Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Age of the UAV

This morning, I noticed the following headline: "Gorgon Stare" Proposed drone spy system fails testing.

The "Gorgon Stare" (great name!) is a UAV system that is meant to orbit an area of military operation and offer surveillance from multiple angles.  Our current drones are able to monitor one street, one building, or just a single target in general.  Through its 12 onboard cameras, the Gorgon Stare is meant to take in an entire operating area, an "all-seeing eye" as it were.  The caveat appears that the UAV has this pesky problem with being able to track people during the day and vehicles at night.  Then later, in Wired's "Danger Room," the Air Force insisted that the "all-seeing eye" works just fine.
Regardless of the effective status of Gorgon Stare, it really got me thinking about the Age of the UAV.  Predator and Reaper drones have been operable over much of the world for quite a while now, particularly over Afghanistan and areas of Pakistan, where sadly a number of civilian deaths have resulted from missile strikes launched by said UAVs.  There is also "The Beast of Kanahar," a stealth drone that has been photographed in operation over that corner of Afghanistan.  "The Beast" does not appear armed with missiles, but one military tech consultant to Wired noticed an apparatus of sorts on the drone's underside.  He speculated that it could be a high-power microwave energy weapon.  That is of course conjecture, but it's not that far of a leap.  Additionally, it's no longer just robot aircraft that are on the table.  The Army has had the R-Gator , an "Autonomous Unmanned Ground Vehicle," deployed since at least 2006.  Likewise, both the Navy and the Coast Guard have their own seaborne drones either on the drawing board or in experimental phases.

What will robotic weapons systems such as these mean for the future of warfare?  An obvious benefit would be that fewer lives would need to be risked, especially on operations where the danger level is high.  Plus, it is probably more cost-effective to fight a war this way.  Humans take more resources, more supplies, and more logistics to keep operational.  Many of our UAVs can probably take off from a place like Nevada and head for the target without necessarily being forward staged.  Fewer people in the field.  Fewer casualties.  Fewer dollars.
Will this lead to an increase in military actions?  After all, when fewer caskets come home to crying families, it could be tempting to forget the price of war.  I'm skeptical of that, however.  There is always going to be a cost to war.  The number of human casualties can never be brought to absolute zero in armed conflict.  It's one of the reasons we should do it only if no other course of action is available.  And if it must be done, why not execute it in a manner that brings superior firepower with a lessened chance of loss?  
Sounds like a job for a drone.

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