In a short report emailed around this morning, CSIS analyst Anthony Cordesman takes issue with a recent United Nations report that looks at the use of unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) in combat. The report states in part that "Because operators are based thousands of miles away from the battlefield and undertake operations entirely through computer screens and remote audio-feed, there is a risk of developing a 'PlayStation' mentality to killing."
It’s hard to know where to begin with such foolishness. No one in the military, and that includes UAV pilots sitting in the United States hitting targets in Afghanistan and Pakistan, is divorced from the raw brutality of killing, even if the effect is only seen on a video monitor. But it is important to note that not all UAV pilots are thousands of miles away from the action. I saw as much when I spent time with the U.S. Army’s Task Force ODIN in Afghanistan last fall. ODIN is an innovative Army program currently operating both in Iraq and Afghanistan that mixes manned and unmanned air assets to provide intelligence as well as lethal fires when called for. None of the soldiers or contractors I met at the controls of the armed Sky Warrior UAVs had a 'PlayStation' mentality to killing. They took it very seriously, and were well aware of the consequences of their actions.
As Cordesman writes
There is nothing new about killing from a distance in wartime. Warfare has relied on indirect- killing mechanisms like long-range artillery to strike at targets well beyond the line of sight for more than a century. It has relied on bombers that could neither see their target nor had the ability to hit precisely since World War I. It has relied on manned aircraft using precision-guided weapons and remote sensors since Vietnam.
The difference is that drones provide the ability to draw on the detailed, real-time imagery of the target provided by the aircraft. The operator can keep the unmanned vehicle quietly over the target for extended periods of time, to assess the situation in detail, and then to make more precise strikes using smaller and less lethal warheads.
There is much more to the U.N. report that this single line, obviously, and it does raise some serious questions about the morality, legality, and political ramifications of targeted killings and robotics in war that are well worth debating. (P.W. Singer has been doing great work exploring these questions.) But the idea that UAV pilots look at war as a game is simply untrue, and utterly fails to capture the reality of this new kind of warfare.
(A memeber of Task Force ODIN-Afghanstan signs a missile on a Sky Warrior UAV. Pic: US Army)