Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Robot Drones May Have Vital Niche Applications

In a wide-ranging exclusive interview to the Website of the ECSSR, Dr. Austin Long (Assistant Professor, School of International and Public Affairs, Member of the Arnold A. Saltzman, Institute of War and Peace Studies, Columbia University, US) covered issues of global geopolitics andth Annual Conference on April 9-10, under the title: ‘The Future of Warfare in the 21st Century.’
Dr. Austin Long
warfare, military contractors, robot drones and history of empires. The interview was conducted following Dr. Austin Long’s lecture titled — Asymmetrical Warfare and International Terrorism — delivered at the ECSSR’s 18Annual Conference on April 9-10, under the title: ‘The Future of Warfare in the 21st Century.’
Following is the edited text of the interview:
Q1: Private Military Security Companies have come in for a lot of criticism over violence in Iraq and Afghanistan. These private contractors are meant to support the regular soldiers, then how is it that they are alleged to have caused so much violence?
Answer: Well there are some armed contractors, whose job is typically to protect. Now when one is protecting, it can either be very passive (the security personnel can say I will keep my gun holstered) or it can be very aggressive. For example, these security contractors can ask people to get out of the way of a convoy or a diplomat coming through and if the crowd does not move fast enough the security contractors may start shooting as it could be assumed that the people must be miscreants, otherwise they would have got out of the way. I think a lot of problems came with contractors who had that kind of attitude. I think that approach probably peaked in Iraq around 2005-06. The war then was escalating and spiraling out of control and there was not as much oversight of contractors as it should have been and I think since then the US has learnt a lot of lessons, it’s got a lot better in controlling contractors it uses for security. The other thing though, people don’t talk about it as much, is that Afghanistan itself has many of its indigenous private contractors. These are Afghan private military companies and this makes it really tough because no matter how much difficulty US government has in controlling its own contractors you can imagine the Afghans have even more so, and so President Karzai issued a decree to ban these private military contractors. The problem was that there are unintended consequences. Suddenly, all these guys who used these weapons became unemployed and that is not so good. A lot of them were protecting development contracts, like USAID used to hire them to protect a well. If you make them go away then who is going to protect the well. So then that well doesn’t get built. So I think there are a lot of issues related to the oversight but I do think in general it has gotten better, even if it’s not ideal.
Q2: It has been said that there are more regulations governing the cheese industry today than they are in place to regulate private contractors?
Answer: Maybe. But there are laws in place even if it is very hard to apply them. So you are in Afghanistan and you want to try a private military contractor. But if you try him in Afghanistan, it’s widely acknowledged that that judicial system is maybe not where you want it to be. If you try him in the US, it can be harder because you’d have to bring all the evidence and witnesses etc. to the United States. In some cases, it may be that the accused has broken Afghan laws but didn’t break US law. So one of the ways being currently tried to get around this is to make the contractors subject to the same law which the US military is subject to, what’s called the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). In that way, if you break the law in Afghanistan and if we can’t prove it in Afghanistan it doesn’t matter, we already have a code in place, we will try you in the United States. One such example was the soldier that last year killed 17 Afghans in Qandahar. So they are trying to bring contractors under the UCMJ.
Q3: In your panel discussions at the conference, it appeared you supported drone attacks in the Af-Pak region. This policy has created a lot of controversy as it impinges on issues of national sovereignty as well as the threat of ‘collateral damages,’ in other words the killing of innocents. How do you respond to such questions?
Answer: You see these operations are being conducted as there is some cooperation from host nations. Of course, Pakistan government does not want to come out and say we don’t let Americans come in and use drones on our population. But, the Pakistanis have benefited from drone attacks as well. One of the first drone attacks in Pakistan was against Nek Mohammed, who was a threat much more to Pakistan than the United States. On the other hand, the alternatives to these operations are also not good. I mean, we do not know how many people were killed in the Swat operations, we know millions were displaced. So, no matter how bad drone attacks have been they haven’t at least displaced millions of people. So, you have to look a little bit at what the alternative to drones are.
Q4: The thing is that now the drone technology is going to be fully automated. There is the danger of ‘killer drones’, who can make their own decisions in selecting their targets and eliminating them. How do you view such concerns?
Answer: I have been actually looking at the drone issue since before 9/11 and even then there was talk about trying to get the human out of the equation, because the human in the loop is a real point of weakness for the drones. You see, in a conventional remote controlled drone, you are reliant on satellite communications or direct radio. And that’s alright if you are operating in a very permissive environment, when nobody’s trying to fight the drone in the sky, such as in Afghanistan, etc. But what if you were trying to use drones against China or Russia, or such countries. They can jam those communications. China may even be able to shoot down the satellites if you are relying on satellite communications. Then your drones are not going to work. So if you want to use them more efficiently you want to take the human (controlling the drones) out of the equation. The problem is, as you have identified. You would have created a ‘killer robot’ that is going to make its own decisions. So there is a lot of debate on this issue.
However, I can think of niche applications for such drones. So when you have to use force against a country you would first want to get rid of its air defenses. At that time, you might consider using drones to only target its radars.  The drones won’t attack people, they won’t attack buildings, only when a specific frequency of radar hits it, will it attack the radar.
Q5: In your lecture at the conference you spoke about asymmetry of military might. It is interesting to note that in history, big civilizations were not brought down by rival civilizations but by uncivilized, barbaric forces. This is the biggest asymmetry. Perhaps, we can put the USSR versus Afghanistan in the same paradigm. Your views?
Answer: Historically this has been a big asymmetry. But if you look a lot of these societies, before they were attacked by the ‘uncivilized’ forces, they had considerably weakened internally. If you look at the Roman empire, for example, it had come a long way and weakened from within. One of the questions today is how well is the US doing internally and here again the evidence is mixed. There are a lot of people who contend that the US has passed its prime. They were saying this in 1980s also, when Japan was thought to overtake the world and that didn’t come true. On the other hand, we currently see the US facing economic problems, and even tensions between the Republicans and Democrats. I mean this is a real issue as the country has become polarized, these parties can’t seem to compromise on politics.

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