Moore’s Law (Munitions Edition)

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…

Oh, dear.

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.

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21 Responses to Moore’s Law (Munitions Edition)

  1. A Viescas says:

    I think the tactical and strategic considerations of drone warfare are underconsidered, but while a1) and a2) might be a given, I’m not sure a3) will ever become more cost effective than existing missile technology. There’s a strict hardware limitation as to how fancy your one-shot explosives can become before they become too expensive to mass produce…. or at least before they become more expensive than a car bomb or hijacked plane. Maintaining/reusing drones is also expensive due to fuel and maintenance costs, the efficiency of which will most likely not improve much in US-created tech.

    I think it’s more likely that instead of a kill-drone arms race, we get new fronts on the info-war.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    I think the advantage, if IED drones became relatively easy for a non-state actor to acquire and use, would be that they’re harder to defend against than a car bomb or hijacked plane–effectively I think they’d force virtually all public officials to remain under protective cover of some kind nearly all the time. E.g., thinking of them more like an insanely long-distance sniper rifle where there is zero chance of the sniper being spotted prior to the shot and relatively little chance of the sniper being caught afterwards.

    I think you’re right on info-war but the same point I’m making here applies with even more force to that case. The Pentagon and the Israeli government don’t seem to have given any meaningful consideration to escalation before engaging in first-strike cyberwarfare attacks on Iran, for example–they seem to have acted as if they could simply do whatever they wanted to do in order to avoid having to use conventional military power without considering that it’s relatively easy for Iran to engage in tit-for-tat retaliation which ultimately might have more long-term and widely distributed negative consequences than their possession of a small nuclear arsenal.

  3. Fred Bush says:

    What makes you think that some sort of international consensus could stop drone development in its tracks, or that nations would want to? It’s not like chemical or biological weapons where there’s no societal value to the development of the tech — there is a lot of civilian interest in drones currently (tacocopter!). Those cute quadcopters are probably going to be an everyday sight in ten years.

    A driverless car could probably be turned into a suicide car as well. At some point the value of the technology is more important than the risks. It seems clear to me that the driverless car is on the valuable side; drones may be as well, as we see more civilian uses.

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    It’s an optimistic way to think about it–that the positive civilian uses will vastly outstrip the military ones. Or that looking at the problems with military use at being about the drone part is a case of me being wrong-headed, that the issue is with the unaccountability and unilateralism of our use of drones, not with the technology per se. But I do think somebody should be asking whether normalizing that unilateral, unaccountable use of drones is going to make it really hard later on to say, “But using a drone to kill OUR political leaders is fundamentally or intrinsically immoral”.

  5. Martin Ewing says:

    Yes, the U.S. should worry, but drones are technically “sweet” — not quite as much as nuclear weapons were, but they are seductive in their low short-term economic and political cost.

    I note that today’s news is that the U.S. is considering the establishment of a drone base in North Africa, presumably to “service” places like Mali, Algeria, and Libya. How long before we have (and use) this capability in or around every third-world country?

    On the technical side, it’s worth pointing out that simple “drone” technology is available very widely now — as an extension of hobbyist radio controlled aircraft. The payload is small, and range and navigation are limited, but it’s not too hard to think of nasty missions they could take on. The big U.S. military drones, controlled by GPS and satellite communications from very remote sites are “Cadillac” systems. The emerging threat to the U.S. is going to be much more basic, but still worrisome.

    This is unlike “infowar”, where our adversaries have access to technology nearly equal to ours, and where our vulnerabilities are greater than theirs.

  6. jfruh says:

    One of the reasons that drones always failed to strike me as the futuristic flying death robots that they really are is that nothing about them is a particularly big jump in terms of tech — they’re basically RC airplanes (with propellors!) with GPS and missiles. Of course, it’s just that combo of off-the-shelf parts that makes them easily accessible, which I hadn’t thought of until reading this, yeesh.

  7. Withywindle says:

    It doesn’t strike me as so dramatic as it would be in the proverbial SF story. Drones aren’t (yet) all-powerful–nor do they provide quite the disparity of power you have between the Maxim gun and spears. And as jfruh said, they’re not totally different from what we’ve had before: consider the cruise missile. So I would say the level of world attention is about right: “Provides interesting advantages, isn’t the Death Star.” It would be interesting to come across an al-Qaeda diary where John al-Doe talks about the existential dread of the drones, etc., but I’m going to be skeptical until then that even the main targets of our drones take them quite as seriously as you do.

    I think “no one is thinking of the consequences” is an unlikely analysis. I would suspect they are thinking very seriously of the various consequences of not using them against assorted baddies, and I rather suspect a whole raft of people in the Pentagon and the State Department–and I suppose the IDF–are producing legal memos, not only for CYA purposes but also because it must be a pretty interesting legal assignment to research. They may be drawing different conclusions from you about what to do, but that is a different matter from “they’re not thinking about it.”

    I would also note that we have limited knowledge as to who is responsible for which escalations in cyberwar. I would suspect most such to be Russian and Chinese, but this is all going to be classified until we are old or dead. I would suggest you should be very, very cautious about doing more than penciling in a cyberwar narrative until 50 years have passed.

    As for the miniaturization & blowback: I think you are invoking Nemesis too wishfully; as she often is. “Britain will surely pay for selling opium to China!” I dunno, I think they got away with the swag, any extra hostility they got from China in the next few generations was an acceptable price for the loot, and it’s silly to think of drug-addicts in Glasgow in 1990 as some sort of karmic retribution for 1842. The AK-47 was distributed by the Soviets to bring down the Western empires; succeeded magnificently, and the AK-47s didn’t have much if anything to do with the fall of the USSR. As for the drones, if they aren’t going to become cheap as water, we don’t have to worry, and if they are going to become cheap as water, nothing we do now is going to prevent, or do more than marginally slow down, their use. Or if that fork is too stark, I would at least suggest that the sort of precedentiary pettifoggery you prescribe will only be useful in a limited number of future scenarios, to which I would not ascribe the status of “probable,” or even of “most probable.”

  8. Small note: the force disparity at the end of the 19th C. was in many cases not between ‘spears’ and ‘Maxim guns’ but between early 19th C. guns and late 19th C. guns. (Storey’s book covers this–many African polities had access to a fairly sizeable number of rifles in addition to other more ‘traditional’ weapons.) Which is what makes it a somewhat more striking analogy, in my opinion.

    You are right that blowback may not be directly reversed, but the AK-47 has more than a little to do with the reason that many existing nation-states more or less do not command a monopoly on violence. Which has all sorts of direct and indirect consequences for everyone in the world. You know my fondness for appreciating the unexpected and unanticipated–let’s just say that I think a world where IED-tipped drones are as easy to get as handguns is a world markedly more dangerous and unpleasant in some unexpected ways. I think a world where the US uses drones as casually and without institutional review as it does already is dangerous in some much more predictable ways.

  9. A Viescas says:

    Drones might be harder to stop than a car-bomb or hijacked airplane, but I think they’re no better than a “smart” or remote-controlled missile (they’re definitely restricted by the same hardware constraints) , and almost certainly more expensive.

    It could be that existing missile tech gets to the point where they basically are capable of the kind of strikes drones are, and even that existing drone tech gets stolen and applied to missiles in order to get there faster, but… I don’t really think it’ll be necessarily caused by the spread or use of drones in a significant sense.

  10. Fred Bush says:

    You probably spotted this already, but just in case: buy your own attack drone for <$2k

  11. A Viescas: actually existing drones are one kind of expensive. But I invoke Moore’s Law to suggest that future drones might not be much more than small flying robots with IEDs attached, and therefore quite cheap. As Fred’s link uncomfortably suggests, that’s very possibly an imminent rather than far-future prospect.

  12. Jay Scott says:

    For attacks on public officials, drive-by shootings are already cheap and effective and the perpetrators are rarely caught. Put bombs in the public trash cans, stick them under the car, all the old tricks. Aircraft don’t seem to change the economics there.

    But if you’re a terrorist, there are juicy targets for model-airplane scale attacks. One is jumbo jet on the taxiway, fully loaded with passengers and fuel. Drive near the airport and launch your model plane by hand from the back of your van. With GPS and a small camera and some smarts it can autonomously fly a few pounds of explosive into a running jet engine. That’s technically feasible today, a good university team could build it for you. And I think that no story that we tell about remote-control weapons or indiscriminate military attacks will affect whether it happens.

    But for state military use of drones I believe I see increasing pushback against perceived overreaching. The landmine treaty (the Ottawa Treaty) gives me hope. Landmines are (contrary to the arguments of treaty proponents) useful in defending against armies, so the fact that most countries have signed on means that most countries are saying that they foresee no serious need to defend territory–amazing progress even if some are lying or mistaken. A similar international agreement might limit the use of armed drones someday.

  13. A Viescas says:

    Right, but “small flying robots attached to IEDs” are more like guided missiles than drones. Modern GPS’s are plenty tiny and cheap already, so Moore’s law becomes less important than considerations of fuel efficiency, physical durability vs expense, and data connectivity/latency. Only the latter is likely to see significant change due to technological increases, and even then it’ll change less due to the U.S.’s drone dependence and more due to increased networking backbone (in populated areas) or improved, network-independent repurposed civilian geolocation technology (in less populated areas).

    Either way, cat’s out of the bag no matter what we do or don’t do, mostly through civilian tech.

    @Fred Bush: Interesting, though the “action radius” is only 1/3 of the Fajr-5 (it’s also 1/10 of the cost, but it’s hard to tell how much of it is related to the computer)

  14. mike shupp says:

    I made a comment to a conservative friend a couple months back: “What happens if other countries start using drones to strike back at people in the US that THEY regard as terrorists — such as the officials who authorize drone attacks?”

    “It’ll never happen,” he said immediately.


    “Because we have nuclear weapons.”

    So clearly there are no real problems ahead of us.

  15. Jerry Hamrick says:

    When I was a high school teacher many years ago, two high school boys in a high wind plane buzzed a high school homecoming pep rally and shot flares, or maybe roman candles, at the stack of wood that was to become the bonfire. No injuries, no fires, but lots of screams and panic. The boys were caught quickly, I don’t remember what happened to them.

    What if some kid decided to bomb the stands in several high school football games one Firday night, simultaneously.

  16. Jay Scott says:

    Moore’s Law properly applies only to the digital computing hardware that is already only a small part of the cost of a drone. The cost/performance of the airframe, engine, control surfaces and so on is improving at a much slower rate, probably smoothing to 4%/year plus or minus a couple. (Ask yourself: How fast does car mileage improve?) Things like control software, sensors, and communication may be improving at intermediate rates.

    Even slow progress means that we can expect dramatic cost and performance improvements over decades, of course. But don’t be in too big a hurry.

  17. Ralph Hitchens says:

    I think it was more than just a “brief moment of stark asymmetry.” At the “lower” levels of warfare it’s true that wide availability of some advanced weaponry has leveled the playing field a bit, between the great powers and former colonial states. But in terms of “escalation dominance” the asymmetry still exists. Saddam’s Iraq, Qaddafi’s Libya, or for that matter Egypt, Jordan, and Syria might arm themselves with lots of state-of-the-art weaponry but when you got to a certain level of warfare they could not compete against the USA, European powers, or Israel. Insurgencies are one thing, and today the main thing, but a “big war” is something else.

  18. Right, I think I may have said that above, more or less. The point is that in terms of imperialism–the ability of one nation or territory to administratively dominate a distant nation or territory made up of people with a different culture, language and history than the imperial power–all you need is the ability to make the costs of military force continuously high in order to make direct imperial rule or continuous occupation infeasible. Which I would submit is what happened in the 1940s-1950s, in at least some measure because of the diffusion of cheap and nearly-equivalent small arms and small explosives. Though would-be imperial powers seem to forget it now and again after having learned it the hard way in the early Cold War. (Soviets in Afghanistan, US in Iraq/Afghanistan)

  19. Jim says:

    Drones are slow and undefended. They can operate only in “permissive environments” — those where there’s nothing around to shoot them down, as in Afghanistan or Yemen, or where the local Air Force chooses not to, as in Pakistan.

    If they even come close to, for example, Iran, they can be fooled into actually entering that nation’s airspace and captured.

    There’s less here than meets the eye.

  20. WryEye says:

    There’s no prospect in this warfare of combatants emerging from their trenches to sing carols together in an impromptu Christmas truce, like the English and the German soliders did a century ago. In this new situation, combatant A targets an icon of combatant B, and unleashes a hellstorm of violence. By contrast, the mourning relatives of combatant B, have, for now, only a symbol against which to project their outrage. Where will this lead? The pace of drone proliferation seems open to debate, but tactics that thus amplify the utter “otherness” of the other do not predict peace.

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