When Drones and Guns Collide

When Drones and Guns Collide

Watching a video of a British RAF drone, operated from a computer in Lincolnshire and blowing people up in Afghanistan gives the lie to the voyeuristic detachment we inevitably adopt when watching traditional battlefield footage. Normally, troops taking and dispensing fire are immersed in a life and death reality vastly different from that of the viewer of battle footage, who has the luxury of being simultaneously enthralled with the violence and danger and equally relieved to be far removed from it.

But tracking a vehicle creep across a blurry screen behind a drone’s cross-hairs that lock onto the target like a tick on fur, and being startled by the violent puff of smoke that signals the obliteration of the car and everyone in it, is something else. It collapses the distance between the drone operator, the kill, and the internet surfer at home. We are in the same position in the “kill chain”, as military parlance calls it, as the person who blew up the car, the driver, the passengers. Geographically we might even be nearer the action than they were. The voyeuristic remove from the action keeps us safe from feeling complicit, from belonging to the kill chain. Once we enter the same space as the one who pulls the trigger, our responsibility for the action somehow becomes much more ambiguous.

Meanwhile, Amazon.com boasts that drones will soon deliver your order right to your front door. Perhaps they’ll drop non-fragile items from the air. It would be ironic if we are bombed with our own purchases at the same time as our drones are bombing other countries with deadly payloads. If a shipment of books hits little Johnny as he plays in the backyard, is he considered collateral damage?

A more serious irony is the contrast between the distancing effects of drones and America’s hands-on obsession with guns. Drones remove the soldier from the battlefield equation. That’s the pitch. Drones keep our soldiers safe. Or eventually do away with soldiers altogether. Purple Hearts will be reserved for drone operators who suffer carpal tunnel syndrome.
Article image

The “pitch” is not completely full of crap. Drones will disarm bombs, patrol dangerous streets, fight crime, provide medical diagnoses, and deliver medicine and supplies to remote areas. If some divine law prevented drones from ever being misused, they would be humanity’s own little miracle workers.

But there’s always a twist to the human side of the story. Replacing hand-held weapons will not dull the human, and certainly not the American, lust for guns. The gun lobby generally offers two main rationales for their absolutist positions against any regulation. The first is that in a dangerous world one needs to carry weapons to assure one’s safety. The second is that the Second Amendment wants guns to  be readily available as a necessary check on governmental tyranny.

The contradictions in both positions are embarrassingly obvious. All evidence—from tracking gun traffic to observing the experience of countries with stricter gun control laws—indicates that it is the unrestricted proliferation of weapons that produces violence, especially the awful massacres whose horror periodically punctures our lives. And if one truly believes the government is intent on swooping down and confining you and your survivalist buddies inside a FEMA camp (a popular ultra-right fantasy), will a meager collection of grenades and automatics be a match for army ordnance?

I have friends who consider the right to carry a gun as precious as free speech. I don’t agree with them but as a staunch gun control advocate, I need to be able to respond to those arguments without resorting to dismissive catch-phrases. But the gun lobby long ago abandoned the political for the disturbingly psychological. Gun-policy in the U.S. is currently held hostage by that frenzied minority who view any inhibition of their right to carry whatever weapons they want, wherever and whenever they want, as a kind of emasculation.

Yet emasculation of the battlefield is precisely what drones offer. It’s hard to be macho about war when the skill to kill can be perfected by a ten year old transfixed with Donkey Kong. The Obama military doctrine—Obama’s not because he designed it but because he is overseeing its implementation—calls for less emphasis on “Fourth Generation” warfare such as we waged in Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead we tread with a “lighter footprint” using special ops and contracted mercenaries with very specific mission goals. A key support, providing both intel and firepower, is the device that incorporates the most innovative electronic, aviational, digital, imaging, robotic, and weaponry systems on the planet: the drone.

Drone technology is improving by leaps and bounds. The Department of Defense, including the cutting-edge folks at DARPA, are funding countless projects to improve drone technology: the drones themselves; imaging systems that summarize and clarify the huge streams of data that drones collect; more efficient transmission channels to drive drone-data to soldiers even during an operation; wing design and cockpit design; algorithms that decide who might be a terrorist or a “threat” and how to track them; improved storage for battery packs; network design to coordinate drone intel with military and agency headquarters; and a host of others. Drones are not just big business. Increasingly they are the business of the military/defense industry.

So gun fanatics, if the government really does want to get you, they’ll do it with joy-sticks and little armed winged robots that seek you out in the river-bottoms and mountain tops and Chamber of Commerce meetings and herd you into camps like those cavalry from “Planet of the Apes”. There won’t be much security in a gun when civilian, military, and police drones—legal and otherwise—can zip up behind you like Tinkerbelle and knock you out, inject you with a customized serum, or just shoot you in the back. Who needs target practice when an algorithm will do?

Drone meets gun. It reminds me of the movie “Predator” where a bunch of heavily armed super-soldiers meet up with an extra-terrestrial creature who definitely does not play by gun-culture rules. Of course, only Arnold survives. The rise of the drones represents a game-changer beyond science fiction. We are entering the “morning of the military magicians”, to paraphrase a popular book title from the hippie era. At some point, drones will make even those Rugers and Glocks seem as quaint and dated as flintlocks, however many rounds per minute they spit out. When drones and guns collide, guns will seem so 20th century.

Author pic


Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published.