recommended reading

How Drones Fundamentally Alter the Nature of Combat

Consider David. The shepherd lad steps up to face in single combat the Philistine giant Goliath. Armed with only a slender staff and a slingshot, he confronts a fearsome warrior clad in a brass helmet and chain mail, wielding a spear with a head as heavy as a sledge and a staff “like a weaver’s beam.” Goliath scorns the approaching youth: “Am I a dog, that thou comest to me with staves?” (1 Samuel 17)

David then famously slays the boastful giant with a single smooth stone from his slingshot.

A story to gladden the hearts of underdogs everywhere, its biblical moral is: Best to have God on your side. But subtract the theological context and what you have is a parable about technology. The slingshot, a small, lightweight weapon that employs simple physics to launch a missile with lethal force from a distance, was an innovation that rendered all the giant’s advantages moot. It ignored the spirit of the contest. David’s weapon was, like all significant advances in warfare, essentially unfair.

As anyone who has ever been in combat will tell you, the last thing you want is a fair fight. Technology has been tilting the balance of battles since Goliath fell. I was born into the age of push-button warfare. Ivy Mike, the first thermonuclear bomb, capable of vaporizing an entire modern metropolis, of killing millions of people at once, was detonated over the Pacific before my second birthday. Growing up, the concept of global annihilation wasn’t just science fiction. We held civil-defense drills to practice for it.

Within my lifetime, that evolution has taken a surprising turn. Today we find ourselves tangled in legal and moral knots over the drone, a weapon that can find and strike a single target, often a single individual, via remote control.

Unlike nuclear weapons, the drone did not emerge from some multibillion-dollar program on the cutting edge of science. It isn’t even completely new. The first Predator drone consisted of a snowmobile engine mounted on a radio-controlled glider. When linked via satellite to a distant control center, drones exploit telecommunications methods perfected years ago by TV networks—in fact, the Air Force has gone to ESPN for advice. But when you pull together this disparate technology, what you have is a weapon capable of finding and killing someone just about anywhere in the world.

Drone strikes are a far cry from the atomic vaporizing of whole cities, but the horror of war doesn’t seem to diminish when it is reduced in scale. If anything, the act of willfully pinpointing a human being and summarily executing him from afar distills war to a single ghastly act.

One day this past January, a small patrol of marines in southern Afghanistan was working its way at dusk down a dirt road not far from Kandahar, staying to either side to avoid planted bombs, when it unexpectedly came under fire. The men scattered for cover. A battered pickup truck was closing in on them and popping off rounds from what sounded like a big gun.

Continents away, in a different time zone, a slender 19-year-old American soldier sat at a desk before a large color monitor, watching this action unfold in startlingly high definition. He had never been near a battlefield. He had graduated from basic training straight out of high school, and was one of a select few invited to fly Predators. This was his first time at the controls, essentially a joystick and the monitor. The drone he was flying was roughly 15,000 feet above the besieged patrol, each member marked clearly in monochrome on his monitor by an infrared uniform patch. He had been instructed to watch over the patrol, and to “stay frosty,” meaning: Whatever happens, don’t panic. No one had expected anything to happen. Now something was happening.

Threatwatch Alert

Thousands of cyber attacks occur each day

See the latest threats

JOIN THE DISCUSSION

Close [ x ] More from Nextgov