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Over the past decade, the peoples of Pakistan and Yemen have become all too familiar with the horrors of the Pentagon’s latest toy: the unmanned aerial vehicle. Capable of raining death from above while its operator sits in air-conditioned comfort in an air force base thousands of miles away, drones represent the next stage in the evolution of 21st century warfare. And now they’re coming to Asia.
The process of introducing drones to the Asia-Pacific has been unfolding for years now, but within the last few weeks a flurry of stories have been reported demonstrating that the deployment of UAVs in the region has begun in earnest.
Last month, the U.S. Navy announced that they would begin moving next-generation drones into the Asia-Pacific region as early as October next year in order to increase their ocean surveillance capabilities in the region. The new drones being prepared for the region include the MQ-4C Triton, an ocean-going version of the better-known Global Hawk drones currently being staged in Guam.
Earlier this week, the Australian government announced it would be purchasing seven maritime surveillance drones of their own. The plan is to acquire seven RQ-4 Global Hawks from Northrop Grumman between now and 2019 at an estimated cost to Australian taxpayers of $3 billion, with an expected mission of patrolling the sea lanes in the increasingly crowded Indian Ocean.
And in the latest worrying sign of the military tensions behind this drone escalation, the US’ admission last month that it would begin using its drone fleet to monitor the disputed Senkaku Islands, currently the center of a tense territorial dispute between China and Japan, was answered this week by Beijing, who announced that they have set up a satellite surveillance grid to keep their own tabs on the area.
Although the use of drones for military, intelligence and civilian purposes is increasing everywhere in the world, underlying the recent military drone deployment in the Asia-Pacific is the increasing US-Chinese military tension that is driving so much of the region’s politics. In this new game of cold war-like tensions between the region’s two dominant powers, there is a type of arms race that is taking place in the scramble to develop and deploy military drones over the hotly contested waters of the South China Sea and the East China Sea.
One of the US’ regional partners that finds itself increasingly in the crosshairs of this new round of UAV deployment is South Korea. Reports indicate that the Demilitarized Zone seperating South and North Korea is now being patrolled with US drones which are being staged at US military facilities in Guam.
Last month, I had the chance to talk with Mike Bielawski and Hanuel Na’avi, two independent journalists living in South Korea, about the use of drones in the DMZ, which they have been reporting on for their blog, The Last Defense. Bielawski used his own experience sighting a drone over the DMZ as the basis for his own research into the complicated US/Korean drone relationship.
Although the tit-for-tat deployment of drones is to be expected in a general milieu of increasing military tensions in the region, many are particularly concerned because of the moral and ethical issues that are raised by the technology itself.
As the primitive aerial bombardments of the first world war transitioned into the mechanized massacres of World War II—represented most horrifically by the firebombings of Dresden, Tokyo and other cities—observers worried that the detachment of bomber pilots from the destruction and death that they were causing would have the effect of “sanitizing” war and allowing ever more deadly atrocities against civilian populations to be committed by a pilot class that never has to face the consequences of their actions.
Now that drone warfare is becoming more common, those concerns have been magnified immeasurably. Completely detached from their targets and even the instrument of warfare that they are piloting, drone pilots deploy missiles and gunfire on civilians on the other side of the world with the same amount of effort and engagement that it takes to play a video game.
Even more frighteningly, the prospect of autonomous, armed UAVs raises the possibility that in future combat, humans will be eliminated from the equation altogether, with self-piloting drones being sent off to hit pre-programmed targets all by themselves. The ethical quandaries posed by a situation where an autonomous drone is found to have mistakenly killed civilians or committed a war crime is something that is being taken seriously by think tanks and organizations that are contemplating a future warfare where the only humans involved are the ones being killed on the ground.
Gradually, these types of debates are finding their way into the media, which is beginning to finally note that the drone campaigns against Pakistan, Yemen, and other countries in fact constitutes a de facto, undeclared state of war, one that is being tacitly upheld by both sides of the political paradigm.
With the Obama administration increasing the Bush administration’s use of drones as a weapon of warfare, bipartisan support of the use of these UAVs has been assured and the issue of whether or not America should be raining down death in Pakistan, Yemen, or other non-warzones has been effectively removed from the table in what promises to be yet another substance-free election cycle. But as the prospect of drone warfare begins to move into other parts of the world and America’s dominance with the technology begins to be challenged by competitors like China who are increasingly working on their own technology, one wonders how and when the American public will react when and if Chinese drones are ever deployed against American allies in the Asia-Pacific region.