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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Others ask a more simple but practical question: What about the troops who conduct the UAV strikes from the Nevada desert – could they become legitimate targets of America's enemies at, say, a local mall, bringing the war on terror to the suburbs?Skip to next paragraph
Some worry that the US is, in fact, placing too heavy a burden on its UAV troops. Despite warnings that "video-game warfare" might make them callous to killing, new studies suggest that the stress levels drone operators face are higher than those for infantry forces on the ground.
"Having this idea of a 'surgical war' where you can really just pinpoint the bad guys with the least amount of damage to our own force, there's a bit of naiveté in all that," says Maryann Cusinamo Love, an associate professor at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.
She says the powerful cameras on the drones allow pilots to see in "great vivid detail the real-time results of their actions. That is an incredible stress on them."
It is also, she argues, a "ghettoization of the killing function in war." However justified the military mission may be, she says, "You are still giving the most stressful job of war disproportionately to this one subset of people."
Nearly as long as militaries have existed, they have invented arms to keep their soldiers as far away from danger as possible. Some sound ridiculous, others terrifying, but most have raised questions of fairness in warfare.
During World War II, Japanese forces used the jet stream to launch paper "fire balloons" rigged with bombs meant to explode when they drifted over US soil. One such balloon discovered by an American family during a picnic in the Oregon woods resulted in the only deaths in the continental US caused by enemy hostilities in the war.
For their part, US scientists experimented with a form of bio-inspired warfare: a "bat bomb" that they planned to launch in parachute-rigged casings over Japan. They imagined fitting the bodies of tiny bats with incendiary bombs on timers. The theory was that the bats, once dropped, would roost in the eaves and attics of Japan's delicate wooden dwellings, setting off fires. The technology was successfully tested but scrapped when it was deemed too expensive by the Pentagon.
On the Western front, Germany was experimenting with a remote-control tank known as the Goliath. It used technology pioneered by an American who had demonstrated a remote-control boat years earlier at Madison Square Garden in New York City. When he tried to sell his technology to the US military, however, he was met with ridicule.
"He said, 'I've got this technology,' but they started laughing – they thought he was crazy," says Peter Singer, author of "Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century."