The coming of the drones

By Laurence Ticehurst.

Eiffel-Tower-ParisThe kafuffle last month about drones over-flying Paris is part of a wider and disturbing story. At one level the appearance of drones can simply be seen as being part of the development of what Tielhard De Chardin called the Noosphere.

We have become accustomed to introduction of air travel in the thirties, satellites in the sixties, the internet in the nineties, we should surely not be unduly alarmed at the “ colonisation” of what might be called our immediate aerial environment in our own decade. Nor should we be surprised that in the same way that airplanes gave rise to bombing, and the internet to hacking, that drones too have their disadvantages.


Drones have created a completely new kind of attack. I gather that before the Russian Revolution the Okrana aka the Czarist secret police was worried by the possibility that the revolutionaries would pilot a biplane loaded with the then relatively recently invented dynamite into the Summer Palace. That regime collapsed for other reasons. The real difficulty though of using planes in this way is that the supply of suicide pilots will always be limited.

The drone though changes the game. On the one hand drones provide foreign policy makers with a whole new method of “respectable” assassination, or as it is now called in the neo Conservative jargon “decapitation”attack drone. A guy sitting in an air- conditioned bunker in Florida sipping a Coke can “take out” a Taliban conclave, or is that a wedding party? ( That’s no exaggeration just under third of all those killed by American drones are not terrorists! ) But however much “collateral damage” there is; the gist of the new political environment created by drones is that military intervention in any given conflict  has now been decoupled from the necessity of “boots on the ground.”

And for good or evil this creates a new situation. What ultimately defeated the Americans in Vietnam was the unpopularity of the draft, and the apparently endless body bags being shipped home to Kansas. But what if fighting the war had required not struggling through the jungles of South East Asia but commuting to  a campus style “facility” and a well paid job? ( Although as we will be seeing even that such piloting may no longer be necessary!)

We should no longer assume that Democracy will be provide any very effective brake to interventionism. Nor should we assume that remotely controlled attacks will have the consequences that are intended. Drone strikes may kill their intended targets. But they can worsen the political situation.

However the real challenge created by drones is that when warfare becomes a video game then two sides can play. Despite the fears of the Okrana the airplane did not become the weapon of revolutionary choice not only because pilots were in short supply but because airplanes need expensive runways, maintenance and infrastructure. But this is not true of drones. They are cheap. They are easily launched, and need no elaborate bases to fly from. And they can deliver a deadly explosive punch exactly where those who control them want.

The neo conservative elite may flatter themselves that they can manage the situation in the Yemen or Eritrea by decapitating the opposition. But they too will have to realise they are also potentially under by surveillance and possibly attack from drones. No one is exempt. At a recent Bilderberger Conference a protestor is reported to have used a drone to spy on the meeting. The idea that drone technology can be kept out terrorist hands is embarrassingly naïve.

Weaponised drones are becoming a huge head ache for the security apparatus of all sophisticated states. In London the MOD is known to be concerned; and the defence industry is working on the problem.

While drones can kill and destroy, defending against them is difficult. In the first place they are too small to be noticed by radar- and potentially at least they can be made of materials which radar cannot detect. And there is the additional problem that radar simply cannot be deployed everywhere.

Another thought is that perhaps presence of drones could be revealed by sound detection. This might work in the countryside, but it is hardly a viable solution in towns where high value targets for such attacks are likely to be clustered. Moreover in the future Active Noise Reduction technology might make it even more difficult to use sound to detect drones.

And even supposing that a drone was detected, what then could done? Shoot them downHyde_Park_Anti-aircraft_guns_H_993…anti drone batteries on the roof of every government building are hardly an attractive option, and would cost a fortune.

Ok, Ok, why not interfere with the guidance systems of the attack drones?  Time was when drones had to be flown  as they approached their target; but in many cases even this isn’t so true any more. Drones can be pre-programmed with easily available GPS data so that their guidance systems are completely autonomous. This means that they don’t need to be steered  in real time by a pilot however far distant, and consequently they need no longer be dependent on radio transmissions which could be tracked or interfered with by the security forces. And that in its turn means that there is no chance of using radio detection to find and capture those operating any drone.

What about lasers? The technology for using lasers to destroy drones is not yet available. But The Daily Mail ( London) recently ran a story to the effect that The United States will have cracked the puzzle by next year. If is it so will be good news for those planning to attend the next Presidential Inauguration in January 2017.

Two thoughts though come to mind. Will such technology really be capable of providing safety against a swarm of drones launched against a single target? Secondly if such technology really becomes cheap and effective, how will we ensure that it too does not get into the wrong hands? Or will Taliban conclaves be from now on surrounded by lasers, in the same way that General Giap surrounded Dien Bien Phu will anti- aircraft guns?

Whatever the answer, drones- robot killing machines-  are about to change our world, and our politics, in ways that are still difficult to imagine, but which are likely  to be uncomfortable…and they are not all  just flying over Pakistan!


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