Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Global race on to match U.S. drone capabilities

A quick history lesson seems in order.

World War II was the inevitable result of the First World War. The result of WWII was the Cold War. The United States set itself up as one superpower when it ended the war with Japan by dropping two atomic bombs. The USSR was diametrically opposed and escalated its own nuclear weapons program. The two former Allies would now become opponents in a non-shooting war that would last over 4 decades.

The Cold War came very close to becoming hot in 1962 during the Cuban Missile crisis. Otherwise, nuclear weapons were built to intimidate the other side into not using theirs. The Cuban Missile crisis lead in part to President Kennedy's support and use of special forces. Special forces can be used quickly and inexpensively compared to conventional forces. Inserting a few teams runs a much lower risk of inciting a full blown war.

The Cold War can be called an arms race but it wasn't until President Reagan that this strategy could be masted. President Reagan struck on a bold strategy of breaking the Soviet economy by forcing them to spend more and more of their capital on weapons and personnel. His "Star Wars" strategy was more about getting the Soviets to believe then to field any weapons. The Soviets bought into "Star Wars" and spent money they really didn't have in trying to counter it. Eventually, the Soviet Union goes bust in 1991.

Nature abhors a vacuum so the Cold War gets replaced by the global war on terrorism. Unlike the Cold War, the Global War on Terrorism lacks two opposing superpowers. No superpowers, no arms race or at least so it first appeared.

The United States led the way technologically, much as it did in WWII, this time using drones. Drones take the same elements of special forces (quick, inexpensive, and low risk) and add the elements of airpower. Having an unmanned aircraft on high altitude orbit with precision guided munitions is a very intimidating platform. As no troops are involved, politicians and Constitutional scholars will be locked in arguments as to whether or not the President needs Congressional approval to launch a drone strike.

The US has been unwilling to sell armed drones or the technology to anyone other than their closest allies. Drones are affordable for most nations to develop. China, India, Russia, to name a few, see the market potential are beginning to fielding armed drones.

The Washington Post article points out a potential of this new arms race. Unmanned drones makes it much easier to start shooting at someone without committing troops. Without troops, is it really a war?

Drones can be launched without risking the loss of troops meaning public outrage will be low to non-existent. An unmanned drone, unless it gets shot down, will be hard to identify the country of origin. Even if found, did the Chinese really use it or simply another country that bought the technology?

Drones introduce another problem. Manned aircraft need to operate from airfields or carriers. This means radars and satellites have time to detect the flight path. Drones can be launched from almost anywhere and can fly under most radars near the ground clutter. Satellites can only see the drone if they are looking at that particular part of the earth and may not have enough time to pick it out amongst ground clutter. A series of small drones launched against a major city could be devastating.

Star Wars showed drones as clumsy walking robots that could not hit the broad side of a barn with automatic fire. Real drones are flying weapons platforms that can strike anywhere, anytime.

The Washington Post

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