24 July 2007

USAF Hunter/Killer UAV

The AF recently deployed a new UAV, the MQ-9 Reaper. Its predecessor, the MQ-1 Predator, was designed as a surveillance unit and later equipped with 2 Hellfire missiles. The Reaper, in comparison, was build to do the hunter/killer mission. It comes off the assembly line designed to carry 14 Hellfire II's.

Ordinarily, I'd be very excited about this. Somewhat to my surprise, it turns out I have mixed feelings about it.

On the one hand, I love the UAV concept. From a design perspective, UAV's are smaller, cheaper, simpler (no large, expensive, bulky life support gear) and in some ways are more capable than manned aircraft (they can pull more g's, since they don't have to worry about a pilot's physical limitations). They help keep our guys out of harm's way. These are all good things. I know fighter pilots tend to dislike UAV's, but as a general rule of thumb, I think UAV's rock.

However... I'm having second thoughts. I'm concerned they dehumanize war, by further removing the people pushing the button from the people who are on the receiving end of the munitions. As a wise man once said, "we kill too often because we make it too easy." (that was Batman, from the Dark Knight graphic novel).

Now, I'd love to see a day when our UAV's fight the bad guy's UAV's, and when the robots are done blowing each other up, the people on the other side surrender without any bloodshed. We're obviously not there yet, but wouldn't it be nice?

One other factor is that UAV's tend to be very, very precise. They help us minimize collateral damage, and that's a good thing too. So it's easier to take out the bad guys and leave the innocent civilians alone.

Like I said, mixed feelings...


Mark said...

If the killing is going to happen anyway, wouldn't you want it to be dehumanized, for our warfighters? We're asking them to do something very profound and devastating by definition, so wouldn't more distance (both physical and psychological) from the enemy be easier on them?

I don't think that an "easier" weapon like this will make us more likely to enter into a conflict, but hopefully it will help us get out of one with as quickly as possible.

Your point and quote are still right on, though - the route to ending a life should never be easy, simple, casual, etc. But by the time one of these Reapers is airborne, that route has already been 99% completed - by people other than the UAV operator.

Dan said...

Good point, Marko! The dehumanizing distance does indeed make it easier for our warfighters... and I guess the more I think about it, the more it's not clear to me that's an entirely good thing (tho it certainly has good aspects).

In some cases, I think easier weapons might increase the likelihood of entering into armed conflict... depends on the Commander-in-Chief, I suppose. I can envision a briefing from the top generals saying "Sir, this is a low risk operation... we'll send in the UAV's, no loss of US lives..." Probably more likely to get the green light... But if someone wants a fight, he'll find one anyway, easy or hard.

You are right of course that the kill decision is 99% made by the time the UAV launches - but that last 1% is a doozie.

As I'm thinking through all this, the positives are outweighing the negatives - but I do see some non-trivial negatives... and I think much of the credit goes to Batman. :)