First Taranis in Paris

Ah, Paris in the early summer. Romantic walks along the Seine; picnics along the Canal St-Martin; strolls through the Bois de Bologne; potters around the Louvre and Musée d’Orsay; wanders through the world’s largest airshow.

That’s right, for the DLR is interested not just in nature and art, but also huge industrial fairs dedicated to civilian and military aerospace. And this year, we would like to take a moment to reflect on the Paris Air Show (which closed last week). Highly represented in Paris was the sub-industry of UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles to you and me), perhaps the fastest growing section of military aerospace right now. The reason we want to consider UAVs are concerns that these drones, a relatively new technology, are both changing the art of warfare and raising moral questions about conduct in warfare.

The Taranis of this post's title. Admittedly, it wasn't unveiled in Paris this year (it was revealed as a prototype last year in the UK), but you try and think of another UAV that would work with that filmic reference.

UAVs are now routinely used by armed forces, from the tactical, hand-held vehicles intended to gather information on enemy positions to the wide-winged Predators and Reapers raining down guided nastiness on unsuspecting targets (and, quite often, their wives and children). Such devices have obvious advantages to the operator: they do not risk lives of one’s own armed forces in their operations; they can be more discreet than other noisier aircraft, loitering above target for hours gathering intelligence; they are cheaper per unit than modern, fixed-wing attack aircraft (although, obviously, a lot less capable as well); and they can be used in more dangerous environments, where it might be seen as imprudent to send a human.

However, they also bring with them new and vexing questions, which mostly boil down to a sense that the use of UAVs is less moral than using manned aircraft. Is this true? A lot of it is image: the aircrafts look devious, with their lack of windows obviously accentuating their machinistic nature. Would it be too much trouble to put on a pair of eyes and a pleasant smile? It would make them seem a lot cuddlier.

Seriously, would it hurt to paint a smiley face on this Predator? It would make the drone strikes so much more personal.

And there’s something sinister about a young American man sitting in a box in Arizona directing a killing machine to drop bombs on people of different races thousands of miles away. The combination of computer-game-style technology, with its desensitising effect, and the remoteness of the operator makes the whole affair difficult to approve of. Related to this final point is the idea that there is less ‘honour’ in a military action where there is no human life at risk or there is no direct contact with the enemy.

This all sounds sensible, but in reality there doesn’t appear to be much moral difference between blowing the crap out of people from a manned aircraft thousands of feet up in the air to blowing the crap out of people sitting thousands of miles away. The result is still the same (people have the crap blown out of them) and we’re not sure there is a considerable difference in honour between high-altitude bombing (or even low-altitude bombing with few enemy air defences) and remote, unmanned bombing.

Of more substance, though, is the argument that UAVs (and all umanned vehicles, inclusing USVs, UUVs and UGVs) lower the threshold for violence. In essence, if human life is not at risk, governments may feel more willing to send a few drones over to kill people than otherwise. It essentially creates a new category between the human concepts of war and peace: unmanned conflict.

It also seems more politically viable. Hence, the seven-year drone campaign over Pakistan would seem less internationally acceptable if it was a Libya-style aerial campaign with manned aircraft.

This is an emotional rather than a logical reaction, and legally speaking there is little difference. Nonetheless, thus far it does seem that the international opprobrium attached to regular, unmanned aerial strikes is currently less than that attached to other forms of military endeavour. Imagine if rather than drone strikes, the US had sent special forces into Pakistan on numerous occasions, akin to the bin Laden assassination and the subsequent Pakistani reaction. Or that F-16s continually breached Pakistani airspace to deliver their payloads in the tribal areas. Unmanned vehicles, given their remote human control and loitering ability, also seem morally preferable to repeated cruise missile strikes as targeting should, theoretically, be more accurate and selective.

The DLR, then, sees little difference in the use of unmanned technology in warfare from a moral standpoint, but we do worry that it might encourage further campaigns of violence against foreign populations with the concomitant risk of civilian casualties. Plus, we happen to know that there’s already a British military programme called Skynet. If it’s not the squid that get us, it may well be the machines.

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One Response to First Taranis in Paris

  1. Pingback: Wrong direction | dalstonliteraryreview

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