A Future Arms Race in UAVs?

December 2, 2001

Loring Wirbel
Citizens for Peace in Space, Colorado Springs

When we look back at the war in Afghanistan in ten years, we may see one of its most anachronistic moments in late October, when the Defense Department awarded the Joint Strike Fighter contract to Lockheed-Martin, precisely at a time when Unmanned Aerial reconnaissance Vehicles (UAVs) and their missile-armed spawn, Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAVs) were making the fighter jet a product of the last war.  OK, maybe a United States government that insists on global reach will still find uses for carrier-based strike aircraft, but we should not underestimate how UAVs and UCAVs have changed the nature of war.

[Photo: Artist's concept of Pegasus, an unmanned aircraft.
Northrop Grumman is building with its own funds
and emanates from the
company's new Advanced Systems Development Center in El Segundo.]

UAVs were used secretly during the bombing of Kosovo, but they came into their own in Afghanistan, beginning with the Predator aircraft used by both the Air Force and CIA.  A special Predator armed with Hellfire missiles came close to killing Taliban leader Mohammed Omar in early October, and a similar Predator was believed to be involved in the mid-November attack that killed Mohammed Atef.  The Air Force was so pleased with the Predator's performance, they rushed a more sophisticated, higher-flying drone called Global Hawk into production.

Global HawkAs a consequence, the method of dismantling the Taliban did not follow the trajectory many peace groups anticipated.  Yes, there was massive bombing on Taliban front lines, but blanket bombing of civilians was kept to a minimum.  (This editorial was written prior to an expected raid on Kunduz, where the Northern Alliance, Taliban, and US/NATO forces all "agreed" that non-Taliban foreign volunteers inside the city should be eliminated. Kunduz might see the greatest use of UAVs in the war, or could end up being the biggest slaughter, albeit with few people complaining of the mass murder of al-Qaida and Chechen volunteers.)

More than any other factor in the "total spectrum dominance" favored by Space Command, the use of drone warfare makes war pseudo-clean, surgical, and absolute.  Up to Thanksgiving, there had been no deaths or major casualties among U.S. forces, and even Afghan civilian deaths had been kept to low numbers.  And if the U.S. was looking for the unbeatable trump card against present or future adversaries, it can find it in autonomous vehicles.

China, Russia, and NATO nations have nothing like Predator and Global Hawk in development, or even on the drawing boards.  As the U.S. extends the UAV concept to land vehicles and ships, the concept of "war at a distance" is perfected, and a global Pax Americana is within reach.  While peace groups concentrate on the hazards of missile and space-weapon arms races, the UAV has snuck in under the radar.

The end result of the war on terrorism could be the U.S.-directed global management that Space Command has always dreamed about, with very few nations complaining.   Even if the U.S. represents "McWorld", once Bin Laden forced the world into making an explicit Jihad vs. McWorld choice, the verdict swung mightily to McWorld.  But the UAV as enforcer of globalization will not be a static victory.  Sooner or later, an arms race of robot drones will become inevitable.  Peace groups must prepare for this now.

Home Page