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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.
International trade shows offer a window into a booming business.
been in the infantry you know what war looks like or if you've been on a ship like mine, and seen it blown apart and seen what that does to people. It affects the way you think about war."
West's ship, the Ardent, was sunk during the Falklands War.
It's not just politicians with no military training making strategic decisions in secure offices. West talks about "strategic corporals" sitting in Portakabins in Nevada "making decisions about assassinations that should come from much higher up the chain of command."
The corporal, "goes home after a shift to his condo or whatever it is and thinks, 'I wiped out a terrorist.' They are not sufficiently aware of how bloody and horrible war is."
West adds, "I'm not at all convinced about the legality of using them."
In that respect, West is not alone among the military. Professor Noel Sharkey, chair of the computer sciences department at Sheffield University and a specialist in the ethics of battlefield robotic systems, says the military are much more concerned about ethical and legal issues related to UAV than the civilians in government.
Sharkey claims the use of drones pose a fundamental challenge to existing laws of war for several reasons.
“There is no transparency in the decision making that goes into targeting. The targets have no chance for self-defense and no chance to surrender. All of these go against the laws of war," Sharkey says.
The Sheffield professor acknowledges the difficulty of bringing drones within existing legal frameworks like the Geneva Conventions because, as he puts it, "a drone is not a weapon, it is a weapon-carrying platform."
Lord West notes that during his time as Britain's naval chief and then security adviser in the British cabinet, drones, were used primarily as reconnaissance and surveillance tools. It's only in the last few years there has been a dramatic increase in their use as offensive weapons.
Sharkey points out the Obama administration has pushed the envelope on legality.
"In Libya," he says, "the president did not seek congressional approval for their use under the War Powers Act because, the administration claimed, there were no troops involved."
Obama was stretching the point, in Sharkey's view.
"There were troops involved but they were 7,500 miles away. The drones acted as their avatars."
Both Lord West and Professor Sharkey believe that rules of engagement need to be codified, and quickly.
"Otherwise it's going to lead to disaster," Sharkey claims. "There are 51 countries with drone systems."
The professor adds that it is widely believed only five countries — the US, Israel, Russia, China and Iran — currently have drones with weapons systems.
Sharkey says Turks use Israeli-built Harpy but that technically isn’t a drone it doesn't fly. It is rocket-launched, hovering and reacting when it is painted with an enemy's radar by firing missiles at the radar signal source.
But, he hastens to add, it is only a matter of time before other countries begins selling armed drones around the world, and some wonder if that has not already happened.
For the moment, the five keep the weapons systems to themselves although Britain uses American Reaper drones for its attacks in Afghanistan. The craft are flown by RAF pilots based in Nevada.
In the hopes of defining a clear set of rules of engagement with unmanned systems, Lord West calls on the Anglo-American military commanders to thrash some ideas out and then "hold a NATO conference to set standards."
Meanwhile back at Farnborough, Stephen McKeever, secretary of science and technology for the state of Oklahoma says he's all for discussions on rules about drones and their use.
"Any new technology has the potential to be abused," he says.
Oklahoma has gone all-in on drones as a business. It's a matter of policy set down by Republican Gov. Mary Fallin when she was sworn in 2011.
It is creating a statewide military-educational-industrial complex in the hopes of becoming the global research and testing center for unmanned systems.
Tim Reynolds of University Multispectral Laboratories in Ponca explains that with airspace in America overcrowded, one of the few places in the US where you can test-fly drones is the empty spaces of Oklahoma.
"What we've done is turn the state into a test bed,” Reynolds says. We are allowed to fly from the ground to 40,000 feet."
Reynolds adds, "There are parts of some military bases where we can drop ordnance. We've been testing dropping mortar rounds from UAVs as opposed to missiles. You have to get close to your target. It's real ‘whites of their eyeballs’ stuff."
But he is also keen to point out the civilian uses of training people to use unmanned systems.
"If you want to inspect a bridge, you can take three weeks building scaffolding underneath it and send a team of men in to look or you fly one of these things under the bridge and take pictures," he says.
For all the UAV industry talks up the civilian use of unmanned systems, there is no doubt that controversy will continue to surround drones. The next generation, already being tested, will be truly "unmanned," according to Noel Sharkey. Totally autonomous, completely pre-programmed for any eventuality.
The reason for eliminating the human operator — even if he or she is on the other side of the world — is that drones are operated by radio frequency, and radio frequencies can be jammed. An autonomous drone doesn't receive any signal. Once it is up in the air it follows its mission through.
These new drones will be bigger. The US Navy is currently testing the X47B, built by Northrop Grumman. It's a carrier-based fighter drone and Sharkey believes the US Navy is looking to the X47B or a similar unmanned vehicle to replace the hugely expensive F-35 system.
This could lead to a new series of issues, Sharkey says.
What ethical and legal safeguards can you program into a completely autonomous machine's operating algorithms?
It doesn’t matter that such a machine is years away, he says. "We need to start talking about the rules now."