Magazine | December 16, 2013, Issue

The Drone Wars

International law will not make them humane.

The most important military revolution of our time, the development of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), is well under way. In 2000, our military had 60 UAVs. Today it has at least 6,000, with more to come. From the Hellfire-missile-carrying Predator to the Global Hawk with its wingspan of 130 feet to the tiny Raven, which carries a camera the size of a peanut, UAVs are becoming ubiquitous, and drone strikes increasingly precise. Many people wonder where this technology is heading — and whether we need new laws and international agreements to keep the drone revolution from flying out of control.

Former New York Times editor Bill Keller has proclaimed that drones are “propelling us to the day when we cede . . . lethal authority to software,” while legal scholars question whether death by drone might violate international law. Radford University philosophy and peace-studies professor Glen T. Martin has written that this technology is “attacking the heart of civilization itself,” while two authors recently opined in the Wall Street Journal that, thanks to drones, “the West risks, however inadvertently, going down the same path” as the one that led to Auschwitz. These fears are misplaced and overstated. History shows that the best safeguards against the abuse of new technologies are new technologies themselves.

China, the Europeans, and the Russians are all anxious to build their own UAV fleets and make up for time lost to the United States and Israel. Worldwide spending on drones is expected to double by 2023. As innovation in UAVs and similar devices accelerates, it will be more important than ever that the United States maintain its current edge.

General Atomics, creator of the now-notorious Predator, is already replacing it with the MQ-9 Reaper, which has three times the cruising speed and carries 15 times the deadly ordnance. The Russians are building their own counterpart to the Reaper, which is expected to be in production by 2016.

Today’s Predator will look like a World War I Sopwith Camel compared with the UAVs that military researchers will unveil in just a decade or two. Boeing is currently at work on an unmanned glider — called the Phantom Eye — with half a football field’s worth of wing span and powered by solar energy and liquid hydrogen that will keep it aloft for four days at a time (today’s Global Hawk can manage 35 hours). The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has been designing drones that will be able to stay on mission for five years without returning to earth.

The most sophisticated unmanned systems will fly at supersonic speed and employ stealth technology and miniaturization. Northrop Grumman’s X-47 unmanned stealth bomber lands by itself on aircraft carriers and is already in prototype. Drones that fit in the palm of the hand and can fly like a bird and hover like an insect are already in use, for example TechJect’s Dragonfly, a UAV developed for the Air Force and available for purchase at $119 apiece. Lockheed Martin is working on a drone the size of a maple-tree seed that can perch and look into windows, climb walls or pipes, and insert a poisonous syringe into an unsuspecting target.

Meanwhile, the development of Unmanned Underwater Vehicles (UUVs) is also proceeding, from surveillance surface craft able to detect mines and protect naval installations to miniature unmanned submarines and underwater attack craft. Unmanned seacraft that mimic the swimming motion of fish have been under development for a decade; the Office of Naval Research has a project for creating robotic jellyfish that can drift unseen with sea currents and attach themselves to an enemy vessel or installation before detonating. Before the decade is out, the UUV revolution is going to cause almost as many headaches for maritime lawyers as the UAV revolution already has for experts on the laws of war.

So are we about to enter a killer-drone nightmare, in which only international agreements and control can stop a global Terminator-style armageddon?

Sadly, the historical record of international agreements in keeping the peace and limiting carnage is weak. A close examination of efforts to control new technologies suggests that deterrence through technological progress is more likely to prevent misuse of UAVs.

National leaders and international lawyers have often responded to innovations in the field of arms with efforts at regulation. Most of these efforts have simply failed. Take, for example, the emergence of air power. After the Wright brothers launched the first airplane at Kitty Hawk, nations began to develop rudimentary military aircraft. The Wright brothers themselves established what eventually became known as the Curtiss-Wright Company, which produced the World War II P-40 fighter, among other aircraft. Air power’s first real test came in the Great War, when Allied and German planes not only undertook reconnaissance missions but dropped the first aerial bombs and fought one another in the skies. Some international lawyers argued at the time that air strikes against ground targets were illegal because the pilots fought at a distance without putting themselves at personal risk (an early version of one of the current arguments against drones). But the nations at war kept pressing for the development of weapons in the air, and restraints on the destructiveness of aircraft came from new anti-aircraft weapons and fighter planes.           

 International lawyers next argued that air attacks must not target population centers, but the Spanish Civil War and then the German, British, and American bombing runs on European and Japanese cities displayed the futility of attempting to outlaw such strikes. International treaties on the laws of war today prohibit directly targeting civilians, but the United States and its allies will continue to launch attacks on military targets that cause civilian collateral damage and even hit non-military targets (such as office buildings and electrical plants) that support a regime.

A similar story played out with submarines. In World War I, submarines gave the German Empire a new weapon with which to combat the Allied blockade and to enforce a blockade of its own. The Allies sought to neutralize this innovation by claiming that international law required submarines to surface and provide civilians a chance to escape before sinking their vessels. Submarines, however, were not defeated by international law, but by the convoy strategy and new methods for detecting and attacking undersea craft. And once the Allies had developed their own submarines, they showed no commitment to their claims about international law. When World War II came, the United States Navy used submarines to great effect, virtually wiping out Japan’s merchant marine and handicapping its navy. Advances in technology, rather than treaties, have limited the scope of submarine warfare.

#page#Efforts to restrain the advance of military technology have sometimes disadvantaged democracies, which tend to observe treaties more faithfully than authoritarian nations do. After World War I, the great powers entered into the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922 to forestall competition in building up naval fleets. The treaty sought to freeze the sizes of the fleets of Great Britain, the United States, France, Germany, and Japan and to prevent the development of larger ships and better armaments. While the democracies obeyed the agreement, Germany and Japan cheated by secretly developing new and larger battleships. The treaty restrictions also encouraged Japan to develop aircraft carriers and naval aviation, which were not covered by the agreement, while Britain and the U.S. slept.

When restraint in arms build-ups has occurred, it has come primarily from deterrence. Chemical weapons were another of World War I’s horrifying innovations. They inflicted a level of suffering and terror that could not be strategically justified. But during the interwar years, the great powers failed to reach any agreement to limit their use in combat — the Chemical Weapons Convention would not come into existence until the 1990s. Nevertheless, the Axis and Allied powers did not resort to chemical weapons in a war of ideologies that caused more death and destruction than had the preceding world war. Why? Historical research has shown that Hitler’s Germany never deployed its chemical-weapons arsenal because it knew that the Allies would respond in kind. The same went for the superpowers’ nuclear arsenals during the Cold War. Treaties did not stop the development of fission and then fusion weapons, strategic bombers, and intercontinental ballistic missiles. Only the competition of the U.S. and the USSR to match each other’s stockpiles prevented a nuclear exchange.

While the politicians, lawyers, and bureaucrats debate and dither, the rate of technological advance increases. The record of deterrence and counter-technologies in limiting the destructive potential of new technologies is strong. Rather than try to stop development with parchment barriers that hinder us more than our enemies, we should recognize that UAV technology itself may help us achieve the fundamental goal of the laws of war: to spare civilians and to reduce death and destruction on the battlefield.

Virtually all technological evolution in UAVs makes them not only more stealthy but also more precise — which means less loss of innocent life and less unintended physical destruction. Far from making war less civilized, drones are part of a trend toward “smart” weapons that has steadily made warfare less indiscriminate over the past half-century. This trend will continue. Instead of blowing up a carful of people in order to take out an identified terrorist, as today’s Predator does, a device like Lockheed Martin’s maple-seed-sized drone will be able to detect and kill that single passenger, leaving the rest unharmed.

What about the danger that fully automated systems might take the decision to kill away from human beings and leave it to the robots themselves? As Werner Dahm, former chief scientist of the Air Force, wrote in the Wall Street Journal, we should “expect to see humans ‘in the loop’ for a long, long time to come.” This is because deciding when actually to kill a target is the simplest link in a UAV’s so-called kill-chain sequence — much simpler than detecting a target and delivering the lethal ordnance accurately and on time once the kill decision has been made. The military doesn’t want fully automated systems because, as Dahm notes, “we don’t gain anything” from them if they work — and there’s plenty of pain if they don’t. Even so, Georgia Institute of Technology’s Ronald Arkin predicts that future technology will be able to give us robot soldiers that perform more “ethically than human soldiers are capable of,” since they’ll perform on the battlefield without anger or a desire to punish or take revenge.

On the other hand, a truly inhumane robot weapon — one designed to cause the most collateral damage and whose devastating psychological impact on a civilian population is enhanced by remote automatic detonation — is precisely what our military is least likely to create but a rogue nation or terrorist group is most likely to want and develop. Protection from that kind of attack can come only through a superior knowledge of drone technologies — from knowing how to detect and shoot them down to having the ability to hack and electronically jam them.

It wasn’t treaties or agreements that protected Britain from Hitler’s Luftwaffe in 1940, it was the Spitfire fighter — and something similar will be true in the brave new world of UAVs.

– Mr. Herman, a Pulitzer Prize finalist and former visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is the author, most recently, of The Cave and the Light: Plato Versus Aristotle, and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization. Mr. Yoo is the Emanuel S. Heller Professor of Law at the University of California at Berkeley and a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

John Yoo — John Yoo is the Emanuel Heller professor of law at the University of California at Berkeley and a Visiting Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. His latest book, Point of ...

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