Jan 252010
 

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Drone surge: Today, tomorrow and 2047
By Nick Turse

As a start, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency or DARPA, the Pentagon’s blue skies research outfit, is already looking into radically improving on Gorgon Stare with an “Autonomous Real-time Ground Ubiquitous Surveillance-Infrared (ARGUS-IR) System”. In the obtuse language of military research and development, it will, according to DARPA, provide a “real-time, high-resolution, wide-area video persistent surveillance capability that allows joint forces to keep critical areas of interest under constant surveillance with a high degree of target location accuracy” via as many as 130 ‘Predator-like’ steerable video streams to enable real-time tracking and monitoring and

enhanced situational awareness during evening hours”.

In translation, that means the air force will quite literally be flooded with video information from future battlefields; and every “advance” of this sort means bulking up the global network of facilities, systems and personnel capable of receiving, monitoring and interpreting the data streaming in from distant digital eyes. All of it is specifically geared toward “target location”, that is, pin-pointing people on one side of the world so that Americans on the other side can watch, track and, in many cases, kill them.

In addition to enhanced sensors and systems like ARGUS-IR, the air force has a long-term vision for drone warfare that is barely beginning to be realized. Predators and Reapers have already been joined in Afghanistan by a newer, formerly secret drone, a “low observable unmanned aircraft system” first spotted in 2007 and dubbed the “Beast of Kandahar” before observers were sure what it actually was. It is now known to be a Lockheed Martin-manufactured unmanned aerial vehicle, the RQ-170 – a drone which the air force blandly notes was designed to “directly support combatant commander needs for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance to locate targets”. According to military sources, the sleek, stealthy surveillance craft has been designated to replace the antique Lockheed U-2 spy plane, which has been in use since the 1950s.

In the coming years, the RQ-170 is slated to be joined in the skies of America’s “next wars” by a fleet of drones with ever newer, more sophisticated capabilities and destructive powers. Looking into the post-2011 future, Deptula sees the most essential need, according to an Aviation Week report, as “long-range [reconnaissance and] precision strike” – that is, more eyes in far off skies and more lethality. He added, “We cannot move into a future without a platform that allows [us] to project power long distances and to meet advanced threats in a fashion that gives us an advantage that no other nation has.”

This means bigger, badder, faster drones – armed to the teeth – with sensor systems to monitor wide swathes of territory and the ability to loiter overhead for days on end waiting for human targets to appear and, in due course, be vaporized by high-powered munitions. It’s a future built on advanced technologies designed to make targeted killings – remote-controlled assassinations – ever more effortless.

Over the horizon and deep into what was, until recently, only a silver-screen fantasy, the air force envisions a wide array of unmanned aircraft, from tiny insect-like robots to enormous “tanker size” pilotless planes. Each will be slated to take over specific war-making functions (or so air force dreamers imagine). Those nano-sized drones, for instance, are set to specialize in indoor reconnaissance – they’re small enough to fly through windows or down ventilation shafts – and carry out lethal attacks, undertake computer-disabling cyber-attacks, and swarm, as would a group of angry bees, of their own volition. Slightly larger micro-sized Small Tactical Unmanned Aircraft Systems (STUAS) are supposed to act as “transformers” – altering their form to allow for flying, crawling and non-visual sensing capabilities. They might fill sentry, counter-drone, surveillance and lethal attack roles.

Additionally, the air force envisions small and medium “fighter-sized” drones with lethal combat capabilities that would put the current UAS air fleet to shame. Today’s medium-sized Reapers are set to be replaced by next generation MQ-Ma drones that will be “networked, capable of partial autonomy, all-weather and modular with capabilities supporting electronic warfare [EW], CAS [close air support], strike and multi-INT [multiple intelligence] ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] missions’ platforms”.

The language may not be elegant, much less comprehensible, but if these future fighter aircraft actually come online they will not only send today’s remaining Top Gun pilots to the showers, but may even sideline tomorrow’s drone human operators, who, if all goes as planned, will have ever fewer duties. Unlike today’s drones, which must take off and land with human guidance, the MQ-Mas will be automated and drone operators will simply be there to monitor the aircraft.

Next up will be the MQ-Mb, theoretically capable of taking over even more roles once assigned to traditional fighter-bombers and spy planes, including the suppression of enemy air defenses, bombing and strafing of ground targets and surveillance missions. These will also be designed to fly more autonomously and be better linked in to other drone “platforms” for cooperative missions involving many aircraft under the command of a single “pilot”. Imagine, for instance, one operator overseeing a single command drone that holds sway over a small squadron of autonomous drones carrying out a coordinated air attack on clusters of people in some far off land, incinerating them in small groups across a village, town or city.

Finally, perhaps 30 to 40 years from now, the MQ-Mc drone would incorporate all of the advances of the MQ-M line, while being capable of everything from dog-fighting to missile defense. With such new technology will come new policies and new doctrines. In the years ahead, the air force intends to make drone-related policy decisions on everything from treaty obligations to automatic target engagement – robotic killing without a human in the loop. The latter extremely controversial development is already envisioned as a possible post-2025 reality.

2047: What’s old is new again
The year 2047 is the target date for the air force’s Holy Grail, the capstone for its long-term plan to turn the skies over to war-fighting drones. In 2047, the air force intends to rule the skies with MQ-Mc drones and “special” super-fast, hypersonic drones for which neither viable technology nor any enemies with any comparable programs or capabilities yet exist. Despite this, the air force is intent on making these super-fast hunter-killer systems a reality by 2047. “Propulsion technology and materials that can withstand the extreme heat will likely take 20 years to develop. This technology will be the next generation air game-changer. Therefore the prioritization of the funding for the specific technology development should not wait until the emergence of a critical COCOM [combatant command] need,” says the air force’s 2009-2047 UAS “Flight Plan”.

If anything close to the air force’s dreams comes to fruition, the “game” will indeed be radically changed. By 2047, there’s no telling how many drones will be circling over how many heads in how many places across the planet. There’s no telling how many millions or billions of flight hours will have been flown, or how many people, in how many countries, will have been killed by remote-controlled, bomb-dropping, missile-firing, judge-jury-and-executioner drone systems.

There’s only one given. If the US still exists in its present form, is still solvent and still has a functioning Pentagon of the present sort, a new plan will already be well underway to create the war-making technologies of 2087. By then, in ever more places, people will be living with the sort of drone war that now worries only those in places like Degan village. Ever more people will know that unmanned aerial systems packed with missiles and bombs are loitering in their skies. By then, there undoubtedly won’t even be that lawnmower-engine sound indicating that a missile may soon plow into your neighbor’s home.

For the air force, such a prospect is the stuff of dreams, a bright future for unmanned, hypersonic lethality; for the rest of the planet, it’s a potential nightmare from which there may be no waking.

Nick Turse is the associate editor of TomDispatch.com and the winner of a 2009 Ridenhour Prize for Reportorial Distinction as well as a James Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Nation, In These Times, and regularly at TomDispatch. Turse is currently a fellow at New York University’s Center for the United States and the Cold War. He is the author of The Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives (Metropolitan Books). His website is NickTurse.com.

(Copyright 2010 Nick Turse.)

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