Drones and the American Future
Drones are a tool of the modern age. They have benefits. They have faults. They have become the equivalents of the secret agents of the past whose role was to observe and thwart as needed. They are a modern technology with which no governmental leader has a real, life-long experience. They are new. Indeed, their scope of use is evolving as the minutes tick.
Types. Some drones are outfitted to only monitor the countryside and to monitor activities of opponents or others. Others are equipped with weapons to destroy persons or property. The technology of both is virtually the same. The cost is cheap. For example, consider the General Atomics MQ-1 Predator. A multi-use unmanned aerial vehicle used primarily by the United States Air Force and Central Intelligence Agency, it has a unit cost of a piddling $4m. Armaments are extra.
Drones seem to irritate other countries, but their application seems not to measure up to an actual "boots-on-the-ground" incursion. This is new. Foreign governments don't quite know how to classify them, and how to respond beyond the normal posture of outrage. Note how similar this is to the less fatal practice of international "hacking," another new technological warfare methodology for which most governments have little experience, publicly and diplomatically. History shows that "newness" is an anathema to the traditional administrator, whatever the stripe.
Fact. Drones are here to stay. They are successful, cheap, and fearsome. A dark side looms for this technology, one which at the beginning seems to solve serious extant problems with no loss of life, at least for the perpetrator. Below, we consider two possible futures, one positive and one darkly negative. Consider first the current uses of drones, and then imagine...
Uses. 1. The kill: The USA, through the White House and CIA, has been in the business of destroying hostile installations and killing foreign antagonists. Though cheaper than "boots-on-the-ground" method, it has been estimated that over 3000 deaths have occurs through drone strikes. The targeted countries of Pakistan, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, and Afghanistan have been the prime beneficiaries of these attacks. It has been estimated that about 300, in Pakistan alone, and about 750 overall, of these victims were civilians. Of course, these are gross estimates. No level of investigation can confirm these numbers. However, there are significant numbers involved. All evidence supports the simple fact that drone strikes do not make friends of citizens in the targeted countries.
Naturally, these attacks have caused tensions at various levels between the U.S. and the targeted countries. While it is not clear how the CIA operates on selecting targets, the White House process is better known. Decisions are made at meetings at the National Counterterrorism Center. Recommendations are forwarded to a panel of National Security Council officials. Final revisions go first to White House counterterror adviser John Brennan then to the president for recommended action. The nature of the selection is often based on incomplete information. For example, are the targets enemies plotting against U.S. interests or their own governments?
2. Surveillance: The latest $200m contract with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is for surveillance drones. The purpose is merely for the UAE to keep track of activities within their country, with the goal of maintaining national security. Countries in this part of the world live under constant and multiple threats ranging from insurrection to terrorism. These countries need drone technologies to maintain their stability -- or more nefariously, their power. Other countries, like the USA, will use them to monitor tertiary regions and other zones of interest.
The Future. Put aside deadly strikes for the moment and consider only domestically applied drone technology. First comes surveillance. Caution: do not underrate the singlemindedness of a drone's attention. It is technological child's play to outfit a drone to multi-monitor several scenes simultaneously. Multiple drones will function in a cellular-type mode with surveillance transferred one to another as the target location ranges. All events, of importance or not, are recorded.
Drones will be soon used to monitor traffic, replacing helicopters. Drone surveillance is relatively inexpensive, can be operated from the ground, and serve to alert commuters to possible problems. This is good. Then, they will be used to monitor our streets and to combat urban assaults and other violence. Their videos will become important evidence in future legal prosecutions. This is good. Then, they will be used by private firms and individuals to monitor company and estate security, with the result of diminishing any physical breach of privacy and other interests. You will soon have the option of contracting for such security. This is good.
But then the politicos will step in to monitor criminals and competitors, and moreover to monitor them full time. No longer will citizens have the option for anonymity of action. A total tracking of their physical location can be recorded. No clandestine/private meetings will occur without serious consideration and provisions. High flying and camouflaged drones will be positioned to achieve their tasks beyond the scope of normal physical observation. You will be knowledgeable about them, but you will never see them. You will live under the aegis of a watchful state. Will you be more secure? There is a downside.
Currently, there is an argument raging about whether drone strikes legally and morally defensible. Basically, this is applied philosophy. However, philosophical analysis of these strikes will prove sophomoric in comparison to that surrounding drone surveillance against a country's own citizens. Drones will provide an almost certain future of surveillance both domestically and then internationally. And it will be cheap. Their use will be irresistible to your common garden variety dictator.