others such as in a gang or an army. The loyalty factor to our fellow soldier is used, with significant bonding occurring because of ‘being in the foxhole together’ in dangerous situations with adrenaline flowing and shared goals. I am not sure that could be created in the same way by pushing a button.”
The numbers show that the use of UAVs does not appear to be slowing down. The use of predator drones for warfare, in fact, is becoming more prevalent around the world. As technology develops, so too does technology used for warfare. However, the use of UAVs presents unique dilemmas; it brings on a new, virtual layer that challenges the line of what is real. Regarding warfare, this is especially dangerous. If the United States and other countries continue to rely heavily on predator drones in attacks, they must do so within the boundaries of international ethical codes. Otherwise, war becomes a game: too simplistic, too intangible and too difficult to end.
Moriah Petty is a freshman TV-R major who proposes that we use drones to drop cupcakes all over the world. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.