How drones change the risks that nations are willing to take

In “The Drone Age,” Michael J. Boyle provides moral clarity on the question of drone technology, and tops it off with a word of warning.

Courtesy of Oxford University Press
“The Drone Age: How Drone Technology Will Change War and Peace” by Michael J. Boyle, Oxford University Press, 387 pp.

In 1907, just four years after the Wright brothers’ historic flight, science fiction author H.G. Wells predicted that aerial war would shift how policymakers made decisions.

The rise of machines designed to terrorize remote populations with little risk to the operator made it “impossible,” wrote Wells in his novel “The War in the Air,” “to end a war by any of the established methods.”

In “The Drone Age,” Michael J. Boyle makes a similar observation about the advent of unmanned aircraft and the roles that they play not just in our seemingly endless wars, but also in law enforcement, commerce, and humanitarian actions, as well as their potential use by nonstate actors to intimidate governments.

Boyle, a political scientist at La Salle University in Philadelphia, argues that drone technology shifts its users’ strategic choices in two major ways. The first is by altering the way users calculate risk. Assassinations – rebranded as “targeted killings” – can now be carried out far from any declared battlefield with nearly zero risk to anyone in the “kill chain.” Drones are also prompting states and nonstate actors alike to make more strategic gambles, for example, by flying over demilitarized zones. 

Second, Boyle argues, drones promote mission creep, displacing our goals. For instance, the United States now operates unmanned vehicles in the skies over more than a dozen countries. The U.S. “may not have intended to become militarily involved in a growing number of countries around the world,” he writes, “but its pursuit of al Qaeda and now the Islamic State through targeted killing has led it do so.”

But Boyle’s subject matter is not limited to lethal military drones, although that is where his book’s center of gravity lies. He examines the issues that arise from having “eyes in the sky” available not just to police, the military, and TV stations, but now to nearly everyone with a few hundred dollars.

He describes the Wild West atmosphere following the devastating 2015 earthquake in Nepal, as “digital humanitarians” flocked to test their technology on the country’s traumatized population. He also details the chilling implications of military and law enforcement drone surveillance networks – “Google Earth with TiVo capability,” as one engineer put it – that are shifting our expectations of privacy.

“Everyone from real estate companies to paparazzi to private investigators can now get a bird’s-eye view of their target and use drones to take video and film from the air,” he writes. “So, while the drone hovering over the backyard is probably not a surveillance drone, it will be harder to tell who it belongs to if it actually is.”

Boyle takes the reader through the history of unmanned vehicles, from Nikola Tesla’s early cruise missile in 1898, right up to the handheld Black Hornet nano-drone used by soldiers on the ground in combat zones. Near the end, he sketches out possible futures where advanced AI processes intelligence onboard, where “swarms” of drones overwhelm defenses, where keeping humans “in the loop” for lethal decisions becomes a liability, and where surveillance drones disguised as hummingbirds turn society into a panopticon. 

With a measured tone and a wealth of citations, “The Drone Age” is no polemic against U.S. drone policy. Readers looking for an analysis of the more chilling constitutional implications of drone warfare would do well to check out “The Assassination Complex: Inside the Government's Secret Drone Warfare Program,” by journalist Jeremy Scahill and his colleagues at The Intercept. Nor does Boyle delve much into the individual personalities driving the rise of drones and the often contradictory policies that guide them. Those looking for the story of how the war on terror has transformed the thought process of our leaders may be interested in journalist Max Blumenthal’s “The Management of Savagery: How America's National Security State Fueled the Rise of Al Qaeda, ISIS, and Donald Trump.”

What Boyle offers in the place of righteous condemnation is a quiet moral clarity. When writing about armed drones like the Reaper and Predator, he is careful to take note of the horror of continuously fearing death from above. When describing the work of commanding the drones, his sympathies clearly lie with the pilots, a third of whom experience burnout and more than a sixth of whom contend with clinical mental distress.

“Only by anticipating what drones do to ourselves and to others,” he writes, “can we ensure that our embrace of unmanned technology does not come at the cost of our humanity.”

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