Image courtesy of Flikr user US Air Force. Image courtesy of Flikr user US Air Force.

By First Lieutenant Jimmy Byrn

The sailors of the U.S.S. George Washington never saw it coming. In a matter of minutes the bridge was in flames, the flight deck severely damaged, and hundreds of personnel wounded or killed. They hardly had time to launch their own aircraft before they were swarmed by scores of fast-moving, heavily-armed robots with no fear of death and the ability to outthink even the smartest human being. And worst of all, this was only the first wave.

This scenario is no longer the stuff of science fiction movies. The possibility of planning for an event such as this may be mere decades away and the world is going to have to contend not only with new conventional drone doctrine, but also the question of where to draw the line with respect to the use of drones in conventional warfare.

When the proposed FY 2015 Department of Defense budget was released in March, many of the naysayers claiming that the Pentagon is shifting focus away from drones stood silent. The DoD raised its budgetary request for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) by $350 million…and why wouldn’t they?[i] The relative success of UAVs in the Global War On Terror is unmistakable, as evidenced by the recent killing of over 40 suspected Al-Qaeda operatives in Yemen over just a two-day period.[ii] As such, much of the discussion centering around the use of militarized drones focuses on surgical strikes, the morality of these strikes (especially as they pertain to use on U.S. citizens such as Anwar al-Awalki), and the utilization of drones in other unconventional warfare scenarios. These are important discussions worth having of course, however the time to more broadly discuss drone warfare as it pertains to conventional conflict is quickly coming.

The U.S. is no longer the only nation seeking to use drones as a regular part of its forces: China is already beginning research in the use of drones as part of its Area Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) capability and Iran has also shown some interest in drone technology.[iii] How these vehicles could be used by potential adversaries, for the moment anyway, is limited only by the bounds of one’s imagination and the depth of one’s coffers.

Large-scale conventional aircraft escort missions, ground convoy escort missions, recon missions, logistical missions, direct action missions and more are all on the horizon as drone usage finds its way into the realm of conventional warfare. Of particular worry however, is the use of swarm tactics, or coordinated attacks by a large number of drones on ships, ground formations, aerial formations, or perhaps even industrial, communication, or political hubs. The technology to allow drones to move in formation and communicate with one another in mid-flight is already being developed with limited success.[iv] It is quite feasible for drones to one day launch a coordinated attack on unsuspecting targets with very little human control and using a mixture of weaponized systems. Even more interesting, this may not constitute the main attack. These swarms could be used to suppress an enemy as a shaping operation while the main effort strikes at a later time or to force the enemy to deploy early giving commanders more time and space to react. But what happens when the decision-making process shifts more and more into the realm of artificial intelligence and less in the human realm?

War has always been a uniquely human endeavor, one in which emotions of rage, anger, sadness, triumph, and most of all fear have a profound effect on the outcome of a battle. But how will conventional war change when the enemy one faces is not human at all, but a machine? And not just one, but scores or even hundreds of quick-moving, fast-thinking, and most of all fearless machines? One answer to such a question is to counter the threat with a number of equally quick-moving, fast-thinking, and fearless machines. This process could go on and on until conventional superpowers are locked in a different sort of arms race with drone formations becoming more autonomous, and more lethal. This leads one to believe that eventually, unmanned vehicles will have to be regulated in their usage much like chemical weapons or landmines have in the modern era. Normally weapons regulation is focused on indiscriminate weaponry, because there is often no true human control involved once these weapons are deployed. Unmanned vehicles pose a similar problem all together as machines are increasingly able to think on their own and human control becomes greatly lessened. In the end, the strategic decision-making may still fall solely in the human realm, but conventional battles may involve less and less human interaction and more machine-focused tactics. If militarized drone formations are able to rove the battlefield, then does that formation then become a weapon that has lost too much human control? Perhaps not, but having artificially intelligent flying machines killing humans in mass droves with little human control behind the wheel would certainly change the face of battle.

Drone technology will continue to progress in years to come and the doctrine associated with advances in militarized drones will be further developed to encompass both the unconventional and conventional realms of warfare. Drones will become more lethal, more agile, more intelligent, and more prevalent in the 21st Century and beyond. As science fiction becomes science fact however, the United States and the world need to consider how far we are willing to remove the human aspect of warfare and at what point the use of drones in conventional warfare is too much. The advent of the drone is just the beginning, and the questions we have put off thus far need to be considered soon before “Star Wars” becomes a reality.

First Lieutenant Jimmy Byrn is currently a tank platoon leader in C Co., 2-7 IN BN, 1 ABCT, 3rd ID; he majored in Military History and graduated with the West Point Class of 2012.

[i] Keller, John. “Pentagon Plans To Spend $2.4 Billion On Unmanned Drones In FY 2015,” MatthewAid.com, accessed April 23, 2014, http://www.matthewaid.com/post/79744428789/pentagon-plans-to-spend-2-4-billion-on-unmanned-drones

[ii] Mukhashaf, Mohamad. “Air Strikes In Yemen Kill 40 Al Qaeda Militants In Two Days,” Reuters.com, accessed April 23, 2014, http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/04/20/us-yemen-violence-idUSBREA3J0K420140420

[iii] Easton, Ian M. & L.C. Russell Hsaio. “The People’s Liberation Army’s Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Project: Organizational Capacities And Operational Capabilities.” Project 2049 Institute, 2013.

[iv] Chappell, Bill. “Robot Swarm: A Flock Of Drones That Fly Autonomously,” NPR.org, accessed April 16, 2014, http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2014/02/26/283090909/robot-swarm-a-flock-of-drones-that-fly-autonomously.


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