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Drones offer military risk-free killing at the expense of diplomacy

In reducing casualties on both sides of battle, William M. Arkin argues drones distract politicians from the root causes of conflict.


In reducing casualties on both sides of battle, William M. Arkin argues drones distract politicians from the root causes of conflict.

William M. Arkin has been researching and writing about military affairs for over 40 years. He has written and co-written numerous exposés of the American military and intelligence establishments, including American Coup and Top Secret America.

His latest book is an attempt to explain how the apparently fathomless computing capacity of government and corporate institutions has created an addiction for unmanned robotic warfare.

Arkin sees "drones and the Data Machine they serve — the unmanned with all of its special and unique ways — as the greatest threat to our national security, our safety and our very way of life."

There's no question Arkin has a sound understanding of the technical and political evolution of digital data-driven warfare. Unfortunately, his book is not an easy read.

His account of the piecemeal evolution of the marriage of missile and digital technology from the Vietnam War to the present day is sometimes an obstacle course of acronyms and jargon.

Too often, sentences like these make the reader's eyes glaze over: "... and from other parts of the military and intelligence community came Buster and Silver Fox, which begat Swiper, which should not be confused with T-Hawk or Manta or Coyote..." or "Despite the army's continued scramble to get its own Predator no matter what, IGnat-ER cum Warrior Alpha cum Sky Warrior Block 1 moved forward."

Of course, any history of weaponry cannot avoid naming the weapons, but Arkin seems to delight in litanies of exotic terms when he might be better off expanding his theme.

There's no denying the importance of his basic message: The U.S. military thinks it has found a way to fight wars without putting soldiers at risk. Soldiers are being replaced by armies of civilian employees in air-conditioned offices, thousands of kilometres from the conflict, flying killer drones while they themselves are immune from harm.

By using sophisticated digital sensors mounted on aircraft, drones and satellites, the United States can precisely locate, target and kill enemy individuals.

Arkin is not against this technology in itself. He argues it saves not only the lives of soldiers but also of innocent civilians. His objection is that, like the person with a hammer to whom everything looks like a nail, a technology that reduces military casualties and consequently voter concern becomes the preferred solution of politicians and their generals.

The obsession with killing individual targets at no risk to the killers leads politicians to ignore the diplomatic and social efforts needed to resolve the root causes of conflicts.

The endless flow of information feeding the technology could help develop a fundamental understanding of the cultures and religions within the war zones. Instead it is used only for targeting and killing.

Worse, in Arkin's opinion, is that the human in the air-conditioned office in charge of the remote-controlled weapon must evaluate the computerized information in split seconds. The possibility of human error or scruples has many in the military hoping for "Complete Kill Chain Weapons" — machines that would make every decision from detection to the kill.

In passing, Arkin mentions that in spite of the hundreds of billions of dollars being spent on technological warfare, terrorism hasn't been defeated or even diminished.

In 2001, America had fewer than 200 drones. Today, it has over 11,000 with sensors that can see both day and night, trace cellphones and biometrically identify individuals.

Perhaps Arkin is keeping his explanation of the correlation between the growth of digital warfare and the growth of chaos in the Middle East for his next book.


When John K. Collins was small, a drone was a male honey bee that did no work. His ambition was to be a drone. Alas, it was not to be.


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Updated on Saturday, September 5, 2015 at 7:55 AM CDT: Formatting.

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