Future of war: flying robots that can spy and kill too

Imagine being at the receiving end of a missile that is targeting ‘bad guys’ lazing in the sun in the AfPak region, or a ride in a vehicle in Yemen ending in annihilation, courtesy a missile from a Predator drone. It sounds like retribution from the heavens, except that it is a purely human endeavour. The west is determinedly moving towards this type of warfare built around, what the Americans call, remote split operations. It’s in our interest that we assimilate the implications of this trend in war fighting, which looks like the use of the mythical weapon Vajra by Indra.

    Remote split operations are unique — an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) could be flying anywhere in the globe while being controlled by a pilot sitting in an air-conditioned room in America. After assuming controls of the UAV, he could be firing a missile to kill a terrorist as part of his task for the day. Once his shift ends, the UAV pilot would return home and maybe, take his family out for dinner! This is not science fiction but an act being played out daily.

    ‘UAV' is a household word; the Americans fielded 5000 UAVs of all types in Iraq and Afghanistan (up from 200 in the 1991 Gulf War). And the plans are grandiose. US Air Force’s vision document ‘Unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) flight plan 2009-2047’ charges it ‘to harness increasingly automated, modular, globally connected and sustainable multi-mission unmanned systems resulting in a leaner more adaptable and efficient air force.’ The attributes of persistence, endurance, efficiency and connectivity, which are inherent in a drone and are potent force multipliers, will be used to overcome human limitations and revolutionize war fighting.

    The UAS developmental plan involves harnessing net centricity that the West has perfected, and having unmanned aircraft available worldwide, ready to be directed to a conflict zone by pilots sitting at home bases. With evolutionary progress in harnessing artificial intelligence, the UASs would be infused with the power to take combat decisions. They would engage in combat to support other manned aircraft or carry weapons to increase fire power availability. The final step would be the use of this technological asymmetry to put the adversary off-balance and, as the UAS flight plan document says, bring about a “…revolution in the roles of humans in air warfare.”

    Where does that place the notion of sovereignty of a state? In Libya last year, Security Council Resolution 1973 mandated protection of civilians, “…while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form…” — implying no foreign troops on ground. However, Apache helicopters fired their missiles from not more than five to eight km from Muammar Gaddafi’s troops. Does it imply that, just because they were not actually touching the ground, the sanctity of the UN mandate was upheld? And say, the same scenario repeats itself two decades from now — would the utilization, then, of UASs with offensive capabilities not be in violation of a non-interference resolution of the Security Council a la the Libyan UNSCR 1973, just because there would be no humans on board? Possibly, a ‘human’ would need to be redefined!

    High casualty sensitivity in the western society is driving the robotisation of machines of war. Besides UAS, we would have unmanned ground vehicles capable of kinetic actions on the battlefield. This robotisation has brought in questions of the moral and ethical kind, as such asymmetry in technological progress, where one's own troops are absolutely safe while engaged in mortal combat, would bring in arrogance of power. The asymmetry would be a critical handicap for the less technologically endowed states, making them vulnerable to unilateralism and violation of their sovereignty. While India is no pushover, it is imperative that one acknowledges the existence and repercussions of this asymmetry and works to a plan which would demand accelerated indigenous military technological research and development and close integration of all elements of national power, especially diplomatic and economic.


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