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A retired Navy captain explains how drones will shape the future of war

A retired Navy captain explains how drones will shape the future of war


Still no answer on the question of autonomous weapons

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3d robotics solo drone
A commercial drone from 3D robotics.

There used to be a fairly stable tradition of war, says John E. Jackson, a retired Navy captain and professor at the Naval War College. But drones have changed everything.

“It used to be that a warrior prepares, trains, deploys to a foreign location where he is face-to-face with an enemy, he may or may not survive, and at the end, he comes home,” says Jackson. Now, pilots can leave their homes in Las Vegas, drive to the Creech Air Force Base, are “at war” for eight to 10 hours, and then come home. “It’s a very, very different type of environment.”

The growing ubiquity of drones is forcing us to think about everything from PTSD for drone pilots to autonomous weapons to the risk of data vulnerability. The Verge spoke to Jackson, editor of One Nation Under Drones: Legality, Morality, and Utility of Unmanned Combat Systems about the history of these autonomous vehicles and what we’ll need to keep an eye out for in the future.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Let’s start by talking about the history of drones. They seem like a very modern thing, but you write that they have a fairly long history.

The notion that somehow these things popped into existence after 9/11 is commonly held, but if you go back and look, we have used unmanned systems going back as far as World War I. I talk a little about the Sperry Automatic Airplane, which was an attempt to say, “Airplanes with pilots are a new thing, can we possibly create an automatic airplane?” There was also one called the Kettering Bug, which is sometimes called an aerial torpedo. The notion was that you were able to direct these toward the target and hopefully strike without putting the pilot at risk, and that carries to today.

In World War II, there were a number of experiments with unmanned aircraft, including a situation where they’d load a bomber with explosives, take off from a base, and they would radio control the airplane into the target.

In more modern times, the CIA and others were trying to find Osama bin Laden and reported an observation of what looked like him. By the time they were able to get an armed aircraft back to attack that target, he was gone, so they started to question whether they could make not only an observation aircraft but also an attack aircraft.

How has the technology of military drones improved?

One of the other things that’s important for drones is not only that there is no pilot or crew aboard, but they also have the ability to stay over the target for 24 hours or more. That gives you an ability to look at the target and make sure you understand who’s there. Also, if an aircraft can do 24 hours and a human can do about eight, that gives you the ability to swap crews out three times so you get fresh eyes without having to bring the aircraft back.

It’s only because of communications technology that we are able to have the airplane itself in the theatre of operations and the operator back in the United States, like in Creech Air Force Base. This is possible because of undersea cables and satellite communications. And year by year, sensors are able to detect smaller and smaller targets that have increased endurance.

Captain John Edward Jackson, USN (ret), holder of the E.A. Sperry Chair of Unmanned and Robotic Systems at the US Naval War College. 
Captain John Edward Jackson, USN (ret), holder of the E.A. Sperry Chair of Unmanned and Robotic Systems at the US Naval War College. 
Image courtesy of John E. Jackson

When we think about drones, we typically think of aerial drones that are used in the military, but you write that there are plenty of other types of unmanned systems. What are some of these?

On the Navy side, there are unmanned systems in the air, on the surface of the sea, under the sea. People do tend to think of airborne vehicles, but there’s an unmanned surface ship that’s in sea trials right now. It’s 132 feet and called the Sea Hunter, and it’s designed to go off and do missions of up to 10,000 miles on a single tank of fuel with no one on board.

Outside of the military, drones are used by people who want to inspect pipelines and electrical lines and don’t want to fly a manned helicopter to high-powered electric lines. In the area of precision agriculture, there’s a great deal of work being done that would allow farmers to fly over their fields to determine which plants are healthy and which aren’t, which waters are needed to do aerial spraying. Aerial spraying of crops is routinely done in Japan. We’re somewhat limited now because the Federal Aviation Administration has got pretty strong control. Hopefully, we’ll find a situation where through education, registration, and licensing, we can use these systems safely in more locations. These aren’t just weapons of war, these are tools that can do a great deal to improve the way we do business.

When we do talk about drones in war, what are some of the ethical and legal ramifications?

We need to be cautious that we don’t lower the bar to using force. The level of concern can be lower than it would be otherwise because there’s no pilot inside, so we need to make sure we’re still doing all the things diplomatically and economically that we should. We don’t allow this to be “we’ll just throw a drone in there.”

Working with drones is a very, very difficult environment, and we’ve found that it’s had an impact on individuals doing this. One question is, “Can you have post-traumatic stress for somebody who never left the United States” and the answer is yes. These folks are so intimately involved with the nature of the attack, they spend days or weeks planning the operation and are the ones asked to do battle damage assessment. Some people say it’s like playing a video game, but I can tell you from firsthand experience, nobody considers it a game of any sort.

There’s also been a lot of consternation about under what circumstances should we be launching attacks in a third country with which we’re not at war. Pakistan is the primary example. We have had the permission of Pakistan for many years to use these systems to strike at terrorist targets. In more recent years, Pakistan has taken back that permission and been less likely to allow us to do that. Legally, the position has been that we have a right under the UN charter and other international law regimes for self-defense. So if we determine that a third-party country is either unable to unwilling to take actions that are necessary to prevent attacks that would affect the US, we have the right to do better ourselves. It’s kind of like preemptive self-defense. Of course, when you cross an international border, it raises a lot of issues.

Do we have existing international laws that regulate drones?

From the point of view of existing international law, the drone is in many ways no different from other systems, so we follow those. You need to make sure it’s a legitimate target, it’s a proportional strike to the benefit to the gained, you need to protect as much as possible the lives of innocents in the area. These are all rules of law that apply to both manned and unmanned systems. There’s not a great deal of drone-unique law out there because the larger law covers it for the most part.

“You can’t put the genie back in the bottle.”

What about autonomous weapons?

Yes, there is a group of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, which says that we should discontinue using these things because of the potential that a system with high levels of general artificial intelligence could decide it doesn’t need to follow the rules of human operators and do what it thinks is best for its own protection. That’s a science fiction concept in many ways, but it’s not beyond the realm of the possible that these systems could potentially do something we don’t want something to do. It means that the developers need to make sure that they are building into these systems absolute control over the systems, that they cannot make decisions on their own that are detrimental to humanity.

There’s a lot of discussion, but nothing concrete. The Department of Defense has instructions that clearly says there will always be a human in the loop, so it’s taken the long view on this. The international law department here at Naval War College has done meetings with lawyers from around the world on how to get ahead of this problem. It’s an issue of concern, but I can’t point to any rule on how you use drones and warfare and autonomous weapons that’s accepted at the international level. The US is, I would venture, the lead in developing these systems, but there are at least 60 other countries developing and using robotic systems. And you can’t put the genie back in the bottle. The technology is out there, and it’s being refined on a day-to-day basis.

What do you see as the future of unmanned systems?

In the military context, it’s going to be manned and unmanned teaming. No one believes that all pilots will leave all the airplanes. It’s not going to happen. There’s only so many variables that you can program into any piece of software. You see projects where there’s a fighter flying with a pilot, and then there are four unmanned wingmen flying with that individual, and he’s able to direct those other aircraft onto strike targets to do surveillance and then come back.

There’s another interesting project that attempts to take relatively small unmanned aerial vehicles, launch them out of the back of a cargo plane, have them do their mission and recover them in midair and bring them back into the airplane. It’s pretty remarkable technology. We’re very good now at air-to-air refueling.

Another focus will be transportation on roads. The biggest killer of soldiers is improvised explosive devices, so if the work is being done on automated convoys, there would not be anyone in those vehicles at all. It would go where it needed to go and do its job without putting people at risk. I personally have a positive view of these technologies. I hope that they’ll be more effective and more efficient and more precise.

What do you think is the biggest risk?

Communication. If you’re going to continue use unmanned systems, and we believe we are, we’re going to have to be more sophisticated about people jamming signals or intercepting data. This is particularly true when you talk about unmanned submarines. You just can’t talk to them when they’re below the water. So you have to make sure you have secure communications. That’s a big vulnerability.