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Drones Are Just Airpower Without All the Adult Diapers

The basic difference between a drone and an aircraft is a bathroom, and making it easy for pilots to pee doesn't make war any more evil.
May 13, 2014, 10:10pm
Photo by Katie O'Donnell

The debate on drones continues to merrily bubble along, without form or substance, coming from no place, and headed nowhere. Well, not exactly nowhere, but pretty close to nowhere. The loudest debates about drones serve mostly to allow those who know little to nothing about warfare to advertise their moral seriousness about holding strong opinions on subjects about which they are ill-informed.

So let’s deconstruct this whole thing for once and for all, taking it from the top, and taking it all apart.

At the most basic level, the difference between a drone and an aircraft is how difficult it is for the pilot to pee. In combat aircraft, pilots have historically used bags (called piddle packs) or worn diapers. There’s just no room on a one-seat fighter jet for all that gear, so fighter jocks just have to make do with Depends disposable underwear. Drone operators, however, don’t sit in the plane they’re operating, but fly the vehicle from a ground station of some variety, and can just mosey on down the hall to the crapper or to the nearest tree or whatever when the need strikes.

That’s it. That’s the whole thing in a nutshell.

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Opposition to drones, at the most reductionist, is saying that bombing the crap out of people is fine, just so long as it makes going to the bathroom difficult and unpleasant for the trigger-puller.

But that answer makes for a short, boring article, so let’s make things interesting and figure out all of warfare and what drones have to do with any of it.

Military force is tool of “armed suasion,” meaning that it is used as an instrument of power to get some person or group of people to either do or stop doing something, either by threatening them or by messing them up. Messing things up — breaking things and killing people — continues until the other party is unwilling or unable to resist, and knuckles under. A war is when two sides attempt to persuade the hell out of each other on a large scale a whole lot, until one side just gives up and agrees to be persuaded.

The entire business of prosecuting a war basically boils down to moving damage-causing tools around until they damage something, and feeding information back along that line to enable that process.

It’s like a microwave. When you set the timer, you’ve automated the process of watching a stopwatch and manually stopping the microwave. This doesn’t make a microwave a “robotic kitchen chef drone.”

Chemicals are taken from various feedstocks and turned into explosives, which then are used to manufacture a warhead. The warhead goes from one company to another company where it is integrated into a missile. The missile is then turned over to the military and shipped to a depot, where it is stored for however many years.

The stored missile may eventually be shipped to a base, where it is then mounted on a platform and carried to some point where the missile is fired. The missile carries the warhead to the target, where it explodes and damages stuff. Going one direction, the whole process is about taking raw chemicals and turning them into an explosion to mess stuff up at some time and place of one party’s choosing. Meanwhile, a host of sensors and whatnots collect information about both the current target and the entire universe of future targets and feed it back from one level to the next, transforming along the way into acquisitions, procurement, requirements, and a whole lot of other paperwork-intensive processes.

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Each step along that entire chain takes information and stuff in, and pushes more stuff to the next step in the process. The execution of each phase involves a bunch of individual steps that boil down to looking at what is going on, make sense of it, figuring out what to do about it, and then doing it.

Every decision cycle is driven by a person or thing that collects and processes information and convert that into some sort of action. In combat aircraft, decisions are made by a pilot. In drone operations, decisions are made by a pilot with access to a bathroom. That’s the difference: How big a mess does a decision-maker make when they pee? There is some difference on the margins about sensor integration and whatnot, but the thing that makes a drone a drone is where the decisions are made — in a cockpit or in a cube.

But what about armed drones that pick their own targets? How about Skynet, and our coming Robotic Overlords? What happens when planes start flying around and bombing people without supervision? Doesn’t that take humans out of the loop altogether?

No. Because planes aren’t going to fuel and arm themselves. The part where the combat drone fires a missile is just one tiny step in the process. Changing the degree of automation in one step is altering one tiny part of that process, not taking humans out of the loop altogether.

Folks who are upset about drones aren’t, at least judging from the placards and chants, upset about the drone that actually does the killing — the guided missile.

It’s like a microwave. When you put something in the microwave, and set the timer, you’ve automated the process of watching a stopwatch and manually stopping the microwave. This doesn’t make a microwave a “robotic kitchen chef drone.” Every other step in the process of a ordering pizza, not finishing the pizza, putting the leftovers in the fridge, and then putting a slice in the microwave, and then taking out a slice of disappointing, hot, and soggy calories — those are all human-directed and managed steps. Steps driven by human needs, interests, and desires, with a sliver of automation in the middle somewhere. Just like sending a combat drone to Pakistan and messing stuff up.

The first known use of armed drone combat was in 1849, when the Austrians used unpiloted balloons to drop bombs on the Venetian Uprising. Basically, one side couldn’t get artillery in place to drop exploding shells on the other guys, so they released balloons (which had already been in military use for a few decades) to drift over enemy positions. Once in the right place, a signal was sent via copper wire to the balloons, which then triggered the release of the shells.

So, in essence, the first use of armed drones in warfare was simply a way of moving artillery shells from one’s own lines to the opponent’s front line without the aid of the more traditional expedient — cannons.

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This is effectively the job that armed drones do today, just using a lot more technology along the way.

Which brings us to a last, important detail: When is a drone not a drone? When it’s a cruise missile.

Folks who are upset about drones aren’t, at least judging from the placards and chants, upset about the drone that actually does the killing — the guided missile. Just as an armed drone is basically a FedEx for moving missiles, the missile itself is a delivery system for getting the warhead from the drone to a target, at which point it explodes, taking itself and a target out in a blaze of glory.

Even when drones aren’t actually stealthy, their small size makes them harder to spot, effectively giving folks at least a sort of low-rent stealth capability.

Just like the drone that got it there, the missile itself incorporates a guidance system which, like the decision-makers at every other step, integrates information and uses that to make decisions about where it’s going and how it will get there.

There are already other guided munitions that carry smaller seeker warheads, which is — in the very broadest of terms — like a missile carrying a missile. This development hasn’t really registered as some cause in need of activism.

It also seems entirely appropriate to have a machine that carries missiles to a target and comes back to be rearmed, but only if it means that it makes urination very difficult for at least one person.

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Taking these facts together in the current framework of the drone debate means that it is apparently an ethical affront if the machine being used to carry smaller, explosive machines can come back, and the use of that machine doesn’t complicate going to the bathroom.

There are, to be sure, some interesting things that attend to the growing prevalence of drones. The big thing is that their increasing use has fueled the manufacturing and technology behind drones, boosting capabilities and reducing costs. Their low expense means that the previous cost and technical barriers to airpower have been lowered. Building a light aircraft in the living room is hard, but building a model aircraft (a.k.a. drone) in the living room is easy.

And even when drones aren’t actually stealthy, their small size makes them harder to spot, effectively giving folks at least a sort of low-rent stealth capability. Beyond the proliferation of drones, there are also some things related to operational concepts that are still sorting themselves out.

Overall, for military planners, the massive proliferation of drone technology has effectively sent folks back to the drawing board to revisit thinking about airpower, but that’s a doctrinal and technical debate more than anything else.

Pretty much anything else in the drone debate is driven by discomfort with the fact that armed suasion means breaking things and killing people, combined with a very old-school fear of a new technology. Which is really just boils down to an abhorrence of war, which is important, valid, necessary, essential, and true, but is as old as war itself. And abhorrence of war is an integral component of deterrence — the other half of armed suasion.

Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan

Photo via Flickr