By now, everybody realizes that the military — and what would be John Brennan's Central Intelligence agency — has a bunch of unmanned aerial vehicles that it uses to kill people, and it's sort of shady. But how far does the Obama administration — and, more importantly, administrations to come — plan to take this idea of drone warfare? It's tough to say.
On one hand, the current administration has been very publicly struggling with the ethics of drone warfare and just agreed to supply Congress' intelligence committees with classified legal advice about the justification for killing American citizens in the war on terror ahead of Thursday's confirmation hearing for John Brennan, Obama's drone czar and new pick to lead the CIA — an agency that Brennan said in a pre-confirmation questionnaire "needs to maintain a paramilitary capability." On the other hand, the mad scientists at DARPA, the Pentagon's often futuristic R&D wing, and the private sector are going to town inventing all kinds of insanely sophisticated, robotic war machines. Clap those hands together, and you're left with an ethically questionable but technologically advanced campaign to change combat as we know it. The future of drone warfare, in other words, is frighteningly futuristic. It's not just happening in the sky either. Soon enough, we'll have four-legged robots on the battlefield and surveillance submarines patrolling the oceans.
The ethical side of this scenario is more pressing at the moment. Brennan's confirmation hearing has already provided an unprecedented window to engage the nation in a conversation about a drone program that Brennan, the current top counterterrorism official in the White House, more or less designed. It's a program that we don't know a lot about, besides the fact that it's serious and probably more widespread than people think. "The CIA drone program sure feels like a war: unmanned aircraft incinerating thousands of terrorists we're at war with, as well as some civilians," The Atlantic Wire's Elspeth Reeve explains. "And if you look at the reach of the program — now that everyone seems to be looking at the reach of the program again — well, it's nearly worldwide."
So we can assume that our starting point is the increasingly clear reality that drone warfare is happening everywhere — and that, like many things the CIA does, we don't the details. We do know that Obama has a drone playbook that dictates how the military can use its unmanned arsenal, and it's been reported that the CIA's earned a "temporary exemption" from those rules in Pakistan. We also know that we don't know how many people we've killed with our drones in recent years. A report from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism puts the number of casualties over the past five years at about 2,000, many of whom are civilians. So even though the Obama administration has some secret guidelines somewhere, the state of drone warfare seems pretty chaotic at the moment. And do you know what can make an undeclared war even more chaotic? New high-tech, untested weapons and machinery.
The government is developing some crazy stuff, although the current lineup of drones is impressive enough. The Predator aircraft, which as been around since the early 1990s and is pictured at the top of this post, is probably what you're used to seeing in the news and whatnot. They can fly, conduct reconnaissance and shoot missiles, while being controlled by a team of specialists staring at screens, out of harms way. (Check out the two dudes above, flying a Predator and potentially thinking about blowing up a pickup truck.) They cannot, however, win dogfights with piloted planes or accomplish terribly sophisticed missions. They also cost about four million bucks a piece.
The future of drone warfare is mind-bending. Honestly, most things are, when DARPA's involved. The Pentagon's latest greatest creation is a massive drone called the X-47B, built by Northrop Grumman. With a 62-foot wingspan, the X-47B is almost as large as a fighter jet, except it doesn't need a pilot, like, ever. It's being developed for the Navy to become the first drone that can take off and land on an aircraft carrier without any human assistance, although there's always a sailor standing by ready to take over the controls if anything goes wrong. Apparently, when the X-47B isn't robotically scanning the skies, the operator uses a device that that Wired's Spencer Ackerman describes as a "Power Glove for flight-deck operations." Because that's what it's come to: war as video game.
The X-47B is powerful — it can carry up to 4,500 pounds of bombs — but it's not perpetual. That is, like your run-of-the-mill, mortal aircraft, it needs to land and refuel from time to time. Boeing's Phantom Eye, however, does not. Not really, anyways. Released in 2010 as a high altitude, long endurance (HALE) unmanned aerial vehicle, the Phantom Eye is equipped with a 2.3 liter, 4-cylinder hydrogen-powered engine that enables it to fly at 65,000 feet for up to four days without refueling. And speaking of fuel, it doesn't need that much to begin with since its 150-foot wingspan makes for good gliding. When they unveiled the aircraft a few years ago, Boeing program manager Drew Mallow said, "It is very efficient and offers great fuel economy, and its only byproduct is water, so it's also a 'green' aircraft." Perpetual motion, carbon neutral, good at gliding: what's not to like?
Like we said before, though, flying drones are almost archaic at this point. The defense industry's been turning towards other unmanned instruments of war in recent years, and some of the technology looks like it's almost battle ready. The most well know of these efforts is probably the Alpha Dog. Developed by a company called Boston Dynamics and funded by DARPA, this robotic mule is designed to carry up to 400-pounds of gear for troops in the field. (Soldiers typically carry about 100-pounds of gear in a battlefield setting.) The Alpha Dog can trot around on its own and it's smart enough to take voice commands from its soldier masters. It's not unimaginable that it could also wear a camera and carry a rocket in the event that's it's repurposed to be an attack dog. One version of the Alpha Dog can even outrun the world's fastest human.
Trotting through the military's other experimental technology gets weird from this point on. DARPA's been developing an unmanned submarine that can shoot out of the water and turn into an unmanned aerial vehicle, just like Batman's gadgets do. A number of armies have developed tiny drones, some as small as insects, that can conduct reconnaissance missions without the risk of detection. A few years ago DARPA literally put out a call for "innovative proposals to develop technology to create insect cyborgs." And these are all of the projects that the military has actually disclosed. Imagine what they have under black tarps in unknown airbases. And imagine what they could do with them.
Actually, don't imagine anything. Let's stick to this week's reality check and the valiant effort by the Senate, the public, and maybe even journalists to hold the administration accountable for its drone program. The future will come either way. How prepared we are to handle it — well, that's up to us.