Drones, Robotics and the Future

March 12, 2010

Drones, Robotics and the Future

A few years ago John Oldfield energized John Jureller and me to consider the reality of UAV’s, drones, coming to Syracuse.  We knew two things about this-

1) Some drones would be based in Syracuse and flown to Watertown, Camp Drum, for warfare practice.  This meant that the drones would be flown through civilian airspace,

2)  A base would be set up in Syracuse at the 174th site, for guiding drones flying in a war zone where they would be gathering information and firing weapons onto targets in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

At that time we three decided to concentrate on the specific problem of UAV’s flying into and out of Hancock field.  When John Oldfield tried to pass out a leaflet at a Peace Action dinner meeting he felt rebuffed.  When I presented our concerns to the Peace Council they felt that they would be supportive of what we were trying to do but that they would not pick up the program as a Peace Council project.

The next thing we knew Ed Kinane latched onto the project and began organizing picketing out near the 174th base.  In addition people associated with NYSDAP (New York State Direction Action Project) appeared on the scene and they too were concerned about the drones.  I would say their interest is more in their use in warfare, including the effect of collateral damage upon the civilian population.  Syracuse is thus coming to be the center of attraction for people opposed to the drones and their use.  The original problem of the drones being flown through civilian airspace seems to have faded into the background.

It seems to me that we have entered a very different new stage in the art of military spending.  The genie is out of the bottle and the development of robotic equipment for warfare has become the latest computer game.  A new weapon is available to add to the tools for killing.   The high altitude huge bombers with support teams of the Vietnam era can now be replaced with slower moving nearly invisible unmanned vehicles.  And a person does not have to be physically near the point of attack.

But the box of tricks is just starting to be explored.  If robots can fly then they can also be made to swim and to travel over land.  As far as I know the firing of weapons from the current drones are under the control of a remote operator.  And you can be certain that the sophisticated sensors that gather gigabytes of information from the drone will begin to further process that data to have the decision to fire and what to fire at be made without the intervention of a human.

What does this mean to the anti-war pro-peace activist?  To put it into perspective we must note that the Military Defense budget for 2011 is $895 billion, and the budget includes $159 billion in contingency funds to support the war in Afghanistan and the battles in Pakistan.


I believe that the development of drones in warfare is just the opening salvo in the juggernaut of the automation of the weapons of war and war itself.  Over the decades progressives have tried to support their struggle for sanity in the war department by pointing out how much money is spent there and how sensible it would be to be able to use some of that money for peaceable living.  I don’t think this approach has been effective at all in terms of changing the minds of  people ouside the anti-war movement.  One would think that in the current environment of huge deficits and struggles to supply health benefits to a large group of people that the economic argument would be listened to.  But that does not seem to be the case if one just looks at the printed arguments.  But in back of it all the money being spent on war, the weapons of war, and the funding of research and development of new weapons of war is what keeps the military-industrial complex well funded even if it means borrowing even more money from foreign powers, like China.,

By concentrating our efforts on a particular weapon, like the drones, we contribute to the continuation of ignorance about the real cost of war.  The use of drones in warfare has been criticized as being “cowardly’ – should we try to find a non-cowardly weapon to kill with?  Whether the use of drones is cowardly or not just raises a side issue and hides the war behind a cloud of petty arguments.

Another parochial issue is the decision to do a major part of the anti-drone demonstrations in front of the air base on Molloy Road.  The thought seems to be that this can have some effect upon the personnel at the base.  This may be true and whether it has some effect upon the personnel flying the drones and directing their use is worthy of serious analysis.

However I think it is even more important to give serious consideration whether the current mode of protest is useful.  On the positive side, it has resulted in the formation of a coalition of activists coming from regions well beyond Syracuse and this is good in itself.  But perhaps the force bringing people together in Syracuse could be better utilized to focus on the war itself and not on a particular weapon.