By Hugh Gusterson
The US government now faces the same dilemma over drones as it did over nuclear weapons in the late 1940s. It’s at a fork in the road. Intoxicated with short-term advantage. Blind to long-term dangers.
After Hiroshima, some leading nuclear scientists and defense intellectuals wanted to find ways to avert an international arms race and place restrictions on the development of nuclear weapons technology. J. Robert Oppenheimer, Leo Szilard, Dean Acheson and David Lilienthal sought to put nuclear weapons under international control, but were outmaneuvered by their opponents in the Truman administration. The result: By 1949, many years earlier than American intelligence officials expected, the Soviets got their own nuclear weapon. The American nuclear monopoly lasted only four years and gave way to a situation where, for the first time in history, US cities were threatened with total destruction.
In his book Danger and Survival, former US National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy looked back on these two decisions and regretted the missed opportunities to spare the world the ensuing arms race as the superpowers competed to accumulate more, and more-advanced, weapons. That arms race not only threatened tens of millions of innocent people with destruction; it also left a post-cold war legacy that we are still struggling to deal with: tens of thousands of surplus nuclear weapons that must be disposed of, and contaminated production sites that will cost hundreds of billions of dollars to clean—if indeed they can be cleaned. Who can disagree with Bundy that, if a way could have been found, we would be better off without all this?
If drone development continues unchecked, what can we expect? First, as with nuclear weapons, proliferation. At the moment the United States, Britain, and Israel are the only countries to have used weaponized drones. But many countries, including Russia and China, have been watching carefully as Washington has experimented with counterinsurgency by drone, and are considering how they might use this relatively cheap technology for their own purposes. If they decide to use their own drones outside the boundaries of international law against people they brand “terrorists,” the United States will hardly be in a position to condemn them or counsel restraint.
Second, as with nuclear weapons, over time we can expect smarter, more capable, and thus more threatening drones. From an engineer’s point of view, the jackpot here will be a smart autonomous drone that can identify targets and destroy them without any humans in the loop. The US military has been sponsoring research on such technology. While one can imagine the short-term military advantages in deploying such machines, will the world be better off when several countries have unleashed autonomous flying robots with a license to kill?
Third, as in our worst nightmares about nuclear weapons, there will be blowback. Given that drones are relatively cheap and easy to make, often with off-the-shelf technology, it is probably only a matter of time before Americans are attacked on American soil by terrorist drones. It’s easy to see the dismal possibilities here: Attackers could fly bomb-laden drones into skyscrapers, shopping malls, jumbo jets, airports, or power plants; and they could fly drones equipped with chemical or biological weapons over sports games. The more developers push the technological envelope and the more drones they build, the greater the likelihood these machines will fall into the wrong hands and be used in such ways—especially if drones have been so normalized that the Federal Aviation Administration has given them widespread flying rights.
Fourth, domestically in the United States and probably many other countries, citizens can expect a police state on steroids. Police departments are beginning to acquire drones for crowd surveillance and criminal pursuit, and the US Customs and Border Protection Agency, which owns ten, has considered arming them with “non-lethal weapons.” Quite apart from the fact that “non-lethal weapons” sometimes turn out to be lethal after all, this is a slippery slope. After all, the United States originally condemned Israel for weaponizing its drones, then weaponized its own drones but used them sparingly, and then began shooting at people on the ground in more and more countries with increasingly relaxed rules of engagement. In the last 20 years Americans have watched US police departments acquire surplus military hardware and start raiding low-level drug dealers’ homes with flash bombs, assault rifles, and even armored personnel carriers, as if they were attacking Taliban strongholds. Will they now see police drones chasing “dangerous” criminals and killing them with thunderbolts from the sky? And what will be left of privacy in a world where police drones hover overhead—logging license plates at protests, tracking the movements of suspects, and videotaping people in their backyards?
So what’s the alternative? The Code Pink drone summit offered some interesting ideas, such as an international ban on autonomous weapons, as the International Committee for Robot Arms Control has suggested.