Our drone future?

by on February 3, 2013 at 4:28 pm in Law, Science, Web/Tech | Permalink

 (In case you’re worried that drones lack allies in Congress, rest easy: there’s a Congressional Unmanned Systems Caucus with 60 members. With global spending on drones expected to nearly double over the next decade, to $11.3 billion, industry groups like the AUVSI are rapidly ramping up their lobbying budgets.)


Singer estimates that there are 76 other countries either developing drones or shopping for them; both Hizballah and Hamas have flown drones already. In November, a Massachusetts man was sentenced to 17 years for plotting to attack the Pentagon and the Capitol with remote-controlled planes.

The very interesting article is here, by Lev Grossman at Time, hat tip goes to The Browser.

1 dirk February 3, 2013 at 5:13 pm

drones, auto-driving cars, internet dating, no land line phones… the world is becoming increasingly uncinematic.

2 Tyler Cowen February 3, 2013 at 5:17 pm

Great comment, I just tweeted it…

3 dirk February 3, 2013 at 5:23 pm

Cool. Thanks!

4 Willitts February 3, 2013 at 5:36 pm

Isn’t this how Terminator started?

The impersonal nature of war was a great fear during the Cold War. It was dramatized in a Star Trek episode where wars were fought by computer and casualties reported to death chambers. The laws of war were designed to stop the cycle of violence created by the most abhorrent practices. Impersonal,ar holds the threat of being too sterile to stop or avoid. It is also lowers the cost and the personal aftereffects. We ought to consider the ethical ramification s as well as legal accountability for war crimes.

5 derek February 3, 2013 at 5:46 pm

I don’t think it accomplishes anything either. You have drones whacking guys and family in Pakistan, and they take out your ambassador in Libya.

6 Bender Bending Rodriguez February 3, 2013 at 6:20 pm

The current administration assured me that the Libya job was a response to a crappy YouTube video.

7 Hillary Clinton February 3, 2013 at 7:58 pm

What difference, at this point, does it make?

8 Willitts February 3, 2013 at 8:40 pm

None, apparently.

9 dead serious February 4, 2013 at 9:00 am

“Now is not the time to have this conversation.”

Sound familiar, right-wing gun nuts? Goose, gander, sauce, etc.

10 Andrew' February 4, 2013 at 11:38 am


11 Brian Donohue February 4, 2013 at 2:26 pm

Hillary picked up on Obama’s cue during the second debate, where he “took full responsibility” before segueing into a somber discussion of greeting caskets. I swear he turned the whole thing into a political positive. Really extraordinary work.

12 Jan February 3, 2013 at 8:54 pm

Hey, is that the video that revealed Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction?

13 Andrew' February 4, 2013 at 11:39 am

See, Democrats are better than Republicans because Republicans pretend other countries are a threat to us while Democrats don’t.

Got that? And Hliary is at least as qualified on issues of national security theater as GWB.

14 Jan February 4, 2013 at 8:11 pm

No contest, man. And you know it.

15 Andrew' February 5, 2013 at 4:28 am

That’s what I said. Republicans pretend to invade people for our benefit and interests. Democrats do it with robots to make the world safe for equality.

16 collin February 3, 2013 at 7:56 pm

In watching the Hagel and Republican debacle from Thursday, it shows how out of everybody seems to be about defense. The word cloud showed Iran & Israel like 160+ and drones a total of 5! And no serious questions about the effectiveness and long term problems of our drone warfare (sort like the Eisenhower CIA wars of yeasteryear.) or what our enemies might have in terms of drones over the next 10 years. It seems like to me that in 5 – 10 years the real threat to the US and our allies. Yes it seems a bit like Star Wars 2 but maybe life doesn’t imiatate great art but Bad TV or movies.

17 The Anti-Gnostic February 5, 2013 at 2:51 pm

That’s because Israel is the most important country in the world. The most important thing any US Secretary of Defense can ever ponder is how to defend Israel from Iran, which is the most evil country in the world.

The US is just this insignificant country of bumpkins that happens to be next to Mexico, which is a vibrant place somewhere down there where all the women look like Salma Hayek and everybody makes the best piping-hot, cheap chalupas you ever did taste. There is not any low-grade civil war, gruesome violence or structural fragility that a prospective US Secretary of Defense would ever need to think about.

18 Dismalist February 3, 2013 at 8:27 pm

Another genie out of the bottle. Can I own an armed drone under the 2nd Amendment? Are drones better than a couple of Dresdens or worse?

–Dismalist, consummate utilitarian.

19 Jan February 3, 2013 at 8:59 pm

Obviously, yes. The constitution is crystal clear on this issue. The real question: if I am not an authorized missile dealer and sell you my armed drone, do we have to go through all the useless motions of a background check? Why discuss Dresden–this is liberty!

20 Mark Thorson February 3, 2013 at 10:48 pm

Not if you sell it at a drone show, you don’t.

21 Andrew' February 4, 2013 at 5:07 am

You can own whatever allows us to keep the country free. Which is why we need gun control…for the government.

22 DocMerlin February 4, 2013 at 5:18 am

Its currently legal in most states. There is a federal excise tax on each hellfire missile, though, and it takes the ATF about 3-6 months to get back the paperwork for the missile.

23 Andrew' February 4, 2013 at 8:06 am

When people, anyone, in this case the government, threatens us with hellfire missiles, that is when it will be perfectly reasonable to possess them .

24 dead serious February 4, 2013 at 9:02 am

Just like they threaten us with assault weapons on a daily basis.

25 Mark Thorson February 4, 2013 at 9:13 am

“Cop killer” bullets were made illegal, even though no cop was killed by one.

On the other hand, a “cop killer” drone is possible. All you’d need is a vision system that can recognize words like POLICE or FBI on a jacket, and a weapon system that can target it.

26 Andrew' February 4, 2013 at 11:14 am

“Just like they threaten us with assault weapons on a daily basis.”

Ummm, yeah they do. They don’t stand around on corners with masks like in South/Central America and Europe (yet). But try being on the wrong end of an erroneous drug tip.

27 dead serious February 4, 2013 at 1:31 pm

Three questions:

You’re speaking from personal experience? And you lived to tell about it? Melodramatic much?

28 Andrew' February 4, 2013 at 3:15 pm

I never have any idea what you are talking about. If you don’t do exactly what any officer says, he’ll yell at you a few times to be nice, then he draws his Glock. And I’d rather be hit with a 223 than the 12 gauge he has 6 inches from him. And the reason he doesn’t carry the 12 gauge in his holster is that it is too big. And the reason he uses the 12 gauge instead of the 223 is that it is more devastating.

29 Andrew' February 4, 2013 at 3:16 pm

So, “threatening” to you is someone pointing a rifle at you saying “I’m going to kill you!”

And have you ever had that personal experience from a gun owner, or just being melodramatic?

30 Andrew' February 4, 2013 at 3:20 pm

The gun sitting on his hip is the implied threat. That’s why it is there. That’s why citizens are usually only allowed concealed carry. It’s why incidental brandishing is frowned up. People feel threatened. The difference is that I don’t feel entirely unthreatened just because he has a uniform and a measure of government impunity. This is probably because I pay attention, a touch of aspergers and don’t have the security theater appreciation gene.

31 Andrew' February 5, 2013 at 4:27 am

So, these assault weapons that only belong on the battlefield and that they don’t threaten us with, does that mean they are going to stop buying the shit out of them at the Federal level and take them out of the trunks of cops and the SWAT trucks?

32 Andrew' February 5, 2013 at 4:32 am


I don’t expect many people to be aware of it until it happens on their doorstep (certainly not the peanut gallery). But threats are measured in capabilities. Why are they increasing domestic militarization capabilities?

33 Mark Thorson February 5, 2013 at 4:16 pm

Because they can?

34 john February 3, 2013 at 8:33 pm

I for one am very happy that there is at least one Congressional unmanned caucus. I would like to see it catch on.

If no one comes, can it still be called sexist?

35 ChrisA February 3, 2013 at 11:09 pm

Thoughts on drones;
– We already have had remote controlled planes, some quite large, for a long time. What additional terrorism threat do drones represent over and above remote controlled plane?
– I imagine the US and other countries are already developing anti-drone, drones. Since there are no human casualties, one can imagine fighting endless mock battles with drones, so evolution could be extremely rapid in designs.
– I like the concept that flying robots are more practical than walking robots, this is something that I had not thought about before. But it seems like for leverage and endurance a wheeled or walking robot, with its ability to carry more fuel and lift heavy weights, is still the way to go for practical domestic robots?
– One can imagine a hover chair using similar principles as drone. Make the chair light (carbon fibre) surrounded by ducted fans, its just you and the engine to lift. You tell the drone where to go, and the drones flight computer can do all the hard work on stabilizing the flight, getting you up and down, avoiding obstacles and so on. For in-city travel it would seem to be a pretty nice solution. Tall buildings all of a sudden become very practical – no elevators to the ground floor, merging with other foot traffic, then into crowded public transport. Just go out your bedroom window and dock at the office window.

36 msgkings February 4, 2013 at 1:02 am

Take THAT, Peter Thiel!

37 Alexei Sadeski February 4, 2013 at 12:15 am

I find the drone fear a bit strange.

1. “Our enemies” will develop drone weapons whether “we” develop them or not. “They” will use them whether “we” use them or not.

2. By placing the pilot out of harm’s way, the target may be verified with more patience. In the olden days, with a six hour window to strike, you may be more likely to rashly pull the trigger than today, when you may have a twenty hour strike window.

/_\ It seems to me that the entire drone scare is much ado about nothing. I’m convincible on this, but thus far have seen literally nothing of substance.

38 Andrew' February 4, 2013 at 5:11 am

It is not primarily about incentives, but are we doing conventional airstrikes on Pakistan?

Domestically, it is about the ability to surveil (and who knows, right, would you put killings past them?) with your 20 hour strike window, 24/7 actually. The courts will say that although we’ve never had constant taxpayer extracted surveillance 24/7 it is fine simply because the technology makes it cheaper.

39 Finch February 4, 2013 at 8:46 am

+1 Best comment here. The complaints about drones usually conflate Obama’s preferred foreign policy with the technology when they aren’t the same thing.

There are strategically important changes drones bring about. They are potentially cheaper than manned aircraft. The trend seems to be that this gap is closing, but if it doesn’t, we may wind up with large numbers of aircraft again in the future rather than the tiny air forces of today. The minimum drone size is smaller than the minimum manned aircraft size, so you can do things with drones you can’t do with manned aircraft like fly within a city or impersonate a bird. I suppose air defense may have to deal with more, smaller targets, which may complicate things like carrier defense. Drone endurance is potentially higher than manned aircraft endurance because there’s no pilot to keep awake and alert. Drones have no pilot to be killed or captured, making hovering about over Pakistan more palatable. Nobody is getting beheaded on Al Jazeera. Finally – and I don’t think people talk about this one enough – drones are designed and operated by new organizations and different people from manned aircraft. The people involved aren’t as hidebound and there’s more room for innovation and experimentation than there is in the relatively conservative world of manned combat aviation. This is surely not a complete list, but I think it hits some of the more important points. People want to complain about a policy of off-battlefield strikes and they’re a bit anti-technology; they don’t stop to think that most of this could be done with manned aircraft in Afghanistan and a carrier off Yemen, just at a higher cost.

40 Finch February 4, 2013 at 8:51 am

> Obama’s preferred foreign policy

I didn’t mean to offer a judgement on that policy. I might describe the policy as “Lots of small battles prevent a few bigger ones that would be much more costly in political capital, dollars, and lives.”

41 Andrew' February 4, 2013 at 1:03 pm

Built into your reasoning seems to be an assumption that (1) force is justified and then therefore (2) go about it as cheaply as possible.

But observing our current state of affairs the government is going about it the other way. Wherever violence is perceived to be low cost, they are going ahead with it.

42 mulp February 4, 2013 at 1:49 pm

We the People have made violence the national policy that the Commander-in-Chief is required to carry out as long as Public Law No: 107–40 remains current law. That is the “endless global war on individuals” law. And as We the People do not want soldiers dying or being wounded because that drives up entitlement spending a lot, using drones is the method to wage endless global war on individuals that We the People have ratified repeatedly, in 2002, 2004, 2006, 2008, 2010, and 2012. Romney-Ryan were certainly in a danger zone in proposing war against Iran and other nations, because We the People translate that to soldiers dying and worse coming home severely damaged and thus entitled to lots of benefits paid for by We the People..

Do not try to abstract the beliefs of We the People into some vague external force which is beyond anyone’s control. Public Law No: 107–40 was passed with well over 525 votes in Congress in 2001 and has never been the subject of serious debate since in any election for Congress or in the reelection of President Bush (who could have vetoed it only to have Congress presumably override his veto overwhelmingly). President Bush and Republicans suffered political losses only as a result of sending too many soldiers to die or be maimed. Obama suffered no loss of support of We the People for actively pulling back from military tactics that lead to soldiers dying, but gained support for executing Public Law No: 107–40.

43 Finch February 4, 2013 at 2:07 pm

I suppose I am making that assumption and I believe it is valid. I’m not sure I’m comfortable with the current administration’s attitude towards due process, and I am uncomfortable with targeting US citizens. But these are quibbles. A world where the American military is more effective is a better world. I suspect most Americans think that. Frankly I suspect most people in the world, when pressed, would think that.

If your problem is with the use of force in the first place, you still shouldn’t have a problem with doing it in as safe and efficient a manner as possible. I guess your argument is that making it easier to do makes it more likely, and it’s wrong, therefore we should make it harder to do? Since I don’t really see a problem with drone strikes in the first place, we’re at a bit of an impasse. Even if I assumed they were immoral or inefficient or ineffective for some reason, I still don’t think crippling your military because of some minor objection is smart. And, of course, they seem moral and efficient and effective. I’m often a critic of the current administration, but fighting small battles to avoid or forestall big ones seems pretty reasonable. A more effective, easier to use American military will fight fewer wars. It will be doing things more often, but scale matters.

44 Andrew' February 5, 2013 at 5:28 am

It’s a valid prescription, but I fear an invalid description.

The question, to me, is what is the government/military BECOMING effective at? They are not being especially effective at meeting national threats with national defense (tanks, bombers, aircraft carriers, subs, nukes and nuke security). They are blowing their wad in podunk conflicts. They are tangling with tinhorns and targeting individuals. These are not national threats. Al Qaeda is not a national threat. Their best shot dropped a couple of buildings when we weren’t ready, Our government is increasing their capabilities in realms applicable to domestic operations.

45 The Anti-Gnostic February 4, 2013 at 9:27 am

It’s just another step down the road insulating government actors from the consequences of their actions. Unless you’re government, nothing good can come of it. Hopefully the money runs out before they can afford to build and operate the remote-controlled tanks and infantry robots.

46 mulp February 4, 2013 at 1:55 pm

Given our form of government, your statement is more accurately:

“It’s just another step down the road insulating We the People from the consequences of their actions. Unless you’re We the People, nothing good can come of it. Hopefully the money runs out before We the People can afford to build and operate the remote-controlled tanks and infantry robots.”

Seriously, a large number of conservatives have advocated more nuclear weapons as a means of carrying out war with less cost to We the People. It seems to have taken President Reagan a few years before he fully comprehended the meaning of nuclear war, so he was advocating a military strategy that allowed for nuclear war without any cost to We the People.

47 Ape Man February 4, 2013 at 10:22 am

This drone hysteria is getting out of hand. Yes they do make it cheaper and easier for the guys in the fancy uniforms to do certain things. And like must technological advances in arms, this will result in people getting killed. But I think a lot of people are confusing drone political efficiency with drone militarily effectiveness. The two are not the same thing.

From a military perspective, the only thing drones add is a longer loiter time. And this loiter time comes at the cost of not being able to operate effectively in non-permissive environment. If your enemy can describe the air above your head as “permissive” then you are pretty much screwed regardless of how many drones he has. Drones just add to the suck.

I don’t think a military that was actually trying to win would wage a counterinsurgency with drones as the primary weapon (which is basically what the US is doing in Pakistan although we don’t call it counterinsurgency even though that is what it is). And as long as drones are remotely controlled, they simply are not that dangerous to any country with decent electronic warfare capabilities. From what I have read, even civilians with a good ham background and some half way decent equipment can mess them up.

If we ever get to the point where drones don’t need to be remotely controlled, all kinds of things will change and not just the eyes in the skies.

48 Andrew' February 4, 2013 at 11:16 am

“From a military perspective, the only thing drones add is a longer loiter time.”

And more collateral damage compared to boots. Imagine if the raid on OBL had been with drones or bombs. They would have gotten one terrorist and a score of children.

49 Finch February 4, 2013 at 12:47 pm

There’s less collateral damage from drone strikes than conventional airstrikes. Hellfire is small compared to JDAM. Boots on the ground is not usually the relevant alternative. Whether you like it or not, the American government, and I daresay the American people, are willing to accept collateral damage over dead and captured commandos. And I don’t think there’s any realistic world in which these strikes don’t continue to occur for some time.

50 Ape Man February 4, 2013 at 10:43 pm

It is not like a drone is the only thing that can fire a hellfire. That aside my point about a military who wanted to win having boots on the ground had nothing to do with collateral damage. Trying to fight a counter insurgency from the air had never worked and is never going to work. The idea that if we just kill enough people with pin point strikes the ones left over are not going to want to fight us is even more silly then the idea that if you bomb London hard enough the UK is going to give up and surrender. .

But the real thing that bugs me about drone advocates is that they seem to me to be missing the real technological changes.Air power of any sort is going to be much less effective than it is today. Drones are not going to be immune to this. People get so blinded by the current effectiveness of air power that can’t see the technological changes that are going to make it much less effective in the future. Ever greater computing power means that the only things that are safe are things that can hide. And there is nowhere to hide in the sky.

The future started to arrive with the advent of radar guide SAM’s. They made using air power a very risky proportions even for an advanced air forces. The only reason SAM’s are not more of a threat to the world’s advanced air forces is American/Israel is currently the only ones who have shown that they can do true electronic warfare. If the other guy does not dare turn his radar on, SAM’s cease to be useful. But this technology is ultimately more dangerous to air power then to ground forces. If you can’t protect ground radar from a Harm, you can’t protect an AWAC. And if you can’t protect an AWAC all the money you have spent on stealth is worthless. That is not even getting into all the other things that an adversary with electronic warfare capabilities can do.

The bottom line is that the success of American air power is dependent on an uncontested Electronic Warfare capability. It is one of those things that no one pays attention to that makes all the difference. As soon as America runs into an adversary who is capable of electronic warfare, air power will be one of the least survivable things out there. Especially drones who have to phone home.

51 Andrew' February 5, 2013 at 5:29 am

“There’s less collateral damage from drone strikes than conventional airstrikes. ”

But why is that the baseline?

52 Andrew' February 4, 2013 at 12:08 pm

Here is the thing about the hardest form possible efficient voter theorem- if everything works absolutely flawlessly all that happens is the voters get what they think they want.

53 Mark Thorson February 4, 2013 at 4:11 pm

You know what I want? Live streaming from the drone to my TV, and the American people voting in real-time whether to fire the missile. 1 million say don’t fire, but 2.5 million say fire now! Whoosh! BOOM!

54 Andrew' February 5, 2013 at 9:56 am

So, as we were saying…
“Leaked document has loose definition of requirements for drone strike”
I think Tyler gets his issue of the internet early.

55 Carolus February 6, 2013 at 11:51 am

Drones are just a technology. Would anyone feel better if Obama had Awlaki killed by a CIA hired gunslinger? What difference would it make to use humint as a targeting and execution technique vice a drone manned by a pilot in Nevada? IMO, none at all. The issue for the drone discussion is who is targeted. Under Obama, terrorists are assassinated. Under Bush, they tried to capture and interrogate them, sometimes very successfully, and then left alive. Under Obama, American citizens are being assassinated by Americans without any trial or appeal, sometimes unjustly so. Perhaps other Presidents have done that during wars, I don’t know that and make no judgment on it. I’m just making the point that the technology is irrelevant. It’s the policy that drives its employment that should be discussed. Are we assassinating the right people, under the right legal and constitutional authorities? Those are the issues, not the drones.

56 Robert Guico February 7, 2013 at 2:09 pm

I have no idea who to tell this to, but… drones would be really helpful for tornado watches.

The National Weather Service (or someone with really deep pockets and a penchant for weather) would probably only start with enough for one per 100 sq/mi. But I can think of a world where, just before a 200-tornado outbreak, there’s a drone in every square mile of airspace, providing visual confirmation of tornadoes as they form.

Bonus points for following a drone-based live-stream of a tornado into your neighborhood (this already exists for ground-based mobile spotters.)

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