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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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While the distant control of drones may well protect American lives, it raises questions about what it means to have people so far removed from the field of conflict. "Sometimes you felt like God hurling thunderbolts from afar," says Lt. Col. Matt Martin, who was among the first generation of US soldiers to work with drones to wage war and who has written a book – "Predator: The Remote-Control Air War Over Iraq and Afghanistan: A Pilot's Story."

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Martin agrees that the unmanned aircraft no doubt reduce American casualties, but wonders if it makes killing "too easy, too tempting, too much like simulated combat, like the computer game Civilization."

It probably doesn't reassure critics that the flight controls for drones over the years have come to resemble video-game contollers, which the military has done to make them more intuitive for a generation of young soldiers raised on games like Gears of War and Killzone.

Martin knows what it's like to confront the dark side of war, even as he fought it from afar. During one operation, he was piloting a drone that was tracking an insurgent. Just after he fired one of the aircraft's missiles, two children rode their bicycles into range. They were both killed. "You get good at compartmentalizing," says Martin.

What worries critics is those who are too good at it – and the impact in general of waging war at a distance. Some fret about the mechanics of the decisionmaking process: Who ultimately makes the decision to pull the trigger? And how do you decide whom to put on the hit list – a top Al Qaeda official, yes, but is some petty but persistent insurgent a matter of national security?

As the US increasingly uses drones in its secret campaigns, questions arise about how much to inform America's allies about UAV attacks and whether they alienate local populations more than they help subdue the enemy, which the US has starkly, and almost weekly, confronted with its drone campaign in Pakistan.

From the US military's viewpoint, the drone war has been fantastically successful, helping to kill key Al Qaeda operatives and Taliban insurgents with a minimum of civilian casualties and almost no US troops put at risk.

Some even believe that the ethical oversight of drones is far more rigorous than that of manned aircraft, since at least 150 people – ground crews, engineers, pilots, intelligence analyzers – are typically involved in each UAV mission.

The issue of what's a minimum of civilian losses is, of course, subjective. In 2009, the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, estimated that the US drone war was killing about 10 civilians for every 1 insurgent in Pakistan. That may be far fewer casualties than would be killed with traditional airstrikes. But it is hardly comforting to the Pakistanis.

Moreover, the very practice of taking out enemy leaders or sympathizers could at some point, according to detractors, devolve into an aerial assassination campaign. When the US used a drone strike last month to kill jihadist cleric and American-born Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen, President Obama hailed it as a "major blow" to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. But some critics decried the killing of a US citizen with no public scrutiny.

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