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All countries will have drone kill technology in 10 years – report

Published time: May 07, 2014 11:08
Edited time: May 07, 2014 14:04
A U.S. Air Force MQ-1 Predator unmanned aerial vehicle (Reuters / U.S. Air Force / Tech. Sgt. Effrain Lopez)

A U.S. Air Force MQ-1 Predator unmanned aerial vehicle (Reuters / U.S. Air Force / Tech. Sgt. Effrain Lopez)

In just one decade, just about every country in the world will have the means to either build or buy unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) capable of launching missiles at enemy targets, thus dramatically changing the face of warfare.

Despite a track record that is stained with the blood of innocent victims, drone technology is quickly becoming the weapon of choice for militaries around the globe, and it’s too late for the United States – presently the leader in UAV technologies – to stop the rush, according to Defense One, a site devoted to security issues.

Just a few countries now hold membership in the elite drone club, including the US, United Kingdom, Russia, Israel, Iran, Pakistan and China. Other countries, such as South Africa and India, are actively seeking to join. According to the RAND organization, however, another 23 countries “are developing or have developed” armed drones.

Experts point to China’s prowess in building knockoff drones, which are expected to flood the market very soon.

“Once countries like China start exporting these, they’re going to be everywhere really quickly. Within the next 10 years, every country will have these,” Noel Sharkey, a robotics and artificial intelligence professor from the University of Sheffield, UK, told Defense One. “There’s nothing illegal about these unless you use them to attack other countries. Anything you can [legally] do with a fighter jet, you can do with a drone.”

Meanwhile, some experts are pointing to the US military’s reduced budget allocations for drone technology (down to $2.4 billion in 2015 from a high of $5.7 billion in 2013) as a sign that the United States is somehow abandoning drone technology for other forms of weapons. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.

A soldier stands in front of a 'Shadow' drone during presentation by UAS at US military base in Vilseck-Grafenwoehr (Reuters / Michaela Rehle)

In December, the US Department of Defense released its 25-year roadmap that aims to make unmanned systems "ubiquitous on the battlefield" – even as the defense budget faces $487 billion in cuts over the next decade.

As proof the United States is still very much interested in the development of drone technology, the roadmap says the Pentagon aims to develop “fully autonomous machines by 2030 or beyond” (current ‘unmanned’ drones still rely on a human operator). The Pentagon envisions drones that can “perceive, analyze, plan, react, and make decisions without human intervention.”

Despite the obvious advantages that drone technology offers on the battlefield, the RAND report emphasizes that it is not in itself "transformative."

"The benefits and limits of armed UAVs suggest that they offer their users significant capabilities but are only transformative in rare circumstances. But again: These conclusions could change with technological advances in automation, miniaturization, stealth, and other fields," according to the study.

"By themselves, armed UAVs do not win wars, and wars can be won without them."

Despite the shortcomings, the future landscape of warfare takes on nightmarish proportions when the idea of aerial “hunter-killer” machines – such as the MG-9 Reaper, the American UAV that can hover for hours while waiting to pick off its intended target with laser-guided bombs – are swarming the skies.

Already, this technology has demonstrated its deadly effectiveness at killing not only its intended targets – which are most of the time described as terrorists – but many innocent people who are unfortunate enough to be in the vicinity of these attacks.

According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, the CIA carried out 383 drone strikes in Pakistan between 2004 and 2014. These attacks led to anywhere between 416 and 957 civilian deaths, of which at least 168 children died.

In October, Human Rights Watch released a damning report on American drone strikes in Yemen. It described six attacks out of an estimated 80 operations in the country. In those six attacks, 82 people were killed, 57 of whom – or nearly 70 percent – were civilians.

A grab taken from the Iranian state-run Press TV on December 8, 2011 shows what Iranian officials claim is the US RQ-170 Sentinel high-altitude reconnaissance drone that crashed in Iran on December 4, 2011 displayed at an undisclosed location. (AFP Photo)

The failure of the unmanned aerial vehicles to deliver has also been witnessed in other ways, as was demonstrated when, on December 4, 2011, a RQ-170 Sentinel drone on a CIA reconnaissance mission was captured by Iranian forces near the northeast city of Kashmar. Tehran claimed the long-winged stealth UAV was brought down by its cyber-warfare unit which hacked into the vehicle and landed it.

In April 2012, Iranian military officials announced they were in the process of constructing a replica of the aircraft based on the information retrieved. Tehran also said they were approached by a number of countries, including China, for permission to examine the drone.