The Crash and Burn Future of Robot Warfare: What 70 Downed Drones Tell Us About the New American Way of War

In “The Crash and Burn Future of Robot Warfare: What 70 Downed Drones Tell Us About the New American Way of War” on TomDispatch, Nick Turse reviews military drone accident reports that “offer new insights into a largely covert, yet highly touted war-fighting, assassination, and spy program involving armed robots that are significantly less reliable than previously acknowledged.”  He continues:

These planes, the latest wonder weapons in the U.S. military arsenal, are tested, launched, and piloted from a shadowy network of more than 60 bases spread around the globe, often in support of elite teams of special operations forces.  Collectively, the Air Force documents offer a remarkable portrait of modern drone warfare, one rarely found in a decade of generally triumphalist or awestruck press accounts that seldom mention the limitations of drones, much less their mission failures.

The aerial disasters described draw attention not only to the technical limitations of drone warfare, but to larger conceptual flaws inherent in such operations.  Launched and landed by aircrews close to battlefields in places like Afghanistan, the drones are controlled during missions by pilots and sensor operators — often multiple teams over many hours — from bases in places like Nevada and North Dakota.  They are sometimes also monitored by “screeners” from private security contractors at stateside bases like Hurlburt Field in Florida.  (A recent McClatchy report revealed that it takes nearly 170 people to keep a single Predator in the air for 24 hours.)

In other words, drone missions, like the robots themselves, have many moving parts and much, it turns out, can and does go wrong.

Turse cites numerous examples from the accident reports. The accounts are spectacular and shocking when you consider the ease with which drone operations can go astray with potentially deadly consequences.  Despite the flaws of the system, Obama plans to expand the drone programs:

In spite of all the technical limitations of remote-controlled war spelled out in the Air Force investigation files, the U.S. is doubling down on drones.  Under the president’s new military strategy, the Air Force is projected to see its share of the budgetary pie rise and flying robots are expected to be a major part of that expansion.


Over the last decade, a more-is-better mentality has led to increased numbers of drones, drone bases, drone pilots, and drone victims, but not much else.  Drones may be effective in terms of generating body counts, but they appear to be even more successful in generating animosity and creating enemies.

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