- The Washington Times - Monday, March 25, 2002

Writers of science fiction have for years talked of future wars waged by unmanned aircraft, spacecraft, tanks, and what have you. Until recently it was a nice idea you can't lose a pilot who isn't there but it just never quite happened.
The problems were several. For example, you needed a data link between the unmanned aircraft and whoever was operating it that was both reliable and able to carry enough data. You needed sensors, often meaning cameras, with good enough resolution. And so on. They weren't there.
Things are changing. In magazines like Aviation Week, you see today a constant flow of stories on unmanned military craft, as for example Predator and Global Hawk, that are actually being used in combat or being intensively developed. They are working well in Afghanistan. This, sez me, is going to change the face of war fundamentally.
The first and obvious use of unmanned craft was for reconnaissance. They have been used in this role for a long time, but are popular today because they can stay high over a battlefield for long periods without risking humans.
Now, however, they are being used for actual fighting. Predator can carry Hellfire anti-tank missiles, which nicely blow up other things than tanks. Aviation Week (March 4) reports that the Pentagon is looking at equipping Predator with Stinger anti-aircraft missiles. Stinger is a shoulder-fired missile that (to simplify a bit) homes on infra-red emissions from an enemy aircraft. A UAV with these missiles would be useful for attacking enemy helicopters, among other things, says the Pentagon.
Now, one could regard this as just another military whizbang. I think it's more than that. Once you have the technology to let one kind of unmanned vehicle see what it's doing, and to control it reliably from a distance, you pretty much have the technology to do the same with other weapons. This, I claim, is an important divide.
For one thing, publics in first-world countries, including this one, do not like having their soldiers killed. Even a few highly visible deaths, such as those occurring in Somalia, can sometimes force a country to leave. The use of captured pilots as hostages can exert considerable political pressure on the country losing them. To the extent that you can avoid putting humans at risk, you avoid the problem.
For another, a great deal of the cost of weapons goes into keeping their crews alive. A tank is a huge, heavy, expensive armored box because it needs space for four men inside, and armor to protect the space. Take the men out and it becomes much smaller, cheaper, and harder to hit.
The cheaper it becomes the more chances you can afford to take with it because you don't care as much if you lose it.
Depending on the war, this can be important. After Israel's 1973 war, the region was littered with destroyed tanks, many of them Israeli, and air losses were high in the opening days. Small countries cannot afford large losses. Remotely operated weapons, had they existed, would have cut deaths by a lot.
Other applications are possible. The Marine Corps experimented as part of its research into urban warfare with an unattended mortar. It had a magazine of ammunition, a gasoline motor to work its machinery, and a GPS (Global Positioning System) receiver so that it knew where it was. The idea was that if troops were going to into a city to fight, they could radio the mortar with the GPS coordinates of a target and say, in effect, "Give me five rounds." If the enemy figured out where the mortar was and destroyed it, it wouldn't matter much because no humans would be there.
It didn't work out. But as technology advances, it becomes easier to make such things work. We're getting close.
I think that a final advantage of unmanned weapons, though I can't document it, is the effect on an enemy's morale. Backward countries and terrorists will not have such weapons. We do, or will. It has got to be depressing to be unable to hide well from surveillance aircraft you can't even see, much less shoot, and then be killed by unmanned aircraft. It is one thing to die gloriously fighting for whatever delusion you find satisfying. It is (I think) quite another to be picked off like flies on a window without the slightest chance of doing harm to the enemy.
Nintendo war is only beginning. We're going to see a lot more of it.

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