The CIA has killed more than 200 children in drone strikes outside of legitimate war zones since 2004, it is alleged. In Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia between 451 and 1,035 civilians were killed in at least 373 strikes, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. Who in their right mind would give a powerful unmanned air force to a covert organisation with such a track record for illegal killing? The number of strikes in Pakistan has increased from 52 under George W Bush during his five years of conflict to 282 during Barack Obama’s three-and-a-half-year watch. Obama is establishing a dangerous precedent that is, at best, legally questionable in a world where more than 50 countries are acquiring the technology.
This is big business with billions of dollars at stake. Israeli companies are pursuing new drone markets in Asia and Latin America. The US has restricted drone sales to its allies but now, with defence budgets shrinking, companies are lobbying to open foreign markets in South America and West Asia. Other countries such as India and Pakistan are also hungry for the technology. Russia has unveiled its MiG Skat combat drone with on-board cruise missiles, while Iran demonstrated an armed rocket launched drone, the Karrar, in 2010.
But it is China that is showing the greatest commercial potential for selling armed drones. It has deployed several types of unmanned aerial vehicles for both reconnaissance and combat. More worryingly, the Washington Post quotes Zhang Qiaoliang from the Chengdu Aircraft Design and Research Institute as saying, “The United States doesn’t export many attack drones, so we’re taking advantage of that hole in the market.”
This is just the beginning and here is where the real danger resides: automated killing as the final step in the industrial revolution of war — a clean factory of slaughter with no physical blood on our hands and none of our own side killed.
Using programmed robots has been high on the agenda set by the US since 2004. The BAE systems are developing an autonomous combat aircraft demonstrator, the Taranis, for the defence ministry. There are several good military reasons for removing direct human control. Currently drones are used with ease against low-tech communities in a permissive air space. More technologically sophisticated opponents would adopt counter strategies such as jamming satellite signals to render them useless or bring them down. A fully autonomous drone could still seek out its target without human intervention.
The US has been testing the fully autonomous supersonic Phantom Ray and the X-47b will appear on US aircraft carriers in the Pacific by 2015. Meanwhile, the Chinese are working on the Anjian — supersonic unmanned fighter aircraft, the first drone designed for aerial dogfights. Hypersonic drones are also on the wishlist. Darpa, the Pentagon’s research arm, has the HTV-2 programme to develop armed drones that can reach anywhere on the planet within 60 minutes. The hypersonic fully autonomous drones of the future would create very powerful, effective, and flexible killing machines. The downside is that these machines will not be able to discriminate on their targets — there are no programmes capable of distinguishing civilian from combatant. Is this really a technology we want the secret intelligence services of the world to control?