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Do drones make war too easy?


Via Abu Muqawama, here's a question that WaPo's Walter Pincus asked on Sunday: Do unmanned systems -- in particular armed UAVs -- make it too easy to for top leaders to resort to violence? As Buzz readers know, the military has been using unmanned systems of various kinds for decades, but the UAV really came into its own over Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, where local commanders cannot get enough of the high quality surveillance they provide. Of course, UAVs also enable senior leaders to do more than spy: They give the ability to attack targets without risking the life of a human pilot.

Pincus asks and answers some science fiction-style questions about whether drones will ever decide to attack targets on their own, but that's not in the cards for now. Still, the fundamental question is the most interesting: When the cost of military action does not involve risking American lives, does it make a president or a general that much likelier to use it? And do the same ethical and practical lines of thought apply across unmanned systems no matter what, or as ground and water drones become more advanced, will they require their own unique principles?

Quick thought experiment: Let's say the Army developed a big ground robot along the lines of Boston Dynamics' Big Dog, with all the kinks worked out, with ideal sensors, realtime positive control, and onboard weapons. (Let's say a few guns and something like a 25mm grenade launcher.) We have no problem with a UAV orbiting overhead and firing a missile at a hut where suspected bad guys are hiding, but what about releasing a pack of Attack Dogs (as we'll call them) into the ungoverned tribal regions of Pakistan? Would it be acceptable for the pack to assault a suspected terrorist village on the ground because commanders believe that's where a high-value target is hiding? Advocates might argue the dogs could go in, positively ID individual terrorists and minimize the potential for the unintended casualties you can get in a strike from the air. They could also collect intelligence, of a sort, rather than just destroying all the documents and computers on hand as an air strike would.

Do those unmanned ground vehicles constitute a foreign invasion? Is shooting a man with a gun on a robot at close range different from blowing him up with a missile fired from a robot high above? (Let's pretend that every Attack Dog is controlled by a human operator, basically playing a first-person shooter video game that controls the real-life drone on the ground.) Now suppose the Army had a company of these Attack Dogs at about the same time as the White House was developing its plans to intervene in Libya. Would the president and the Pentagon be as reluctant to get involved on the ground if it meant sending unmanned systems against Qaddafi's troops, as opposed to human soldiers?

It all sounds pretty fanciful today, but it might not be long before presidents, Pentagon planners and lawmakers need to wrestle with such questions. What do you think? Could a new generation of advanced remotely operated weapons make the risks of war so low it becomes too easy to start one?

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