Robot technology has long become an indelible part of our world. Robots are actively used in our daily lives, in production facilities and are playing an increasingly important role in the military sphere. Spellbinding scenes from Star Wars movies depicting battles involving thousands of military robots and various pieces of equipment that captured our imagination not too long ago are now part of our reality. And any country that will be able to conduct large-scale military operations on land, in the sky, in the sea and in space first with the aid of unmanned military vehicles would, undoubtedly, enjoy a considerable advantage in any future armed conflicts and wars in comparison to its opponents.
This was evidenced by a recent attack by Houthi rebels on an oil processing facility in Saudi Arabia. The incident served to demonstrate the types of approaches and weapons that will be used in wars in the next decades.
For the past 170 years, the means of waging armed conflict was developing world-wide towards the possible use of military drones! After all, unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) were first utilized on 12 July 1849, when the Austro-Hungarian Army deployed them (hot air balloons were chosen to carry shrapnel bombs with time fuses, the latter were used to initiate the dropping of the explosives) to suppress a rebellion in Venice. However, at the time, the UCAVs proved to be fairly ineffective on the battle-field, which is why their first use in an armed conflict was not widely publicized.
When discussing governmental usage of drones, it is enough to remember that the United States Air Force alone has approximately 1,150 UAVs at its disposal. They are stationed in USAFE (US Air Forces in Europe) and PACAF (Pacific Air Force) areas of responsibility. In addition, the U.S. Army, Marine Corps and Special Operations Command have approximately 5,000 RQ-11 Ravens (small reconnaissance unmanned aerial vehicles or SUAVs). Moreover, U.S. Army ground troops are equipped with more than 100 MQ-1C Gray Eagle attack and reconnaissance UAVs, and the Marine Corps has 275 RQ-7B Shadow 400 unmanned aerial systems for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance and 1,400 small reconnaissance RQ-14 Dragon Eye UAVs. And there are far more UAVs at the disposal of the U.S Armed Forces than those listed above. Despite the fact that American troops are equipped with a wide variety of UAVs ranging from lighter (under 9 kg) to heavier (over 600 kg) ones, which are either used for intelligence gathering or in attacks, since 1991 the United States has had a preference for smaller UAVs. This choice is based on its experience in waging several local conflicts involving ground and Marine Corps troops, some of which are still raging in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.
Nevertheless, the use of UAVs by Houthis in the attack on the oil processing site in Saudi Arabia showed that one does not need to have a technologically advanced military force (as, for example, that of the United States today) to conduct a strike resulting in considerable financial losses and distress using such weapons. Even a military unit that does not have access to cutting-edge weaponry or vast amounts of money can nowadays carry out an attack of this nature. In other words, if 100 years ago the global community feared terrorist bombers who used explosives as means of protest against governments and societies, today, anyone who simply has a moderately-sized UAV poses a considerable threat.
At present, even nations and terrorist organizations that are not very powerful can have access to modern weapons and conduct strikes against their opponents resulting in considerable damage. Terrorists, among others, can get their hands on such weaponry via various networks run by private and state organizations of different nations that wish to use terrorist groups for their own financial gain. We only need to recall a recent report by U.S. television channel CNN stating that Saudi Arabia and its coalition allies (which are engaged in a military operation in Yemen) were passing on U.S.-manufactured weapons to extremists linked to Al-Qaeda (a terrorist organization banned in Russia), thereby violating prior agreements with Washington.
Let us take U.S. company Throwflame as an example. It began selling flamethrower attachment for drones this year. This particular manufacturer always tries to point out that its products are only meant for peaceful purposes, i.e. first and foremost, for farmers, as a “flying flamethrower” is ideal for clearing fields off dry plants and weeds, and for destroying pests’ breeding areas. However, one does not have to be an expert to understand what kind of damage such flamethrower attachments for UAVs could cause to oil and gas processing facilities of an opponent!
Nowadays, the use of drones is heavily regulated in many nations considering the fact that they are capable of performing a wide range of functions and numerous tasks. However, there are no international norms and rules at present, primarily because of lobbying efforts made by the sellers and manufacturers of unmanned vehicles (aerial as well as other types), especially in the United States.
As for attack and reconnaissance UAVs, nowadays, any nation with an army has such drones, since its military staff have understood that in the future armed conflicts will be fought with this high-precision weaponry and not weapons of mass destruction as half a century ago. In 2015, English rock band Muse even released an album called Drones. On the world wide web, one can find any information about UAVs, such as possible means of purchasing them, their manufacturers and even selling points. For example, anyone interested can learn that the benefit of miniature explosives-laden drones is their high precision (owing to GPS) despite slow speeds.
At present, a number of countries are using Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Neural network technologies in their work on unmanned combat aerial vehicles. However, we must not forget that despite their advantages, AI-equipped drones will not have a moral compass. Hence, a head of any terrorist organization who gets their hands on such a machine could reprogram it, thereby transforming the drone into means of inflicting terror and devastation, which could even lead to the Third World War.
In conclusion, since the use of UAVs in armed conflicts is becoming the norm, we must consider all the risks associated with this development. And we should also think about formulating an international agreement that includes measures restricting the use of drones, just as we did before with treaties aimed at limiting the spread of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction.
Vladimir Platov, an expert on the Middle East, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.