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Unmanned drone attacks and shape-shifting robots: War's remote-control future

The Pentagon already includes unmanned drone attacks in its arsenal. Next up: housefly-sized surveillance craft, shape-changing 'chemical robots,' and tracking agents sprayed from the sky. What does it mean to have soldiers so far removed from the battlefield?

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But many of the new emerging technologies promise not only firepower but also the ability to do something else: reduce the number of soldiers needed in war. While few are suggesting armies made up exclusively of automated machines (yet), the increased use of drones in Afghanistan and Pakistan has already reinforced the view among many policymakers and Pentagon planners that the United States can carry out effective military operations by relying largely on UAVs, targeted cruise missile strikes, and a relatively small number of special operations forces.

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At the least, many enthusiasts see the new high-tech tools helping to save American lives. At the most, they see them changing the nature of war – how it's fought and how much it might cost – as well as helping America maintain its military preeminence.

Yet the prospect of a military less reliant on soldiers and more on "push button" technologies also raises profound ethical and moral questions. Will drones controlled by pilots thousands of miles away, as many of them are now, reduce war to an antiseptic video game? Will the US be more likely to wage war if doing so does not risk American lives? And what of the oversight role of Congress in a world of more remote-control weapons? Already, when lawmakers on Capitol Hill accused the Obama administration of circumventing their authority in waging war in Libya, White House lawyers argued in essence that an operation can't be considered war if there are no troops on the ground – and, as a result, does not require the permission of Congress.

"If the military continues to reduce the human cost of waging war," says Lt. Col. Edward Barrett, an ethicist at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., "there's a possibility that you're not going to try hard enough to avoid it."

Beneath a new moon, a crew pushes the 2,500-pound Predator drone toward a blacked-out flight line and prepares it for takeoff. The soldiers wheel over a pallet of Hellfire missiles and load them onto the plane's undercarriage. The Predator pilot walks around the aircraft, conducting his preflight check. He then returns to a nearby trailer, sits down at a console with joysticks and monitors, and guides the snub-nosed plane down the runway and into the night air – unmanned and fully armed.

The takeoffs of Predators with metronome regularity here at Kandahar Air Field, in southern Afghanistan, has helped turn this strip of asphalt into what the Pentagon calls the single busiest runway in the world. An aircraft lifts off or lands every two minutes. It's a reminder of how integral drones have become to the war in Afghanistan and the broader war on terror.

Initially, of course, the plan was not to put weapons on Predator drones at all. Like the first military airplanes, they were to be used just for surveillance. As the war in Iraq progressed, however, US service members jury-rigged the drones with weapons. Today, armed Predators and their larger offspring, Reapers, fly over America's battlefields, equipped with both missiles and powerful cameras, becoming the most widely used and, arguably, most important tools in the US arsenal.


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