Attack of the Drones

Rogers’ Predator is one of more than 1,200 UAVs in the US military arsenal; three years ago, there were fewer than 100 in the field. Today drones as small as a crow and as big as a Cessna are searching for roadside bombs, seeking out insurgents, and watching the backs of US troops. They’re cheap, they can stay in the air longer than any manned aircraft, and they can see a battlefield better – all without risking a pilot.

Those capabilities tell only part of the story. UAVs give rank-and-file soldiers powers once reserved for generals. They push generals into the thick of battle. And they’re blurring the lines between the fighter jocks and the grunts on the ground. Firmly entrenched hierachies don’t change easily, but drones are reshaping military culture. —Noah ShachtmanAttack of the Drones (Wired)

Just as e-mail and blogging puts into the hands of the people power that was once reserved for executives and publishers, the military technology that gives field operatives access to current information and real-time interaction possibilities means that those field operatives will be held back if they wait for authorization from top-level officials. The increased number of micro-judgements multiplies the opportunities for making a mistake. (Of course, it also multiplies the opportunities for making correct judgements — choosing not to attack a potential target because a drone helps determine the target isn’t a threat.)

The whole thing, from legal decision to command to execution, took five minutes. Tacticians call that time line – target acquisition, deployment of force, order to attack, destruction of target – the “sensor-to-shooter cycle” or “kill chain.” It’s a measure of any military’s reflexes; in Gulf War I, the kill chain was often three days.

It can still take days for satellite pictures to be captured, scoured by imagery analysts, forwarded through the military hierarchy, and passed on to someone with a gun. But that’s changing. With an armed UAV, the sensor is the shooter. The kill chain is only one link long.