Karthinking About Drones

Drones aren’t all good

Karthink!

I spent the bulk of last summer in Southern California working at a major aerospace defense contractor. Despite the weather, the mood was none too happy. Decades-old production runs had their ends in sight and new government money streams were either drying up or freezing depending on whom you asked. In the midst of the infamous 2011 debt-limit negotiations, everything and everyone was on the block.

But, there was one great white hope! The one tech to save them all! The word on the tip of everyone’s tongue: drones.

“Drones are the future!” We interns heard that often enough, and a quick look at the data shows it to be undeniably true. Soon, the Air Force will be training more drone crews than fighter and bomber pilots combined. The drone fleet has increased from 200 on September 11th to over 7,000 today and, in the face of major troop reductions, the Pentagon plans to spend $40 billion on 700 more medium and large drones over the next decade.

Numbers aside, the larger point probably isn’t news to anyone reading this column; drones have been all over the media lately. They—along with badass special forces—are meant to be the cornerstone of America’s Afghan policy and are breathing new life into defense contractors’ coffers.

Still, I’m a bit skeptical about the way the drone conversation is playing out. Of course, you can’t rightly argue that putting someone’s son in harm’s way is the best solution when a lifeless robot can do the same job. In most cases, avoiding endangering a life is worth a lot more than a job done—perhaps—a bit better. Imagine the geopolitical fallout if it had been a piloted spy plane that had “wandered” into Iran over J-Term and crashed. This and other benefits of drones are frequently touted by Washington and relayed by the press. However, the media isn’t putting into consideration their possible pitfalls. This week, I’d like to karthink about some of them.

The most popular argument is something akin to comparing pilots sitting in front of monitors and joysticks in the Nevada desert to Ender Wiggin from those books everyone read in middle school. Because he thought he was just playing a video game, Ender took heroic risks and unwittingly killed off an entire alien race. That does the real-life airmen a disservice. Their operations may lack in immediate danger, but they are still highly trained soldiers who understand and respond to the implications of their mission-specific choices as well as pilots ever have. This is not to minimize the importance of continuing to strive for zero collateral damage, but recent reports suggest that the ratio of civilian deaths from drone strikes is overblown.

Rather than go down that well-worn route, I wanted to consider the undeniable impact that drones will have on public awareness and on Washington’s policy and military decisions. I’m worried that drones are already allowing the government to fight too invisible a war, one that rages across the globe and affects only a very small number of the domestic population. As fewer troops rotate through war zones, fewer families and communities will be touched by their absence. It’s not difficult to imagine a situation where media attention and public concern begin to fade, and the important check those forces provide on government activity abroad vanishes in tow.

In such a scenario, the government will be able to take bigger operational risks with less fallout if things go south. As more, varied, and better drones become ever more useful substitutes for riskier methods of force projection, diplomacy could lose much of its attractiveness. War is usually considered in terms of blood and treasure, but the two don’t function in quite the same way; it’s a lot easier to spend cash, and lawmakers are pretty good at it. If technology one day makes human costs negligible, military action—and, in a good economy, even spending—becomes much easier to justify.

Not to get all 1984, but if the government is able to fight an invisible war a world away without much public resistance, what’s to stop war from becoming a perpetual phenomenon? In fact, that may be exactly what’s necessary to fight equally invisible terrorists. The war in Afghanistan is already the longest war in American history, and once the troops come home in 2014, it’ll undoubtedly still be raging in the skies.

Drones have admittedly been the most important addition to our arsenal in recent years. They will continue to save countless American lives with each bad guy they take out. But if soldiers are not at higher-than-average risk, their day-to-day operational outcomes are rarely newsworthy. How often do we read stories about routine Navy patrols or Army exercises, even when they’ve gone slightly awry? Unless the media keeps a steady and critical focus on military operations, war may be at risk of becoming something akin to a spectator sport—coverage materializing only when the military or Central Intelligence Agency feels like sharing something big.

Karthik R. Kasaraneni ’12, a former Crimson associate editorial editor, is a chemistry concentrator in Lowell House. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.

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