D. Dowd Muska


Drones, the Data Machine, and ‘Terrorists’

August 27, 2015

“This is the essence of the wars the United States now fights,” writes William M. Arkin. “Individual targets -- fixed, mobile, and now even individual humans -- are identified and validated and located and tracked from the ground or the sky; they are identified through imagery, electronic emissions, communications, or other intelligence. In this kind of war, the strikers are more abundant than good targeting information, and the data itself, like a camouflaged enemy, masks the intelligence.”

In Unmanned: Drones, Data, and the Illusion of Perfect Warfare (Little, Brown and Company; 391 pages; $28.00), Arkin provides a detail- and insight-rich, if rambling, survey of the technology used in “global war on terrorism.” With four decades in “national security,” including a stint in army intelligence during the Cold War, few authors are better equipped to explore the subject.

Starting with “the urban legend” that in 1991, some Iraqi soldiers were “so stupid that they tried to surrender to a drone,” Unmanned traces the rapid evolution of UAVs. During the first assault on Saddam Hussein, the Pioneer “wasn’t any kind of magic bullet; in reality, ground commanders and operators found [it] difficult to employ and limited in its usefulness.” But during the 1990s, pilotless aircraft matured, aided by real-world testing in Iraq and the Balkans.

Once exclusively intelligence-gathering gadgets, it was inevitable that drones became weapons. Visionaries in the Air Force began to muse that if their newly acquired Predator was armed, “not only can you conduct reconnaissance and find a potential target, but you can also do something about it right then. You can do it against air defenses that might be too lethal for manned aircraft, and you can do it against Scud missiles that shoot and scoot. And with the right weapons and the right black boxes, it can be done in the dark, in the rain, and a world away.”

Predator launched its first combat Hellfire in October 2002, in an attempt to kill Mullah Omar. The Taliban leader survived, and the CIA and military blamed each other for the failure. “Thus the inaugural use of an armed Predator ended up being an introduction to the fundamental divide that exists between the world of the manned and the unmanned, as war begins to slip dangerously into the realm of video games and button-pushing murder.”

Early troubles gave way to greater competencies, as the revolutions in digitization and miniaturization accelerated. (Bureaucratic turf battles persisted, but became less vicious.) Predator has the best name recognition, but Arkin notes that Raven is “the most common in all the world’s militaries.” By 2014, three-quarters of the Pentagon’s inventory of UAVs were Ravens. Weighing only a few pounds, the aircraft can reach an altitude of 500 feet, and is “prepared in the field in as little as fifteen minutes.” Operators need just 80 hours of training, and instruction “is almost all hands-on, perfect for … digital natives.”

Raven provides surveillance to ground troops. The army’s Hunter, armed with Viper Strike, is a killer. The weapon “follows a trajectory that takes it directly over the target, setting itself up to make a steep dive nose-first, its warhead shaped and designed to explode with a focused downward-directed blast. … [I]t has a rated three-foot accuracy, meaning that friendly soldiers on the ground can be extremely close and still be safe in an attack.”

The future will bring more systems, armed with better capabilities. Black ops, where “things are neither strictly military nor strictly covert, nor in the realm of law enforcement,” will continue. What Arkin calls the “Data Machine” will employ “biometrics-enabled intelligence,” tracking “gait, body markings, vein structure, heartbeat, and even color -- all things detected and identified at a distance, all things detectable by hyperspectral means.”

It’s all in the service of … what, exactly? Dazzled by the technology and its ability to avoid American casualties, the question is rarely asked. In Unmanned’s best passage, Arkin notes that “Clinton inherited Bush; Bush inherited Clinton; Obama, Bush. Our foreign policy itself is unmanned.” Meanwhile, the denizens of the region where World War IV is being fought are “hardly yearning for the advances promised in the model of Western white and democratic civilization.”

The “illusion of perfect warfare” created by unmanned systems, Arkin suggests, “is little more than a blaring video game endlessly played to higher and higher levels and higher scores, but one being played in a crumbling crack house.” It’s a sobering conclusion that few in the “defense” world have the courage to confront.

D. Dowd Muska (www.dowdmuska.com) writes about government, economics, and technology. Follow him on Twitter @dowdmuska.

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