Saturday, April 24, 2010

They are remotely piloted, NOT unmanned aerial vehicles.

A refrain from the two day McCain conference on emerging military technologies, at the U.S. Naval Academy, sponsored by the Stockdale Center. I don't want to give the impression that remotely manned vehicles were the only topic of discussion. Not so. Also on the menu; warrior enhancements, robotics and cyberwarfare. Particularly interesting were the discussions of the applicability of present laws of war, and ethical framework (just war theory) to these emerging technologies. My impression, after listening to most of the two days, is that most intellectual energy is going to be necessary in the field of cyberwarfare/espionage, because the infrastructure that allows attack is very much tied up with civilian infrastructure (the www.), and by virtue of attack not being kinetic, (although in some cases functionally equivalent in intent if not effect), being instead carried out with computer code, electronic and photonic packets, not delivery of explosive weapons. This engages and challenges hoary notions of just ad bellum (just cause for war), discrimination, proportionality, and raises issues of defensive/ pre-emptive cyber strikes But that's for another post. In this one I'd just like to focus on the remotely piloted vehicles:

Repeat Refrain: More than one person, (in particular our Air Force guest speakers, MG James Poss, Director, ISR Strategy, Plans, Doctrine, and Force Development, USAF, and MG Charles Dunlap, Deputy JAG, USAF), made it very clear that the term "unmanned" when applied to predators and other such vehicles, is a misnomer. We should refuse to use the term. It is simply factually inaccurate to describe them as UAVs, and also morally misleading.

The use of "unmanned" in this connection, leads to some easy and false assumptions and to new variants on age old propaganda opportunities. (So too does the term "drone.") Both terms carry with them a connotation of dumb unthinking machinery, coldly designed so as to kill any bipedally locomoting being within range of its sensors, regardless of combatant status.

On a related note, P.W. Singer, and other guest speakers, made note of the fact that the enemy we face in Afghanistan/Pakistan never fails to rail in high dudgeon, morally condemning us for operating from a safe distance, via RPA. Now, we cannot be so naive as to think that they say these things merely out of moral pique, but are also engaging in strategic communications and propaganda, a sort of dark side antipodean of our COIN efforts. One can certainly point out though, that in the long run, their efforts will fail, because their barbarism toward locals, both in Iraq and in Afghanistan/Pakistan, more than gainsays their alleged moral and humanitarian concerns. However we do have to worry about the man on the street in these regions. How to convince him that his views of us are mistaken. In short, we have to make a moral argument.

Listening to the discussion of Remotely Piloted Aircraft, put in mind this passage from the early pages from Max Boot's excellent history of the impact of technological innovation on warfare War Made New:

(In this passage he is discussing the impact of gunpowder in bellicose late medieval early modern Europe)

The first record of gunpowder in Europe dates from 1267, the first record of guns from 1326. By the end of the 1400s, thanks to advances in iron and copper mining, metallurgy, and gunpowder manufacture, Europeans were making firearms in great quantity and great variety, from enormous cannons to handheld arquebuses. If one of the essential characteristics of modernity is the substitution of chemical for muscle power, then firearms may be regarded as the first modern invention.

The spread of gunpowder was not welcomed by everyone. The nobility, in particular, did not like weapons that rendered obsolete old notions of chivalry and allowed, as one contemporary complained, "so many brave and valiant men" to be killed by "cowards and shirkers who would not dare to look in the face the men they bring down from a distance with their wretched bullets." Some cavaliers were so outraged by this "instrument sent from hell" (to quote the fourteenth century poet Petrarch) that they cut off the hands or pierced out the eyes of captured arquebusers. Such rearguard actions notwithstanding, no European captain seeking competitive advantage against his rivals could possibly afford to boycott firearms, the impact of which was so powerfully demonstrated in the French invasion of the Italian peninsula in 1494.."

Time for a visual aid! Behold the arquebus:

How does this relate to RPAs? There are fascinating disanologies in the two cases, but enough similarity that I think can be used to blunt the effectiveness of any propaganda that may be generated.

First a disanalogy: Boot rightly points out that any boycott of these weapons would have been foolish. The technology was certainly replicable, and in the interests of maintaining power and military relevance, European leaders worked furiously to adopt and improve the technology for their own use, all the while bemoaning it, perhaps partially out of general moral concern, but also partially as a way to generate pressure on rivals to forgo technical advantage. As unlikely as this psychological or moral warfare was to actually have the effect of suppressing the advance of weapons technology it was nevertheless in the interest of each aspirant to make the attempt. It cost nothing, and covers a base, as it were.

Compare this circumstance with the United States' circumstance vis RPA. There are only a handful of powers that can attempt to replicate the full panoply and functionality of such vehicles. The command and control technology we have is basically first. We are dominant in this regard. Now, our unconventional enemy would no doubt, love to acquire this technology, and may, in the distant future, but until that day comes, we are NOT in the position of the "captains" of Europe vis-a-vis firearm technology. Their is no looming parity. We can also predict this: Should our unconventional enemy acquire such technology, by the time they do, it will be primitive by comparison with what we will have by then developed. We will have seriously surpassed present RPA. Things are developing this way with regard to various military technologies. In the realm of cyberwarfare, nanotechnology, robotics, and human enhancement, we are head and shoulders above the other 'captains' of the world.

If non state groups are to acquire the technology, it will be either by espionage, or with aid of unfriendly states, or with aid of what I like to call "ambiguous" states (states that have significant internal cleavage in regard to relations to the U.S. Pakistan and Saudi are examples). In either case, should the non state actors acquire the technology it will be significantly less than ours.

Much the same can be said with regard to most of our conventional enemies, bellicose states, such as Iran lag far behind. We do have closer competitors, such as China, but still outpace them.

All of this leads to a very real worry that prudential calculation will lead state and non state belligerents with apocalyptic visions to simply forgo the attempt to attain such sophisticated systems. They will instead continue to pursue terrorist strategy, perhaps in concert with attempts to take down the infrastructural command and control of the U.S. economy. At present it is less likely that stateless groups can do the latter than it is that they can cause significant carnage using the former. Nevertheless, we do have to consider the possibility of 'unholy alliances' between states that do not have our interests in mind, and these stateless groups, such that the states can carry out one phase of attack (for instance, the Chinese seem to be behind various cyber attacks on civilian and DOD systems in the U.S., and similar activities in other countries around the globe. Are they prepping for a new kind of cyber centric warfare?) while the terror groups would carry out kinetic attacks, if not at home, abroad. It is very difficult to determine intent or exact origin of cyber attacks now. We can tell where they come from, but not if a given government is behind the attack. The recent Chinese attacks are a case in point. The Chinese, if behind those attacks, have plausibly deniability going for them. They can always claim the break-ins were by hackers that just happen to be within their country.

Attribution ambiguities exist not only in the cyber realm, but even in the realm of kinetic attacks. Suppose that a state would like to utilize EMP to disable our infrastructure for a time. Is it impossible that the state could provide a nuclear device and a missile, place these on a seagoing vessel of some type, have that vessel sail within the effective range of the missile, deliver and detonate over some portion of the U.S. crippling our electronically dependent infrastructure. If it is a commercial vessel, plausible deniability could be maintained even when it is captured. (Might Iran consider something like this?)

Now, fortunately for us, the Chinese have the cyber abilities, and the Iranians do not. If the Iranians had both capabilities, this would be something to cause insomnia for our leaders.

The mere demonstration of such capability would have serious repercussions for U.S. security. It would be a way to seriously cripple us.

Now, all this brings me back to the present, and the RPAs. How did I veer so far off the subject? How can I get back on course? Here's where I believe the link exists:

A case can be made that there is a strong moral component to our development of all these technologies. Something about the ethos of America accounts for them, not merely the desire to outpace enemies for self interested and prudential reasons of state, but because we have a moral vision of the world, and how humanity should live, a vision that is basically right, a vision that involves the notions of human rights, dignity and freedom. Without taking into account these motivations, one is in fact hard pressed to explain a great many things the U.S. does in the world, and more particularly, one is hard pressed to explain our very expensive 'obsession' with developing cutting edge military technology.

That argument needs to be made, and we need to pay attention to words when we do so. As the two Air Force Generals succinctly observed, nomenclature matters, and we should not let our adversaries determine nomenclature.

We should make much more use of the fact that we have gone to such great pains to develop these and similar technologies as we engage in propaganda wars, in particular in the Middle East. We must not only be careful of nomenclature, but we must also make the case, empirically, that we are nothing like our enemies portray.

Firstly, we need to point out the fact that we are seriously involved in hearts-and minds COIN warfare. Ask the simple question, "Why?" If we are so much more technologically advanced than our enemy in this war, why not go "Evil Empire"? Why do we not employ 'Carthaginian solutions' in places like Afghanistan? Is it merely prudence? The prudential realist would not care so much about building representative government, at cost of our own blood, but would go the realist's route and prop up petty tyrants who promise to cooperate or cause no trouble. We are not doing that. For someone looking at us from the outside, the mere fact that we are serious about the philosophy of warfare behind COIN is a data point that must be explained. And the matter of RPAs is closely related.

We need to pointedly challenge our interlocutors to seriously consider the question: Why do we spend all the time and money to develop remote aircraft in the first place? The answers to the question shows that we are not the cold heartless cowards that our enemy likes to portray:

With RPAs we have a very effective way to more or less continuously monitor the activities of human beings within areas of interest. It allows us to precisely target only those people that are in need of killing. It allows us to spare more folks around these targets than has ever been possible in the history of warfare. This capability has been demonstrably effective of late in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The ability to continuously monitor has had the added benefit of greatly reducing civilian deaths during recent U.S. led wars, by reducing the numbers and causes of errors that bring about these tragedies.

A remote pilot has more time to assess his situation, and he is not also being affected by the real possibility of his own demise. He can be more rational and thoroughgoing in his assessments and judgments than can the pilot of a locally controlled aircraft.

(Much the same can be said about our use of networked communications and surveillance aircraft in more conventional combat settings. A good case in point is the recent Apache gunship video lamely leveraged as "collateral murder" by the moral cretins at Wikileaks. That video actually shows the capabilities of our technology and the competency of our military while highlighting room for improvement of the technology, and the propaganda difficulties introduced by ever present media.)

This along with our very expensive development of precision guided weaponry has taken us far away from the days of carpet bombing entire cities in order to hit munitions factories.

(Once again, consider that the Apache pilots, even in the more controversial second attack on the building, took pains to assure that the missiles would go inside the building, missiles that are of limited yield so as to reduce collateral damage to people and property) We need to ask our interlocutors in the international community, even here: Why go to all that bother if we or our pilots are really heartless killers? Our actions belie your portrayals. What do our actions in fact show as to our moral status, pray tell?)

This brings me around, finally, to a final consideration of the whole panoply of advanced military technology at our disposal. Why do we develop all these advanced systems? Well, partially because we feel we have a responsibility as a society to NOT place our servicemen at any more risk than is necessary to defend the country, but we have always also had a moral drive directed externally, to humanity more broadly conceived. We see and take ourselves seriously as defenders of human rights, freedom and liberty. Despite the claims of the Noam Chomsky's of the world, this is neither empty propaganda, nor the result of conspiratorial manipulation by monied interests, nor some sort of mass self delusion, but the expression of deeply held values and convictions of Americans, going back to our founding.

Because we as a people value the lives of innocents, and do not believe in collective punishment of entire populations, as technology permits we go to great pains to develop these discriminating systems. The RPA systems in particular, give greater time to carefully assess a potential target, and its environs so that we can make very robust use of the moral principles of discrimination and proportionality when we strike. Contrary to the claims of sophomoric psychoanalysts, removing pilots from the heat of battle does not turn them into heartless 'killers at a distance' This is often claimed by various NGOs and in the press, but it is simply not borne out by the facts.

This was the most impressive point I think made by our two Air Force speakers. As they were wont to point out, it is typical that remote pilots become quite intimately connected with the human beings they are watching (sometimes over the course of days and weeks). They see the kids, the villagers, along with the barbarians that need killing.

Sometimes they choose not to strike, because of what they see. Often they are better able to discriminate than are forces that do not have advantage of this technology. And what do we Americans do when we deem it necessary to forgo the remotely piloted strike? We send in Marines, Army units or special ops guys, at tremendous risk to those brave men. Why? To spare the innocent. These are not the acts of a barbarian nation, an Evil Empire, but the acts of a moral military force, and a deeply moral country.

We need to make serious efforts to make this clear to populations that are subject to enemy propaganda, if we are to eventually win the conflict in Afghanistan and bring it to a happy conclusion. The same can be said even today, concerning Iraq. So, in line with the suggestions of Generals Poss and Dunlap, I will refuse to use the nomenclature "unmanned aerial vehicle" or "drone", and refer to these pieces of technology by their proper name "remotely piloted aircraft."

More cool vids of RPAs