There’s been quite a bit of talk and controversy lately with regard to a new piece of military technology. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, or UAV’s, have been taking to the air in the last few years and assisting with military operations in a number of theaters. As a result, people have been both condemning and hailing the new technology, citing the details of its limited service record to make their point. To some, its all part of the larger effort to “unman the front lines” as a way to save lives. To others, its an attempt to impose military force on others without having to risk the lives of our own soldiers.
I thought it was high time I weigh in on this issue since I’ve been doing some research on it lately. In order to write decent fiction about high-tech surveillance, and to understand the paranoia (justified or not) surrounding these vehicles, some not-so-light reading seemed in order.
To break it down succinctly, the Predator UAV (or drone), the one which has been generating all the headlines, is a turboprop aircraft (not a jet) that is unmanned and controlled remotely.This can be done from a military base several kilometers away, or in the field by a controller using a remote box similar to a large laptop. Pretty sci-fi!
A typical MQ-9 is capable of monitoring a 360 area beneath it using its Lynx synthetic aperture radar and mobile Forward Looking Infrared (FLIR) camera. Using these, operators are able to spot enemy troops and vehicles and then deploy the drones’ ordinance, which usually consists of up to 14 Hellfire missiles. These missiles made their big debut in the Gulf War where they popularized for their use in destroy Iraqi tanks, usually by Apache attack choppers.
But of course, there are UAV’s beyond the MQ-9 Predator that are rarely talked about. For instance, there are unarmed military craft that are used strictly for surveillance and aerial reconnaissance.
Within the private sector, there are aerial drones who’s job it is to explore for deposits of oil, gas and minerals over large areas of terrain. Government and private agencies also used them to monitor livestock, keep track of wildfires, conduct scientific research, as well as for road surveillance and anti-piracy coastal patrols.
In these cases, smaller and less intimidating craft are used, most of which are about the size of a full-grown terrier. In other cases, they can be about the size of a remote controlled helicopter, and often involve the exact same technology!
Love it or hate it, UAV technology appears to be the way of the future for the modern armed forces, as intrinsic to the air force as Future Soldier is to the infantry. Designed to tackle missions that fall into the category of the 3D’s – dirty, dull, or dangerous – and provide close air support, the militarized version is really no different than any other piece of military hardware. It’s purpose is to give its side an edge and prevent the loss of friendly lives. Anything else is just window dressing!
Some people naturally fear this, because if history has taught us anything it’s that the Pentagon means business when it comes to public support. The experiences of Vietnam and the Gulf War were both instructive experiences which taught them much about the role of the media. By the time of Afghanistan and the Iraq War, they had their strategy worked out with embedded reporters.
However, this did not prevent Iraq – and slowly, Afghanistan – from becoming unpopular when the hoped-for results didn’t come, mistakes piled up and the crisis kept deepening. As a result, the same tactics that were taken in Vietnam – stepped-up recruitment, glossing over civilian deaths, and scare campaigns – were used to try to keep people on side.
Seen in this light, these attempts to “unman” the front lines are merely more of the same from an institution that wants to make war palatable to the masses so they can go on fighting them. On the one hand, this might seem like an obvious goal since no military can do its job without popular support. On the other, it can be seen as an agenda by the US military-industrial complex to ensure it can keep protecting its interests without being hampered by conscientious objections or outrage.
I guess in the end we all have to decide for ourselves what we think of all this. In the meantime, I urge everyone to learn more about UAV technology and its various uses. And while you’re at it, check out this video clip form a few years back. It’s quite good.