Let’s say twenty years ago I’d written a science fiction novel about how a futuristic nation has a massive force of flying robot bombs that are programmed with some target parameters and just fly around 24/7 on patrol looking for anything that fits their specifications. Catchy premise, classic bit of robot-overlord dystopianism, one of those things like flying cars that seems amusingly improbable in retrospect…
As with everything else that has come to pass which actually matches the science-fictional imagination, the reality seems so banal and inevitable that we scarcely pause in our everyday lives to consider its implications. The imaginary electronic clipboards and pads in various incarnations of Star Trek were always bristling with fetishistic futurosity, always signalling that a far future had arrived. The iPad I use every day has quickly become about as exotic as a toaster or a ballpoint pen.
That doesn’t stop us from having furious debates about the generality of the changes that actually-existing future technology brings. The overall idea and reality of drone warfare is getting some attention, just as the sweeping consequences of digital technology have. But the debate over drones is so far either about the abstractions of moral philosophy (is ok to kill a combatant who has no chance to kill you back?) or it is about a particularized kind of ‘numbers game’ (do drones cause more civilian casualties than we’re being told? more civilian casualities than other kinds of bombing?) A few folks are also beginning to think more carefully about what might happen if there is further automation of drone strikes.
All of those conversations matter. But I’m also struck at how much this nascent public conversation doesn’t include the possibility of proliferation and retaliation. In many ways, drones are being treated as the Maxim gun of 21st Century hegemony: something the hegemon has than its subjects have not, and that is being assumed to be a stable part of the overall picture.
Among the many explanations for Europe’s sudden assertion of imperial control over most of Africa, the Middle East, and much of Asia in the second half of the 19th Century, the importance of a brief moment of stark asymmetry in the relative ability of polities and elites to mobilize military power has sometimes been pushed aside or downgraded as a self-sufficient explanation, even in ‘technologically determinist’ interpretations. In some measure, that might be because European colonial propaganda, when it addressed military advantages, tended to push that advantage back in time all the way to the 16th Century and treat it as a single manifestation of some overall Western superiority in technology and science. Either that or European colonizers engaged in ridiculous self-puffery about the cultural and organizational superiority of their militaries as opposed to the relative disparity in their armaments.
The asymmetry, if it was an important factor, was incredibly brief. At the beginning of the 19th Century, European-controlled militaries had very few systematic advantages in their ability to enforce administrative power and overwhelm local military resistance in Africa, South Asia or the Middle East. They could win single battles or conflicts but not persistently maintain a presence or capacity that could meet any attempt at military resistance. That wasn’t just about their armaments, of course, but also about the financial capacity and political organization of their sponsoring nation-states. For a brief time at the end of the 19th Century, however, industrially-supplied European mass armies with guns and munitions could generally overwhelm non-Western military power (though the latter were often armed with guns as well: William Storey’s new history of gun trading and ownership in southern Africa makes clear how complicated the local picture often was.
The thing is, by the end of World War II, that era was comprehensively over, which I think means that asymmetry in force capacity is as much a contributing explanation of decolonization as it is of the spread of 19th Century imperialism. By the 1960s, insurgencies all around the globe were capable of fighting occupying Western armies to a standstill, if not capable of winning in a straight-up battlefield conflict between nation-states. And this has become more and more the case over time. Whatever doctrines or surges or equipment the US or its allies may bring to bear to support an imperial occupation or administration, they can’t succeed in doing more than what Russia did in Chechnya: turning a territory into a wasteland and keeping it under a harsh authoritarian regime. And even the most determined 21st Century hegemon can’t afford to project that kind of military power in more than a few small territories proximate to its national borders, nor can it count on that power to pacify such an opponent for any substantial length of time.
Drones clearly seem to some American military planners like the answer to their prayers in such a world, with a lot of other collateral budgetary, technological and political benefits. No pilots exposed to enemy fire (and no human limitations to the speed and mobility of a flying weapons platform). Cheaper by far than modern warplanes. Much easier to keep their operations secret, much more deniability about consequences. Much easier to extend operations into airspace of unfriendly or uncomfortable sovereignities. Nearly impossible to defend against with existing anti-aircraft technology and imposes serious limitations on the freedom of movement of enemy combatants and leaders. Explicit legal sanction from all three branches of the US government for the unilateral use of drones to kill specific targeted individuals, including American citizens, coupled with grudging acquiescence to this practice by most other nations.
And as with the Maxim gun, they have none.
But that is not going to last. So before we get into the moral philosophy of the general idea, or the morality of their current use, just consider for a moment what is going to happen in a world where:
a) Drone warfare is an exceptionally active domain of rapid technological progress due to continuous investment by the United States and other major national and transnational actors.
b) Drone warfare is normalized legally and geopolitically as a domain of unrestricted unilateral action by hegemonic or dominant powers (much as the unrestricted use of military force against non-Western societies was briefly something that went almost entirely unquestioned in Europe and the US from about 1870 to 1905).
c) The use of drones by the US and other major actors proliferates on a global scale rather than stays confined to a few unusual theaters.
With a), investment in technological progress, consider also:
a1) that drones with lethal capacity will almost certainly get smaller, cheaper, and harder to detect both as they seek targets and at their points of origination and operation
a2) that drones will almost certainly be given more sophisticated systems for automatic navigation, target selection and decision-making over time
a3) that integrating the cheap, improvised lethality of explosives used against international forces in Iraq and Afghanistan into drones will become readily possible in the future
Think about that for a bit. Now imagine a world where non-state actors of all kinds, at all scales, can with relative ease unleash many automated or semi-automated drones armed with enough explosives to kill a few people or damage local infrastructure, in a way that may be as hard to trace back to the individuals responsible as it is to find someone who made a computer virus or malware today.
The moment I lay that scenario out, many people doubtless think, “So that’s going to happen, it’s inevitable”. But I don’t think it is. There are cases in modern world history where national militaries and their civilian administrations have thought twice about the wisdom of proliferating the use of weaponry or technology that gave them enormous short-term advantages after the long-term implications of their generalized use became clear. Chemical and biological weaponry is perhaps the best example, since nuclear weapons may be a special case. National militaries still have this capacity, it’s occasionally been used by repressive regimes against civilian opponents, but sufficient effort has been poured into making their use moral anathema and cause for serious coordinated global action that there are very powerful inhibitions against their use.
The appallingly causal and short-sighted use of drones right now by the US military bothers me for all sorts of reasons. But first and foremost, it bothers me because no one in authority is giving any public consideration to the consequences of legitimating their unilateral, undisclosed and unreviewed usage, or the consequences of becoming so reliant upon drone strikes that we vastly accelerate their development. If there is any hope of avoiding a world where small remotely (or automatically) guided explosive drones routinely pose a danger at almost any location or moment, that hope is in this moment, this time, and no other. By the time the AK-47 went into mass production in 1949, it was far too late to ask whether it was a good thing or not for almost any organized group that wanted automatic rifles to have automatic rifles, even if it took some time for the weapon to disseminate at a global scale.