Which drone future will Americans choose?

By Hugh Gusterson | November 22, 2013

The US government now faces the same dilemma over drones as it did over nuclear weapons in the late 1940s. It’s at a fork in the road. Intoxicated with short-term advantage. Blind to long-term dangers.

After Hiroshima, some leading nuclear scientists and defense intellectuals wanted to find ways to avert an international arms race and place restrictions on the development of nuclear weapons technology. J. Robert Oppenheimer, Leo Szilard, Dean Acheson and David Lilienthal sought to put nuclear weapons under international control, but were outmaneuvered by their opponents in the Truman administration. The result: By 1949, many years earlier than American intelligence officials expected, the Soviets got their own nuclear weapon. The American nuclear monopoly lasted only four years and gave way to a situation where, for the first time in history, US cities were threatened with total destruction.

The same year that the Soviets tested their first atom bomb, a US government committee made up of leading nuclear scientists recommended that the more powerful hydrogen bomb not be developed. The committee included Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, and I.I. Rabi. “The fact that no limits exist to the destructiveness of this weapon makes its very existence and the knowledge of its construction a danger to humanity as a whole. It is necessarily an evil thing considered in any light,” said Rabi and Fermi in their addendum to the committee’s report. Despite their unanimous opposition, Truman overruled them. Within four years, the Americans and the Soviets both had hydrogen bombs, making their civilian populations even more vulnerable to destruction.

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In his book Danger and Survival, former US National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy looked back on these two decisions and regretted the missed opportunities to spare the world the ensuing arms race as the superpowers competed to accumulate more, and more-advanced, weapons. That arms race not only threatened tens of millions of innocent people with destruction; it also left a post-cold war legacy that we are still struggling to deal with: tens of thousands of surplus nuclear weapons that must be disposed of, and contaminated production sites that will cost hundreds of billions of dollars to clean—if indeed they can be cleaned. Who can disagree with Bundy that, if a way could have been found, we would be better off without all this?          

I found myself thinking of this history, wondering if past would be prologue, while I attended Code Pink’s 2013 Drone Summit at Georgetown University Law School on November 16. Much of the conference dwelt on US drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. Lawyers noted that military attacks on countries with whom the United States is not at war are illegal under international law. Yemeni and Pakistani parliamentarians, as well as relatives of civilians killed in US drone strikes, told of the suffering and ill-will left in their wake.

But the most alarming moments of the conference came when people spoke of what might happen in the future, which brings us back to that fork in the road. Having seen what drones are capable of, political leaders can choose to place clear limits, domestically and internationally, on how they can be used. Or, telling the American people that drones will make them safer or that “you can’t stop technology,” they can allow free rein to those military inventors, national security bureaucrats and industry entrepreneurs eager to develop drone technology as aggressively as possible. Such people are impatient to press ahead with new unmanned aerial vehicles, including smart drones and mini-drones, to sell both to the US military for use overseas and to law-enforcement bodies within the United States.

If drone development continues unchecked, what can we expect? First, as with nuclear weapons, proliferation. At the moment the United States, Britain, and Israel are the only countries to have used weaponized drones. But many countries, including Russia and China, have been watching carefully as Washington has experimented with counterinsurgency by drone, and are considering how they might use this relatively cheap technology for their own purposes. If they decide to use their own drones outside the boundaries of international law against people they brand “terrorists,” the United States will hardly be in a position to condemn them or counsel restraint.

Second, as with nuclear weapons, over time we can expect smarter, more capable, and thus more threatening drones. From an engineer’s point of view, the jackpot here will be a smart autonomous drone that can identify targets and destroy them without any humans in the loop. The US military has been sponsoring research on such technology. While one can imagine the short-term military advantages in deploying such machines, will the world be better off  when several countries have unleashed autonomous flying robots with a license to kill?

Third, as in our worst nightmares about nuclear weapons, there will be blowback. Given that drones are relatively cheap and easy to make, often with off-the-shelf technology, it is probably only a matter of time before Americans are attacked on American soil by terrorist drones. It’s easy to see the dismal possibilities here: Attackers could fly bomb-laden drones into skyscrapers, shopping malls, jumbo jets, airports, or power plants; and they could fly drones equipped with chemical or biological weapons over sports games. The more developers push the technological envelope and the more drones  they build, the greater the likelihood these machines will fall into the wrong hands and be used in such ways—especially if drones have been so normalized that the Federal Aviation Administration has given them widespread flying rights.

Fourth, domestically in the United States and probably many other countries, citizens can expect a police state on steroids. Police departments are beginning to acquire drones for crowd surveillance and criminal pursuit, and the US Customs and Border Protection Agency, which owns ten, has considered arming them with “non-lethal weapons.” Quite apart from the fact that “non-lethal weapons” sometimes turn out to be lethal after all, this is a slippery slope. After all, the United States originally condemned Israel for weaponizing its drones, then weaponized its own drones but used them sparingly, and then began shooting at people on the ground in more and more countries with increasingly relaxed rules of engagement. In the last 20 years Americans have watched US police departments acquire surplus military hardware and start raiding low-level drug dealers’ homes with flash bombs, assault rifles, and even armored personnel carriers, as if they were attacking Taliban strongholds. Will they now see police drones chasing “dangerous” criminals and killing them with thunderbolts from the sky? And what will be left of privacy in a world where police drones hover overhead—logging license plates at protests, tracking the movements of suspects, and videotaping people in their backyards?

So what’s the alternative? The Code Pink drone summit offered some interesting ideas, such as an international ban on autonomous weapons, as the International Committee for Robot Arms Control has suggested. Another possibility would be stricter enforcement of international law against countries that use drones outside declared war zones or in ways that violate the proportionality principle central to the laws of war. One speaker suggested a ban on  weaponized drones in domestic airspace, and a ban on drone-derived evidence in US courts. Another pointed out the importance of strong federal standards rather than allowing an anarchic situation where each locality sets its own rules.

In a context in which the American people have largely looked the other way while their government has waged drone warfare in their name, Code Pink’s high-visibility protests have kept the issue alive. The organization’s 2012 and 2013 summits have provided one of the few spaces in Washington for public discussion of drone warfare and airing the voices of foreign victims. However, Code Pink is better at disrupting Congressional hearings and staging guerilla theater than crafting legislation or building the kinds of coalitions that get new policies passed, and its shrillness ensures marginality as much as visibility. At its November Drone Summit, the Code Pink audience turned unpleasantly on retired US Air Force Col. Morris Davis—a courageous officer who resigned rather than participate in prosecutions at Guantanamo—when he spoke against drones from a position of conservative principle rather than the anti-imperialist stance favored by Code Pink. (The audience had evidently not quite grasped opening speaker Cornel West’s admonition to emulate the civil rights movement by working in broad ecumenical coalition with diverse kinds of people.)

There is an urgent need now for more mainstream experts, opinion-makers, citizen groups, and political leaders to take up this issue and find the path away from the drone equivalent of the cold war arms race. The alternative, if we continue down our current path, is a world in which it is accepted as normal for machines to kill people on their own initiative. It is a place where governments keep their citizens under relentless aerial surveillance and develop kill lists of people to be executed from the sky without trial, in which citizens crouch in constant readiness for attack by drones.

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