Editorial

The Predator drone program: is humanity ready?

As the small group of soldiers lays stranded under cover in an Iraqi urban battlefield, barking coordinates and position updates into a handheld radio, a small bomber flies overhead. With unmatched precision, the bomber pilot maneuvers the lithe jet into a bombing run over the building where the snipers are pinning down the distressed soldiers on the ground.  The soldiers watch as the sleek jet zeroes in on its target and arms its bombs. The pilot sees movement on the building’s rooftop and gets ready to let loose a barrage of firepower that will destroy the building and everyone inside it. The familiar rush of adrenaline as his finger gets ready to press the lethal red launch button is all at once familiar and terrifying. The computer beeps in readiness and the pilot fires the two air-to-ground missiles that will utterly destroy the vulnerable targets below. Stranded for hours, the infantry watch and wait for the wonderful sound of an American bomber and the lovely sound of their Army asses being saved (once again) by the Air Force. The pilot slowly exhales as the missiles hit their targets with precision and panache. He tries not to look at the carnage he just affected on the enemy combatants, but he can’t help himself; He’s a soldier at war after all, and he’s doing his job most admirably.

Once the pilot has gotten confirmation of his kills, he sets the plane to autopilot, takes off his headphones, and gets up from his fancy monitors and joysticks. He looks around at the other pilots, stretches, and looks at his watch. He sees the time and rushes out; he’s late for carpool. As he climbs into his suburbia SUV, picks up his 2 girls from school, and goes home to his family in Las Vegas for a hot supper and possibly a movie, the carnage of the day’s deadly sorties slowly fade into the background as normalcy takes over. Just as with any other night, he falls asleep next to his wife, peacefully dreaming of the next day’s kills.

The Predator drone program has been a subject covered by many a journalist and discussed at many a dinner table, and it’s easy to see why the program is the basis of so much talk. Every once in a while, something comes along and completely changes the face of war Predator drones were like airplanes in World War I; they changed the rules. War is about human capital if anything, and when you can replace your human capital with technology, you’re a step ahead already. Replacing a human asset in the battlefield with an expendable piece of hardware is something that used to be relegated to science fiction and summer blockbusters, and now it’s a part of modern military strategy.

While the advantages of having a drone in the battlefield seem obvious, the psychological effect on the pilots is something that often goes overlooked. The seemingly incongruous dichotomy of a day on the battlefield and a night with the kids is not something to take lightly. In many ways, it seems like these pilots are just playing an ultra-realistic video game. When you take into account the distance from the battlefield, and the security of the human pilot, it’s hard not to make the comparison. It’s a scary thought, because people playing video games act with a certain recklessness that comes from a lack of self-preservation based fear and hesitation. You can run in guns blazing because if you die, you can always respawn at the nearest checkpoint. This really hits on a philosophical debate that has raged since the first automated process replaced human input: is it always a good thing to replace human action with machine action? By making a process less human, will that process lose the capability of empathy? In war, this is an especially troubling dilemma. When the lives of human beings are at stake, how much human can you take out of the system before it starts becoming inhumane?

In a 60 Minutes interview with one of the pilots, this same question was posed.

"Do you think that distance makes it - it's kind of like a video game and not like real life?" Logan asked.

"No, no, not at all," Chambliss said. "Because you know that there's no reset button. When you let a missile go and it's flying over the head of friendly forces and it's flying toward the enemy to kill somebody or to break something, you know that that's real life - and there's no take back there."

For an empathic human being, that sentiment is not hard to grasp. It’s a uniquely human emotion to be able to project into the mind of another and experience something vicariously, shaping your actions with that sensitivity. It’s what makes a soldier hesitate before he pulls a trigger, and what makes many of us averse to violence altogether.

However, this alone won’t quiet the discomfort over the Predator Program that many feel. The drone pilots are blamed for a lot of collateral damage and innocent death. It’s easy to place the blame on the pilots because, after all, they are so distant from the battlefield and don’t have the same qualms about firing missiles at targets seen through an unreal thermal filter. How can you expect a pilot to correctly and competently justify the action of firing a kill shot when his own life is not on the line? It’s a valid question, but this isn’t about the morality of war; that’s a subject I’m not qualified to discuss.

The critics often overlook the plight of the pilots. This technology is introducing a way of life that we have never seen before. The duality of being a soldier by day and a minivan driving suburban dad by night is something totally disconnected from what we call normalcy. This rapid interchange of roles is something that can wreak havoc on a mind if not dealt with. Coming home to your family after possibly killing another family’s father, and doing it every day, is not something that is easy to deal with. The experience of being literally miles above the action can be both empowering and debilitating. You get to see everything, successes and failures. When a friendly tank rolls over a roadside bomb, you see it. When a sniper picks off a friendly patrol, you see that also. Many times, there’s nothing you can do; you’re not there.

Every once in a while, technology comes and destroys everything we thought we knew about ourselves, the world around us and what we’re capable of. This specific brand of technological innovation is testing the limits of our humanity. It asks us how far we can get from the battlefield without losing our ability to approach it uniquely human empathy; it asks us if substituting human capital for bare metal is worth the wrenching experience of living in a dichotomy of war and family; ultimately, it asks us if we’re ready for the changes that we invent. 

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For all of their talk about how its dehumanizing war I would point out that these change nothing.

Without these drones the pilot would be sitting up there in a multimillion dollar piece of equipment, flying in at a few hundred miles per hour, depending on his instruments and shooting at a target he likely can't see with coords being read out to him by ground forces who can see the target. The iraq war our tanks so outmatched the enemies we were able to destroy their tanks before they even knew we were in range.

The only real difference here is the pilot is safe and the drone can pull maneuvers that would cause a human pilot to blackout, it can also be airborne for days. We are already with our technology so far removed from the conflict with the very notable exception of ground forces.

The predator has nothing on the new eurohawk

But as a rifleman I agree infantry will always be the only reliable and effective weapon on a battlefield.

-Vivicidal- said,
That was an insightful article that I really didn't expect from Neowin. Well played.

I completely agree, good read.

Nukes & proton weapons ftw. Also, soon we'll have robotic, unmanned guns we can remotely control in battle - much cheaper than training/feeding/housing a human soldier and 100% certain it won't flee when in danger or go AWOL. Unmanned drones are just the beginning. Is anyone with a tech bone in their body surprised by any of this? We have been able to fire missiles remotely and destroy whole countries for some time.

Purely FWIW, for those debating politics or war itself... Please Study History.

RE: Actual people in theater ["on the ground"] fighting & seeing dead body counts...
In the West body counts only matter when they make the news, & then only to the public at large -- that's the way it's always been, & every leader has always had propaganda denying it. In some other parts of the world without the political window dressing, it either doesn't matter the same way, or the body count just serves as justification for continuing hostilities. It was true before the Romans, & it's true today. People have died in horrendous numbers [Iraq-Iran war, or Rwanda, or Somalia etc] -- numbers that simply never would have been reached if body count alone meant all that much.

RE: resources like manpower & in this case hardware...
Resources do matter... while there have always been stories of brilliance on the battlefield, there have also always been some idiots in command. As shown today with the different insurgencies going on around the world, as long as you can keep on fighting, & decide to, you haven't lost. The US has won every war they didn't decide to lose -- we have a short attention span & in a nutshell we've sometimes lost the will, the interest in winning. That's not because of the best military [though personally I don't doubt we have that], but because we had the most resources to put into it. In Afghanistan the fancy hardware & very capable troops go up against often much larger numbers that have learned to avoid direct confrontation, & are more than willing to sacrifice many, many fighters. Their larger numbers & better intelligence network are their greatest resources, & it allows them to continue fighting. Our troops have their better training & sophisticated equipment, which allows fewer numbers to keep on fighting. We hope to win by increasing our resources through Afghan cooperation -- those fighting us hope for the same thing, more cooperation from the Afghan population. Until one side gives up, it's all about the quantity of resources.

"... It asks us how far we can get from the battlefield without losing our ability to approach it uniquely human empathy..."

Good question that I hope's being addressed as drones become more common & are assigned to more mundane tasks than warfare. Drones are going to be used, & more often -- they're cheaper to build & maintain, eliminate physical risks to pilots, and without the physical requirements of being an actual pilot, increases the pool of potential pilot recruits while allowing other attributes [like judgment & psychological temperament] to become more important for screening. This becomes even more important with projected police use of smaller, hoverable drones, & as drones of one sort or another make sense for search & rescue... besides life & death issues, even an unarmed drone can kill if/when it crashes.

DO we, will we go the route of lowest bid contractors, &/or assume basic technical competence is all that's required?... no offense intended, but that hasn't always worked so well considering TSA. And I dread the thought of those with the temperament & judgment of *some* 911 operators becoming remote pilots. I think we'd all feel better if it was approached in a similar way to air traffic controllers.

One thing for sure -- we haven't got a handle on drunk driving, we know it kills, we're divided on punishment, have zero screening [we only catch them after the fact], & some offenders may be incapable of or simply don't show/feel remorse. On a day to day basis most everyone of us has problems with drivers who are sober! If technical competence is the only requirement for remote piloting, we're in for a world of hurt.

Asymmetrical warfare is the future. If nations have the capability to use armies of drones it makes no sense for others to fight them in the same manner.

And what happens when the losers of this contest, now starved of oil or whatever perceived vital resource is in contention, decide to up the ante and resort to good old-fashioned wet-ware violence?

Maybe the should, instead of creating such unmanned hardware, create a software based warfare with multiplayer support. The president of Country A can then compete on a one-on-one match with president of Country B, the winner gets the oil (or whatever). Think of the millions, probably billions saved! BAZINGA!

gaurav said,
Maybe the should, instead of creating such unmanned hardware, create a software based warfare with multiplayer support. The president of Country A can then compete on a one-on-one match with president of Country B, the winner gets the oil (or whatever). Think of the millions, probably billions saved! BAZINGA!

Mil-nect, its how we fight wars of tomorrow, a ruggedized kinect prone to hackers and people without a gold sub

war should always involve real bodies falling on the battlefield on both sides.

This is just plain wrong.

If you can't send your own people out to die for you; you shouldn't be waging war in the first place. This looks like the continuation of an economic war that could kill us all.

Judging from the banal and tech fixated comments to this article, its clear that we should be very fearful about the future.

Politicians are reckless with decisions about war because they don't have to fight them. They almost never watch their children go off to fight the wars they declare. Take for example Bush Jr who was protected from combat by daddy Bush. He experienced all the "glory" without any of the suffering, and look how he ran this country into the ground with 2 simultaneous unwinnable wars.

With human soldiers there is at least some reminder of the ramifications of war. As soldiers become further removed from combat, they will also become more reckless, which ultimately carries up the chain to the politicians. It can't be a good thing.

In the future, the initial part of the war might be fought by unmanned machinery, but eventually one side will run out of machines. The winning side will move on to real people targets. It won't prevent casualties, just delay them. And the casualties could be much more severe because the soldiers firing the bullets/missiles wouldn't have to do it in person.

Peas said,
Politicians are reckless with decisions about war because they don't have to fight them. They almost never watch their children go off to fight the wars they declare. Take for example Bush Jr who was protected from combat by daddy Bush. He experienced all the "glory" without any of the suffering, and look how he ran this country into the ground with 2 simultaneous unwinnable wars.

With human soldiers there is at least some reminder of the ramifications of war. As soldiers become further removed from combat, they will also become more reckless, which ultimately carries up the chain to the politicians. It can't be a good thing.

In the future, the initial part of the war might be fought by unmanned machinery, but eventually one side will run out of machines. The winning side will move on to real people targets. It won't prevent casualties, just delay them. And the casualties could be much more severe because the soldiers firing the bullets/missiles wouldn't have to do it in person.

Politicians are the modern equivalent of "dukes and earls" in the days of feudalism. All the ban on "executive action" imposed by President Ford on the CIA (at the behest of the Church Commission) did was give the adversaries of the United States the freedom to plot (or act) without fear of "directed reprisal". (Note that not a single other country in the "first world" has such a policy, either stated or implied.)

SoupDragon said,
Normalcy? Really? What happened to normality?

I think the English language is being burglarized

1. Its a word
2. Its a good article, shove your grammar and learn to see past that.

Osiris said,

1. Its a word
2. Its a good article, shove your grammar and learn to see past that.

I can see that you have "shoved" your grammar.

Recycling news? A new way to create copy. Weak. This does not rate news on a slow news day. Predators-Creech AFB-yawn! Is Neowin having an attack of sensationalism. The story on Google and the CIA is blown way out of proportion. Geez, I thought only the WashPost recycled when the well was bone dry- when Congress is out of session and so it the rest of DC officaldom.

Shadrack said,
Every sci-fi novel ever, ever, has already answered this question: No.

That's why they're FICTION.

Reality says YES.

Shadrack said,
Every sci-fi novel ever, ever, has already answered this question: No.

They are stupid fictional books. You would rather have humans die as opposed to a machine? Nice.

kaffra said,
easier for the other side to hack it

easier to hack a remote computer, or a remote computer - that controls a plane, or the remote computer thats remote to the remote computer thats remotely controlling the other remote controlled device thats remotely similar to a computer?

I donno.. if they can break CSA, RSA, through bank security, into government documents, whats to stop them from overtaking a damn RC plane? Like, if they made a HUGE jammer - would the damn thing just fall from the sky? Its not like virtual war would happen over TCP/IP at 56.6K

kaffra said,
easier for the other side to hack it

Hacking a drone isn't like hacking the internet. The protocols they use to control these things are very secure.

So.. country A sits behind computer screens, flying remote control planes and dropping bombs.. while Country B does the same thing..

Why not make it a video game and call it a day?

Ruciz said,
So.. country A sits behind computer screens, flying remote control planes and dropping bombs.. while Country B does the same thing..

Why not make it a video game and call it a day?

LOL

Ruciz said,
So.. country A sits behind computer screens, flying remote control planes and dropping bombs.. while Country B does the same thing..

Why not make it a video game and call it a day?


Cos one of them might use hacks

efthlouk said,
What's the purpose of this article? Pls someone explain to me..!:$

I think its trying to explain that soldiers don't actually leave their house to bomb terrorists in foreign countries. they do it via their iphone. long as they hold it the right way

They should never be unmanned except perhaps when loitering or when it's returning to base. Machine programming cant make any judgement calls only humans are capable of that and it should stay that way.

They should never be unmanned except perhaps when loitering or when it's returning to base. Machine programming cant make any judgement calls only humans are capable of that and it should stay that way.

They should never be unmanned except perhaps when loitering or when it's returning to base. Machine programming cant make any judgement calls only humans are capable of that and it should stay that way.

Phalesafe said,
Machine programming cant make any judgement calls only humans are capable of that and it should stay that way.

RTFA. Humans are making the judgement calls.

Phalesafe said,
Machine programming cant make any judgement calls only humans are capable of that and it should stay that way.

RTFA. Humans are making the judgement calls.

Phalesafe said,
They should never be unmanned except perhaps when loitering or when it's returning to base. Machine programming cant make any judgement calls only humans are capable of that and it should stay that way.

A human is flying the drone.

acnpt said,
SkyNet is actually the name of the British Military's satellite communication network
The end is coming...

acnpt said,
SkyNet is actually the name of the British Military's satellite communication network

It's also the name of my PC's workgroup and wireless network

Do we need politics and war discussions here? Can't we please stick to the reason we come to Neowin, and not get off on these kinds of Bullsh#t tangents?

SoCalRox said,
Do we need politics and war discussions here? Can't we please stick to the reason we come to Neowin, and not get off on these kinds of Bullsh#t tangents?

I agree. No, this is not a IT discussion at its core. What's next? Religion discussions?

Northgrove said,

I agree. No, this is not a IT discussion at its core. What's next? Religion discussions?

Yeah, let's talk about Muslim terrorists getting remote-controlled drones.

I have to disagree with the entire premise of this article. War has always had an impact on all the combatants, even the victorious survivors. Seems ego-centric to me that we assume our current generation (or perhaps more correctly generations) has found the magic way to "change war". War is and continues to be about making "the other poor ****** die for his [country]" while remaining as safe as possible. One wonders if the originators of metal armor lamented it's ability to keep ancient warriors alive.

Arceles said,
"War... has changed..." -MGS4: GOTP

"War: a state of usually open and declared armed hostile conflict between states or nations" -Webster

Arceles said,
"War... has changed..." -MGS4: GOTP

"War: a state of usually open and declared armed hostile conflict between states or nations" -Webster

Arceles said,
"War... has changed..." -MGS4: GOTP

Sorry-War has not changed. Its a means to an end that cannot be achieved politically. That is the constant in the equation.
The circumstances that lead to it may have changed as have the tactics, but the end result never will change. The reason why wars are fought

haveblue128 said,

Sorry-War has not changed. Its a means to an end that cannot be achieved politically. That is the constant in the equation.
The circumstances that lead to it may have changed as have the tactics, but the end result never will change. The reason why wars are fought

That exact quote is meant for the game which isn't a realistic portrayal of anything, so it only goes for the game's scenario.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EtVdGE7W2cA

These types of systems have been in place for quite some time already, why the sudden interest in them now?

They are already working on aircraft that do not require a pilot to be in them to take place of fighter jets, most modern fighter jets are artificially limited so they do not kill the pilot from the pilot pulling too-harsh a maneuver.

The face of war is changing, they are trying to remove soldiers from the battlefield and replace them with semi-automated systems. Give it another 10 years and battles will be waged by robots controlled from safe areas by humans, not only will war no longer bring human casualties, it will get very little done.

Nagisan said,
These types of systems have been in place for quite some time already, why the sudden interest in them now?

I was wondering that too. This is nothing new.

Nagisan said,
Give it another 10 years and battles will be waged by robots controlled from safe areas by humans, not only will war no longer bring human casualties, it will get very little done.

Because it gets so much done right now.

Nagisan said,

They are already working on aircraft that do not require a pilot to be in them to take place of fighter jets, most modern fighter jets are artificially limited so they do not kill the pilot from the pilot pulling too-harsh a maneuver.

Since the Air Forces newest aircraft, the F-35, requires a pilot, I don't see pilots leaving the cockpit any time soon. The USAF has commit a lot of resources in that project, and plan on making a whole lot of them. There are still a lot of disadvantages to drones, such as not being able to see and navigate at the same time.

Anaron said,
Surely you meant more casualties for the losing side and less casualties for the winning side.
It depends how the wars are waged. You cannot kill an enemy that you cannot see/get in range of attacking. Therefore if everyone is hiding behind a computer to control the predator drones (and everything else), it will be very difficult to find and kill those people, no matter whether there winning or not. Unless they go genocidal and decide to wipe out an entire race in an attempt to win.

Senlis said,

Since the Air Forces newest aircraft, the F-35, requires a pilot, I don't see pilots leaving the cockpit any time soon. The USAF has commit a lot of resources in that project, and plan on making a whole lot of them. There are still a lot of disadvantages to drones, such as not being able to see and navigate at the same time.
The F-35 is also artificially limited so the pilot cannot inadvertently kill himself by pulling off too harsh of a maneuver.

Not saying they are going to replace pilots in 2 years time or anything, but aircraft cannot get much more powerful without replacing human pilots.

Nagisan said,
Give it another 10 years and battles will be waged by robots controlled from safe areas by humans

Considering the places and people we get into wars with, I highly doubt everyone is going to have robots. I mean, think of US vs Iraq........... ya, dont think so.

dotf said,

Except this drone is unmanned.

Ender's drones were manned with entire armies.

Premise still applies though; in similar fashion to the drones, Ender (nearly) wiped out an entire species.

limok said,
The new generation of P*ssy Wars

Talk is one thing, doing it is another.

SpyCatcher said,
Grab weapon, man a post, we will see if you are a *****!

I agree.