Predators and Robots at War

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Max Becherer/Polaris
The US Air Force’s 62nd Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron launching an unmanned Predator drone with laser-guided Hellfire missiles mounted on its wings, Kandahar Air Field, Afghanistan, November 2009

Drones are in the headlines. We read daily about strikes against terrorist targets in the tribal areas of Pakistan using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)—remote-controlled aircraft equipped with elaborate sensors and sometimes weapons as well. Earlier this summer the US sent Predator drones into action against militants in Somalia, and plans are reportedly afoot to put the CIA in charge of a drone offensive against al-Qaeda operatives in Yemen. NATO has dispatched UAVs to Libya. State-of-the-art stealth drones cased the house where Osama bin Laden was living before US Navy seals staged their now famous raid. And in a speech a few weeks ago, White House counterterrorism chief John Brennan made it clear that drones will continue to figure prominently in the Obama administration’s counterterrorism strategy. On August 22, a CIA drone killed the number-two al-Qaeda leader in the mountains of Pakistan.

Most of us have probably heard by now how extraordinary this technology is. Many of the UAV strikes in South Asia are actually orchestrated by operators sitting at consoles in the United States. US Air Force Colonel Matt Martin gives a unique first-person account of the strange split consciousness of this new type of warfare in his book Predator. Even as his body occupies a seat in a control room in Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, his mind is far removed, following a suspicious SUV down a desert road in Iraq or tailing Taliban fighters along a mountain ridge in Afghanistan. “I was already starting to refer to the Predator and myself as ‘I,’ even though the airplane was thousands of miles away,” Martin notes ruefully.

Notifying Marines on the ground that he’s arriving on the scene in Afghanistan, he has to remind himself that he’s not actually arriving anywhere—he’s still in his seat on the base. “Although it was only shortly after noon in Nevada,” he writes, “I got the yawns just looking at all that snow and darkness” on the ground outside Kabul. He can hardly be blamed for the confusion. The eerie acuity of vision afforded by the Predator’s multiple high-powered video cameras enables him to watch as the objects of his interest light up cigarettes, go to the bathroom, or engage in amorous adventures with animals on the other side of the world, never suspecting that they are under observation as they do.

Even though home and wife are just a few minutes’ drive down the road from his battle station, the peculiar detachment of drone warfare does not necessarily insulate Martin from his actions. Predator attacks are extraordinarily precise, but the violence of war can never be fully tamed, and the most gripping scenes in the book document Martin’s emotions on the occasions when innocent civilians wander under his crosshairs in the seconds just …

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