Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Obama's robotic attack jets


They move in near silence.  Always in surveillance.  No pilots to tire after 48 hour missions.

That's the ideal advantage of aerial drone war.  A recent post on the Singularity Weblog discussed this, pointing out how President Obama has so far approved more than five times the number of drone strikes that Bush ever did.  Justification from the White House has been that there is simply no other feasible way to get into the areas of Pakistan, Somalia, and Afghanistan in which terrorists are hiding.

True or not, this is all a strong omen that drone warfare is here to stay.  In fact, an article I read today in The Atlantic spoke about the Air Force's (expensive) plans for a next generation of stealth bomber.  The plan calls for this new aircraft to be completely pilotless.  As the article points out, the idea of this proposed drone is not all that great of a leap in terms of technology.  The Global Hawk drone has a wingspan close to the size of a Boeing 737 and both the Predator and Reaper drones are slightly smaller than a Cessna.  Test flights of an unmanned bomber have already occurred.  In 2005, a small, bat-shaped drone bomber took off and then dropped a 110kg bomb out at Edwards Air Force Base.  Like the Reaper and Predator drones, this one was flown by humans in a control center.  The idea behind the expansion of drone technology is that the drones would eventually be given more autonomy and to coordinate with one another, perhaps through onboard AI. 

Yeah yeah, let's hear all the science fiction examples of why this might sound like a bad idea.  I'd prefer to remain with what's real but whatever you're into, y'know?  Still, there is opposition within the Air Force, however, to the idea of a drone bomber carrying nuclear weapons.  The idea being that we'd all feel safer with a human behind the controls.

While I don't fear the technology and I don't necessarily trust a human pilot all that much more than I do a drone, I can see the point.  Drones have not proven themselves to be overly reliable.  Airstrikes from drones have left numerous civilian casualties in Pakistan as well as other areas of the world.  Granted, technological enhancements in sensors are bound to happen and the accuracy of the strikes will improve vastly but if you're talking about chucking nuclear weapons around...that's a pretty big "oops."  Not to mention that talk of drones already gets people bringing up things like "what if you jam or take out the control center?" or "what if the drone's systems get spoofed like Iran did to one of ours?"  Well then we'd have a mess, wouldn't we?

You can play what-ifs all day long and then some.  What if a moose charges and gores a drone just before take off?  It's happened.  Not to a drone but fighter aircraft.  This isn't going to stop the expansion of drone technology, if not by us then by someone else.  Drones that can fly at speeds and perform maneuvers that no human pilot could withstand will always be a juicy opportunity.  Add in the bonus of swarming an opponent with a sky full of the things while risking none of your own personnel is going to be far too tough to resist.





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