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The global market for drones is booming. But what does the coming arms race mean for US national security interests — and the future of warfare? GlobalPost correspondents report from critical locations around the world, from Israel to Iran to Yemen to Brazil — where unmanned aerial vehicles are radically transforming combat and surveillance.
How smarter robot warplanes now in development could attack targets on their own.
COLUMBIA, S.C. — Aerial drones are America's newest frontline weapon in an escalating global campaign against Islamic militants. And they could get a lot more dangerous in coming years as their underlying technology advances.
Compared to today's fairly rudimentary Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), the drones of the future will be faster and more heavily armed. They will also have better sensors plus more sophisticated computers allowing them to plan and execute attacks with less human participation.
But military analysts and experts on the future of warfare fear these robotic drones could also wind up in the arsenals of more US agencies and foreign governments. That, they add, raises the specter of a whole new kind of conflict which would essentially remove the human element — and human decision-making — from the theater of war.
"Advances in AI (artificial intelligence) will enable systems to make combat decisions and act within legal and policy constraints without necessarily requiring human input," the Air Force stated in its 30-year plan for drone development. The flying branch said it is already working to loosen those policy constraints, clearing a path for smarter, more dangerous drones.
The prospect of even bloodier robot-waged warfare has some experts pleading for a ceasefire, or at least a pause in the pursuit of lethal technology. They say the technology is moving faster than our understanding of its possible effects, and leaving no time to find answers to the moral questions posed by the technological advances.
“I think the American people expect us to use advanced technologies.”~John Brennan, US counterterrorism advisor
"I think the American people expect us to use advanced technologies," John Brennan, the top counterterrorism advisor to President Barack Obama, said in an April speech at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC.
"What has clearly captured the attention of many, however, is ... identifying specific members of Al Qaeda and then targeting them with lethal force, often using aircraft remotely operated by pilots who can be hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away."
In the past 11 years, the Pentagon and Central Intelligence Agency have steadily built up a globe-spanning robotic strike force involving hundreds of missile- and bomb-armed Predator and Reaper UAVs, plus thousands of human controllers based in the US and abroad.
Military drones tend to operate out in the open in war zones such as Afghanistan. The CIA focuses its robot attacks in countries where the US prefers to keep a low profile — Yemen, for example.
They usually fly from airfields in the same regions as their target zones, a constellation of overseas drone bases — some of them top-secret — arrayed in a geographic swathe from Afghanistan to Pakistan south to Yemen, Ethiopia and the Seychelles, an island nation in the Indian Ocean.
But the frontline robots are supported by a vast infrastructure of US bases used for training, remote piloting and image analysis. A June report by the internet-based nonprofit watchdog group Public Intelligence, identified no fewer than 64 current and planned military drone bases on American soil.
And drones are spreading within the US government as well. Once strictly military and CIA assets, UAVs have begun flying with Customs and Border Patrol and the Department of Homeland Security.
Modern military UAVs debuted in the mid-1990s with the advent of smaller computers and stronger satellite links. But the real growth in the drone arsenal occurred after 9/11, as escalating counterinsurgency and counterterrorism campaigns demanded better ways of finding and killing militants.
Drones were cheaper, could fly longer and were smaller and therefore less obtrusive than manned aircraft. Plus, there was no onboard pilot at risk.
"They can be a wise choice because they dramatically reduce the danger to US personnel, even eliminating the danger altogether," Brennan said in the speech, a rare public address for a senior intelligence official.
The pace of drone attacks has steadily increased since 9/11. Brennan credited robotic strikes with "surgical precision" able to "eliminate the cancerous tumor called an Al Qaeda terrorist while limiting damage to the tissue around it."
But it's apparent that drone attacks aren't flawless. Human operators peering at grainy video shot by high-flying UAVs have repeatedly mistaken civilians for militants.
An AP investigation in Pakistan’s