08 December 2011

Drones - updated

The image above comes from a September Wall Street Journal article about expanded drone usage around the horn of Africa.  Another September article, this one in the Washington Post, discusses autonomous drones:
This successful exercise in autonomous robotics could presage the future of the American way of war: a day when drones hunt, identify and kill the enemy based on calculations made by software, not decisions made by humans...

“You can imagine real-time scenarios where you have 10 of these things up in the air and something is happening on the ground and you don’t have time for a human to say, ‘I need you to do these tasks.’ It needs to happen faster than that.”..

The prospect of machines able to perceive, reason and act in unscripted environments presents a challenge to the current understanding of international humanitarian law.
A column in Salon in October questioned whether even the current use of drones is legal:
Drones are no longer deployed solely in countries like Afghanistan and Iraq, where the United States military is party to a declared armed conflict. Drones are now being used in Yemen, Somalia, Libya, and, perhaps most controversially, in Pakistan, a nominal U.S. ally in the war on terror.

Legal scholars, diplomats, military experts and activists have all weighed in on the issue, but to date there is little consensus on whether drones are acceptable under international law...

When the military is operating in a formal theater of conflict, they are guided by the Law of Armed Conflict, with all of it rules and restrictions. They can tell you what laws they follow, even if they sometimes break them. With the CIA, we just do not know — do they engage in legal analysis? What is the process by which they review targeting decisions? What body of law do they see as pertaining to them?”
And finally, some excerpts from a Glenn Greenwald column on the domestic use of drones:
Even leaving aside the issue of weaponization (police officials now openly talk about equipping drones with “nonlethal weapons such as Tasers or a bean-bag gun”), the use of drones for domestic surveillance raises all sorts of extremely serious privacy concerns and other issues of potential abuse. Their ability to hover in the air undetected for long periods of time along with their comparatively cheap cost enables a type of broad, sustained societal surveillance that is now impractical, while equipping them with infra-red or heat-seeking detectors and high-powered cameras can provide extremely invasive imagery. The holes eaten into the Fourth Amendment’s search and seizure protections by the Drug War and the War on Terror means there are few Constitutional limits on how this technology can be used, and there are no real statutory or regulatory restrictions limiting their use. In sum, the potential for abuse is vast, the escalation in surveillance they ensure is substantial, and the effect they have on the culture of personal privacy — having the state employ hovering, high-tech, stealth video cameras that invade homes and other private spaces — is simply creepy... 
Where will it all end?

Addendum Dec 8:  I originally wrote the post to focus on the ethics/legality of the domestic use of drones, but the news today that an American drone was downed in Iran presents some additional considerations.

I haven't searched much yet to see how the U.S. media is presenting the story, but the BBC has posted a video showing the U.S. drone in Iranian hands, apparently undamaged.  As the narrator indicates, this would seem to support the Iranian claim that rather than shoot the drone down, they brought it down by "cyberwarfare."  That could be total b.s., but if true it has enormous strategic implications, not only re U.S./Israeli espionage, but for the tactical use of the devices in a hot war.

Obviously the next step will be for the Iranians to reverse engineer the dickens out of it (unless it has some type of self-destruct device built in, which is possible).  Even if they can't access the software and electronics, they now have access to the dimensions, design, and materials of the stealth technology.

Lastly - a Wikipedia page listing drones ("unmanned aerial vehicles")  around the world, including both combat, recon, and research/survey types.

Addendum:  Reddit discussion thread has comments by people with military UAW experience; they favor this being a controlled crash, not brought down by cybermeans.


  1. The lack of public (at least US public) outrage to this creeping global war is extremely disconcerting.

    People. We are flying ROBOTS WITH GUNS all around the world and BLOWING UP (extremely imprecisely), no matter the sovereignty of the country.

    Basically, we've suddenly (mostly under a democrat president) turned the entire world into our personal battlefield. And we expect no repercussions?

    And who are we going after? Al Qaeda influenced groups that weren't even IN EXISTENCE when 9/11 happened. We got the people responsible for 9/11. The Taliban wasn't involved. (Oh, they didn't acquiesce our improbable demand to hand over Bin Laden- who they were not affiliated with.) Is that grounds to spend a decade massacring every single afghan citizen who chose to side with the Taliban over the flaks for the invading superpower?

    Not to mention, of course, the inevitable dead civilians (including many children.)

    Blowing up everyone who doesn't like the USA is, beyond being profoundly immoral, a stupid strategy. Every wedding party we blow up means that many more people who hate us (for legit reasons). And a certain % of them will be crazy fundamentalists who will blow shit up.

    The drones make us less safe. We should ground every single one of them.

  2. There is an article on the Business Insider website titled, "The Pentagon Is Offering Free Military Hardware To Every Police Department In the US."

    I wonder how long it will be until the skies of all American towns and cities are filled with gun-toting drones? And then imagine the finger of a policeman, like the one at UC Davies who dowsed Occupy protesters will military-grade pepper spray, on the trigger of a drone. Now that's something to be afraid of!

  3. People have been worried about the scariness of surveillance and aerial technology for a long time...


    Personally, I think the new technology is cool. Wars are getting less bloody, thanks to efficiency. Think about all the people in history who have died trying to take a hilltop -- just for the high ground. Or the terrain that previously had to be conquered just to get to some enemy leader hideout.

    What if we had had a few good drones in 1939?

  4. What if Germany had had a few good drones?

    Japan essentially had some - they called them kamikazes. Sure made that war "less bloody, thanks to efficiency."

    I presume you have no objection to any other countries developing and deploying drones, so that if/when they attack or counterattack, it will be more efficient.

  5. Or, to expand on Minnesotastan's comment, what if the British army had armed drones in 1776?

  6. Obviously, if the British Army had had drones in 1776, it would have saved the Empire and us from a long bloody rebellion. We'd be celebrating it.

    So let's go with this thought experiment -- being on the losing side. How would you want to lose?

    1) The U.S. gets overrun and occupied after bloody ground fighting and insurgency from a well-armed and violent civilian population.

    2) Nuclear war to demoralize the population and destroy our industrial and economic base.

    3) Targeted assassination of our leaders and replacement of our government.

    I'd definitely go with option #3. Hell, given the popularity of congress right now, the foreign drone pilot might be regarded as a hero.

  7. What if we had had a few good drones in 1939?

    What if the citizens hadn't have let their maniac leaders act like madmen instead?

  8. I am another one who doesn't fear new technology in warfare or domestic areas. We already live with the fear of nuclear annihilation. Hard to imagine much worse. With new technology must come new laws and control. I love how there are cameras throughout London. We should have that everywhere it's needed here. Since I don't break laws, I don't fear some invasion of privacy. Drones are another eye in the sky.

    A drone could be great in a hostage situation or a riot, etc.

    Personally, I don't arm myself or my home with any guns. But if I felt my neighborhood demanded I have some protection, I might get a surveillance camera. It might not save my life, but I would welcome the feeling of assurance. Overseas, drones have put a lot of our service members at reduced risk. I do feel they have killed some innocent victims, but so do other weapons. I am not condoning war, just saving the lives of our own.

  9. Reading these incognito comments make me loose faith in humanity.

  10. Since I don't break laws, I don't fear some invasion of privacy.

    Really, I just don't know what to say ...

  11. I am amazed that more people aren't in favor of drones. Obviously, it would be wonderful if we could all live in peace and harmony. But that hasn't been the case since... uh.... ever.

    So, GIVEN that we humans are going to have disagreements and want to kill each other on a regular basis, it's good that the technology is improving. Collateral damage is bad. Smarter drones reduce collateral damage.

    You people who pine for the 'good old days' of war are nuts.

    How are drones worse than dumb bombs? Do you anti-droners seriously want to go back to 20th century war technology? Has anyone noticed the news last week -- The German city of Koblenz recently had to evacuate half the town center to defuse some WWII bombs exposed by low river levels. Those old-style bombs were incredibly sloppy and inhumane. Drones don't destroy whole cities. Nobody is going to be losing lives and limbs to drones decades after the targets are gone, like they do now with mines.

    If I had to be at war -- on either the winning or losing side -- I'd want smart technology like drones at work.

  12. Anonymous @12:39 said: "Nobody is going to be losing lives and limbs to drones decades after the targets are gone, like they do now with mines."

    What makes you think drones could not carry cluster bombs, which do litter battlefields and cities with bomblets that keep on killing, just like landmines.

  13. Ironic how all of the pro drone people who "Since I don't break laws, I don't fear some invasion of privacy" are all posting anonymously.

  14. All the Anon's or the Anon should read up about the Military Industrial Complex. It is a very lucrative business to be in. Humans just aren't killing humans cos that's the way we are, there are reasons behind conflicts. The U.S is also in Afghanistan for 10 years now. 10 YEARS! How long more in Afgan & Iraq I wonder. It's a disgrace they went into these countries at all. Almost 150,000 civilians have been killed in these conflicts. But these are "unpeople", they're just brown people sitting on oil to some.

    One Anon: "or the terrain that previously had to be conquered just to get to some enemy leader hideout", you think war is like G.I JOE where they get to COBRAS HQ, blow it up and return to base? When an enemy advances, genocides are carried out, literal rape of people and land. I would hardly use drones as an example of lowering collateral damage. All they do is allow one human to kill another human much more easily from much further away, without risk, detached.

    I believe humans will figure out how to live together without killing each other over religion, ideology, resources or land someday

  15. I'll offer two additional drone-related thoughts -

    1) drones make war easier to conduct. If someone wants to attack targets within the continental U.S., all they would need to do is smuggle a drone into Mexico and launch from Tijuana, Juarez, Matamoros etc. He would have most of the U.S. within range.

    2) those who believe drones result in "clean" warfare with fewer citizen deaths are presuming that the users would have the same "noble" intentions you do, while in fact a drone could be used to launch Hellfire missiles into the Sears Tower or a college dorm or a packed football stadium. The technology is not inherently "cleaner" than a dumb bomb.

  16. I wonder if the Jews in Germany said "Since I don't break laws, I don't fear some invasion of privacy". I think the thing we should be PROTECTING is the Constitution of the United States.

  17. It's fine to sit around typing our gripes into the internet. Bit what good is that? Wouldn't it be better to effect change?

    The U.S. congress just made it OK to imprison people -- U.S. citizens as well as foreign nationals -- indefinitely without trial. The previous president invaded two countries on flimsy pretense, and the current president has increased the use of probes a tremendous amount compared to any previous commander-in-chief.

    If these things matter to you, write to your representatives. Vote accordingly.

  18. The additional problem, as anonymous proves, is that when no American lives are at risk people tend not to care who or how many are killed.

  19. Well, this anonymous certainly cares about non American lives. A large chunk of my family is not American, and I spend a large chunk of every year working and living outside America.

    But I still think targeted destruction using drones is much better than old style approaches -- dumb-bombing, invasion, etc. I am not in favor of war. War is stupid. The American adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan are embarrassing; I think 9/11 was an act of criminal homicide*, not an act of war, and should have been treated accordingly. But given the U.S. government has decided to kill people, I think they should do it relatively neatly and efficiently. At least as neatly and efficiently as possible.

  20. * Re: 'homicide'...

    Why is it spelled that way? Seems to me that it would be more logical to spell it 'homocide' -- as in 'killing others of the same type'

  21. Here is a useful resource for you -


  22. "Given the U.S. government has decided to kill people, I think they should do it relatively neatly and efficiently" - It's a loaded conclusion, clearly fallacious. It takes for granted that the agent realises its objectives unproblematically.

    We should ask: Why the U.S. government decided to kill people? Mainly because they can get away with that. And why do they get away with that? Because american citizens, who are the only people who can hold their government accountable, decide to support their escalade on violence. Your attitude, my fearfull friend, is what causes international violence.

  23. Thanks for the link, Minnesotastan. Although the entry on homicide seems to support my spelling option, so I still don't understand. But language is language; it's goofy sometimes.

    Paulo: Please don't assume that my approval of efficient war is approval of war or due to 'fear'. Like I said: I think war is stupid, and I agree 110% that America's response to a few criminal acts is WAY out of proportion to those original acts, and actually far more criminal than the original acts. I am definitely not a fan of the military industrial complex, am horrified by the power that it has over our economy and government, and sincerely worry about the moral and physical future of our country as a result. I hate that America has become a warmongering empire.

    But like I said -- if we're going to do somehing, it should be done well. The other option is do it sloppily. That clearly would not be good.

  24. Anon,

    The reason why I called you fearful is the same reason I oppose your opinion in general: it seems to be contradictory. You talk about not having anything to fear from surveillance, although you hide your identity posting anonymously. The rest of us, who are protesting the advance of militarization, are at least standing for it.

    "I am definitely not a fan of the military industrial complex" - "if we're going to do something, it should be done well". There is a practical contradiction in these positions, as well. From these statements, your outspoken opposition to the military industrial complex is reduced to mere talk. Why would you grant the warmongers the point of "if we're going to do something"? Why not start by questioning the "something" that is being done? "The other option is do it sloppily" - what about not doing it, at all? It's a bad use you're doing of the middle excluded law, you know; makes people think there is no other option at hand. Real opposition demands the scape from the false dichotomies imposed by opinion makers; they are the ones who say war is a matter of efficiency. More: "It should be done well" - why not stand for doing well something else, like the termination of conflicts that only exist because the military-industrial complex feeds both sides with weapons for profit? (Why not cheer for peace, rather then for rationalization of death)? These are stances worth defending, but are not the one you chose to defend. Focus is very important if you aim change. And I'm sorry if you didn't mean that much; I think we always end up meaning much more then we thought we would.

  25. A word for the american citizens.

    You are the only people who can stop the war in Afghanistan, if you choose to. But you are choosing now to give your support for people who turns it into something even more inhuman: a war by proxy. Drones are not a simple modernization of the conflict; advancement of anything, weapon or otherwise, is not by definition a mere development, but something guided to a predetermined aim. In the case of drones, the way it alters the conflict can't be ignored: it's by turning assassination into something virtual for one of the sides - and, it must be noted, the one who already overwhelms.

    How should we measure the responsability of a killer, if he experiences it as a videogame? What's the difference between shooting the image of children in Grand Theft Auto or from a real Apache fighter*? Eisenhower used to draw attention about politicians who make war decisions from Washington, but have never been in the field; that's something we should learn from him as well. Everybody who already looked back with shame for his/hers own apathy in the past knows that not being involved can create profound damage. In this case, the consequences are greater than the safety of the perpetrators: it also hikes the damage over victims, because the act of damaging is not mediated by the sentiment of shame and responsability from the killer. The same way pilots kill thoughtlessly with a drone, the american public opinion kills thoughtlessly when it allows the drones to be used without constraint.

    War is being made now in Afghanistan for strategic purposes, the same of the previous shameful war in Vietnam: to impeach the expansion of influence of China and Russia, and secure "access to resources" (i. e. hability to steal other people's resources) for allies in Eurasia (for Japan at the time, now for the E.U.). But when the U.S. attacked Vietnam, there were at least the ones who, going back home (without a limb, without an eye), protested and were heard. Forgive a barbarian for saying this: it is a shame for your generation that now the warmongers could force successfully their agenda over public opinion, who now takes the escalade on violence as something rational and unimportant, repeating mindlessly their propaganda ("drones are a good/bad option"; "war is an strategic success/failure"; false discussion, used to hide moral facts it never poses). It is also a shame that Bradley Manning is now imprisioned for whistleblowing and the arrest of Julian Assange is eminent, things that never happened to Daniel Ellsberg or Noam Chomsky; but the public doesn't seem to care about neither of these things. In debates about these matters, there are no moral stances anymore, and everything is reduced to efficiency and strategy. You can change this scenario; please do.

    And please forgive my broken english.

    *Reference: http://youtu.be/-vtFH79gdxQ

  26. On the domestic use of drones:

    I'd urge caution on bludgeoning the ability to surveil in public where you have no reasonable right to privacy anyway, due to some hypothetical maybe/could be future violations of civil rights. Especially as we have traffic and security cameras all over the place right now(think drones on a stick).

    It bothers me more that right now there are police that think citizens do not have the right to surveil *them* and that you can be arrested for it. (photography isn't a crime dot com). Photography is NOT a crime, and I'd hate to give the police something close to a legitimate reason to harass me because I was taking their picture.

    Germany did have drones, they were called the V-1 and V-2. Armed robots that can kill people without a human in the loop have been around for decades, for instance the otomat missile manufactured by Italian company Oto Melara and sold to several counties, like Qaddafi's Libya and Mubarak's Egypt. The only difference between weapons like these and drones is loiter time and ironically, a human is in the loop, allowing for greater control(admittedly this could change with the march of technological progress).

  27. I think Paulo's last note above was beautiful and eloquent. It deserves to be a main entry in this blog as much as any entry quoted in this blog. (Hint hint Minnesotastan: It's OK to quote from your own blog's comments). Thanks, Paulo. That's why I love this blog. Interesting entries, and interesting comments.

    Note also that I am one of the anons that Paulo disagreed with. Just because we disagree on a few things does not mean that I don't appreciate his opinion. I appreciate the dialog. I learn.

    I am not all of the anons, however. It's unfortunate that we are sort of lumped together, because I can understand how it might be confusing. We're not necessarily being anonymous on purpose, by the way. The options when posting are: Google account, OpenID, Name/URL, and Anonymous. I don't have a Google account, I don't even know what OpenID is, and my only URL is associated with my employer who I don't speak for. So when I comment (which is very rarely), I choose 'Anonymous'. I'm not trying to hide my identify. It's just the only option. And seriously -- even if I did give an apparently less anonymous identity, what would it matter? No one knows who I am anyway. Just like, when it comes down to it, I don't know who Abbie or Paulo really is either. It's just letters on my screen.

    But that's OK. It's the ideas that matter, right?

    I think we all agree that killing people is horrible. I wish, Paulo, that there were something I could do that I felt would make a difference with regard to the wars the U.S. has undertaken. I too feel helpless and frustrated. I wish it were otherwise.

  28. To the anons - Re posting "anonymously".

    As the above post explains, some readers have no choice but to use the "anonymous" button when writing a comment.

    BUT... when you're done, just write a name at the bottom. That's what Swift Loris has done 50 times or whatever, and she has established herself as a known entity among the commenters using the Anonymous sign-in.

  29. "Since I don't break laws, I don't fear some invasion of privacy."

    That was my post. It was the only one I made in this thread. I support it 100%. I don't feel I live in a society where technology can be used against its citizens. Wrongful imprisonment? Sure it happens to minorities all the time. DNA technology has helped. Should I fear that someone is going to distort a DNA result on me sometime? Hardly. In fact, if there were drones flying around all the time, maybe that could help exonerate me. ;-)

    I'm not a hawk. I opposed the invasion/occupation of Iraq. I am glad we killed lots of Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan though. I wish we haven't been there so long though. We should have had a clearer goal. Since that's out of my hands, I'm glad we are killing more terrorists with drones and not putting our young lives at risk. As I said in my above post, they have been misused and too many civilians have died as a result. We need to have better guidelines.

    I don't understand why people who are unable to dispute anything specific that I posted effectively, attack the fact that I posted it anonymously. I always thought of the internet as a place for the exchange of ideas, not personal identities. I have not posted anything I wouldn't support in any crowd.

    However, I'm not on Facebook, and I don't throw my name out there for everyone. Who cares who I am? Dispute the post, not the poster.

    If you must know, I'm Jim in Maine. I'll try to remember that you would appreciate some sort of identifier, Stan, and use that.

  30. War is being made now in Afghanistan for strategic purposes, the same of the previous shameful war in Vietnam: to impeach the expansion of influence of China and Russia, and secure "access to resources" (i. e. hability to steal other people's resources) for allies in Eurasia (for Japan at the time, now for the E.U.).

    I'll forgive your English, and you must forgive me if I misunderstood, but, this is highly offensive to the memory of my fellow citizens who died on 9-11.

    Some of your other points are equally as ignorant. You should not try to lump all citizens of the US into want common stereotype. You sound like an enemy of the US to say we kill because we can and our citizens just allow it.

    We don't give a crap about E.U.'s access to resources. The invasion was about 9-11 and revenge. It was about the spread of terrorism and the feeling that the US had to respond as a sign to other terrorists that we will avenge such crimes against humanity and will kill perpetrators and those who support them.

    Afghanistan has nothing we want. Vietnam was about the US obsession with communism and the domino theory. We didn't defeat Japan in the 40s to turn around and fight for their access to resources less than 25 years later. We reluctantly, perhaps foolishly, took on our role in the world.

    Both have been amazingly mismanaged with little regard for innocent people at times. One, perhaps both, were unnecessary. Say what you want about Iraq (except we did it for their oil). Bush is a war criminal. For that, I apologize.

    Jim In Maine

  31. Jim, I think you're totally wrong on both of these points:

    1) "We don't give a crap about E.U.'s access to resources. The invasion was about 9-11 and revenge..."

    2) "Afghanistan has nothing we want..."

    The EU's access to resources is vital to American strategic interests. The invasion of Iraq was planned well before 9/11 occurred. 9/11 itself was a justification, a vindication, for launching the attack. That's not to say the US was involved in creating the attack, but it does mean that when it occurred it gave our leaders the chance to implement what they wanted to do.

    Our involvement in Afghanistan is all about strategic resources.

    Just my opinion. (And that of many other people).

  32. Re the discussion here re "if you're not guilty, you have nothing to fear," an excellent analogy can be drawn to drug testing.

    Professional athletes have for years objected to random, non-announced drug testing for steroids and other drugs. People in other professions have objected to (and generally blocked) random testing for drugs in schools and the workplace.

    Why? If they're not guilty, why object. Maybe they are guilty - perhaps the world is full of hypocritical malefactors (not just for drugs, but for other minor and major offenses). But also because of fear of mistakes. If random testing shows you to be guilty by mistake, the consequences could affect one's sports career, graduation from school, or job security. With regard to drones and the militarization of our police, a mistake could lead to...

  33. Stan,

    I understand your analogy about drug testing and you have a good point. On the other hand, I will compare drones to traffic light cameras. Since I don't intend to run a red light, I don't mind them being placed in intersections. If I accidentally do, and one takes my photo, I won't cry about receiving a fine. I should have paid more attention. Same goes with cops pointing radar at me. I shouldn't speed.

    We did not invade Afghanistan for strategic reasons. There was a nation playing host to terrorists who attacked us and killed nearly 3,000 civilians in NYC. If we wanted allies in the region or bases from which to attack Iran, we already could have paid billions for flyover rights in Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Turkmenistan, Pakistan. etc, etc.

    Where is all this oil we supposedly are getting from Iraq? Neoconservative Idealogue zealots with Islamophobia are the reason we invaded Iraq.

    Jim in Maine

  34. Jim -

    I'll extend your analogy back at you re the traffic lights. Many cities that were initially enthusiastic about cameras at intersections installed them to enhance their revenue rather than for public safety reasons.

    To their dismay, they sometimes discovered that installation of the red light cameras actually increased the accidents at the intersections - because drivers were so fearful of getting a ticket that they slammed on their brakes during orange and got rear-ended by cars behind them.

    So that's why some cities have uninstalled the lights. It illustrates my point that complications and errors may outweight theoretical benefits.

    I can't debate with you now re Afghanistan and Iraq, mainly because the Vikings game is due to start shortly, and for me sports (even with a losing team) trumps world geopolitical discussions.


  35. Sorry about your Vikings.

    "Studies from research groups like the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the Federal Highway Administration and the Texas Transportation Institute all have reaffirmed the safety benefits of the cameras. According to IIHS, cities using red-light safety cameras experienced a 24 percent decline in red-light running related fatalities and the FHWA reports that communities with camera programs are experiencing a reduction in red-light running violations ranging from 20-87 percent. Half of those jurisdictions reported between 40 and 62 percent reductions. And TTI found that cities using red-light safety cameras have seen a 32 percent decrease in right-angle crashes — the most life-threatening type of red-light running collision."



  36. To quote a presidential candidate: "Oops."

    I was misinformed, or misremembered. I'll concede my error on the red light traffic cameras. You win.


  37. I seem to recall that you're both right. That is, the cameras reduce some kinds of accidents... like right-angle crashes... and increase others, such as rear-end crashes. Whether they seem better or worse will depend upon whether you're counting all crashes, or fatalities, or injuries, or whatever. As with all statistics, you can describe whichever part of the elephant makes your argument, and so can the other fellow, but the whole elephant remains unseen.

    To complicate things, there have been instances where cities engaged in contracts with the companies that ran the cameras, contracts which set an upper limit for the yellow-light time at the lights. A shorter yellow-light time increases accidents, but also increases revenue.

    On the whole, red light cameras might save lives, but so does increasing the yellow light times.


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