Unmanned predators are the future of military technology
During the last few weeks, Pakistan’s media has been focused on the events related to Memogate, the aftermath of the NATO Mohmand attack, and the Bonn Conference. However, significant developments have also been occurring in another neighbouring country of Pakistan: Iran. The nation claims to have brought down a state-of-the-art US surveillance drone near its border with Afghanistan. RQ-170 Sentinel, also known as the Beast of Kandahar, is one of the most sophisticated high altitude stealth jet drone in US possession. The news gives credibility to the widely held belief in the region and beyond; foreign presence in Afghanistan is for much more than just fighting extremist groups in the Pak-Afghan border areas. These stealth drones represent the future of warfare and are ideally suited for achieving multiple objectives.
RQ-170 was used over Pakistan as well for monitoring Osama bin Laden, and also during Operation Geronimo, to provide live feeds for the White House. For some reason, the Black Hawk stealth helicopters (UH 60), also used in the operation, got more attention than the Beast.
PoliTact first alerted to the appearance of RQ-170 in the skies of South and Central Asia in December 2009. Around that time, an Israeli website had also reported on this, and subsequently a US Air Force spokesman had confirmed the presence of the stealth drone in Afghanistan. The RQ-170 was reportedly deployed for increased intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance support for combatant commanders in Afghanistan. However, other than the secret mission to find Osama, one of its other objectives was suspected to fly over the borders of Iran, China, India, and Pakistan for collecting "useful data about missile tests, telemetry, signals and multi-spectral intelligence." In simple words, the Beast of Kandahar was probably being used for spying missions in Pakistan and Iran, related to the missile and nuclear programs of these two countries.
The armed Predator versions of the drones are not only being utilised in Pakistan and Afghanistan but also in Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, and recently in Ethiopia. The Washington Post recently reported that United States is building secret drone bases in the Horn of Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, Ethiopia and Seychelles. The increased use of drones is part of a move related with America’s new counterterrorism strategy, shifting the campaign against extremism from costly battlegrounds toward expanded covert operations.
Drones and other military stealth technologies represent the future of warfare. According to widely quoted figures, China is presently spending 12 percent of its global research and development funding on unmanned aerial technology. On the other hand, Russia spends 8% while the US commits a whopping 56%.
The demand for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) is growing globally. In South and Central Asia alone, the UAV market for border protection is expected to grow around 25 per cent or more in the years 2010-2015. According to aerospace consultancy the Teal Group, the global spending on unmanned aircrafts will near $55 billion in the next decade. This growth constitutes demand for air, maritime and space unmanned vehicle systems.
Unlike the US, China is not only trying to develop state-of-the-art drones but is also eyeing the global market. It has especially stepped up its research and is developing jet-propelled and armed unmanned aircraft, which it plans to sell to countries such as Pakistan and those in the Middle East and Africa. Although much of the project remains concealed, Beijing is making serious efforts and steady progress towards developing equivalents to top US surveillance and combat models - the Global Hawk and the Predator. The captured Kandaharian Beast may end up leapfrogging Chinese and Russian drone programs.
On the other hand, in July India announced it would deploy spy drones along its border with China in an effort to keep an eye on the accelerated manoeuvres of People’s Liberation Army. The Israelis remain the leading suppliers of UAVs to India. An Israeli company IAI is presently supplying Searcher and Heron UAVs. Another Israeli company, Elbit Systems, is trying to sell Hermes 450, Hermes 900, Skylark I and II UAVs to the Indian military. Additionally, the Indian Air Force is seeking the armed Israeli UAV named Harop.
Meanwhile, several Pakistani companies are involved in UAV production. The more well known versions go by the name of Desert Hawk and Uqaab. The country is also acquiring the German EMT LUNA short-range battlefield reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition UAV, and the Italian Galileo Avionica's Falco tactical unmanned aerial vehicle (TUAV). At the same time, Turkey and Pakistan are also working together on development of UAVs.
The drone race has also entered the realm of space. China is aggressively pursuing the space dual use program, which supposedly has the capacity to counter the space infrastructure used by the global positioning and targeting systems. In January 2007, the country had tested its ground based laser Anti-Satellite (ASAT) capabilities by shooting down one of its aging weather satellites in space; in September 2008, it launched the BX-1 satellite, deployed through the Shenzou-7 spacecraft. Later the BX-1 satellite and the Shenzou-7 performed a fly-by of the International Space Station (ISS). The test was interpreted to mean that the Chinese military could threaten the imaging reconnaissance satellites operated by the US, Japan, Russia, Israel and Europe.
This had prompted the United States to launch its first national space policy after a hiatus of ten years, and launching the first ever space drone, X-37b. The space drone X-37b is first unmanned spacecraft capable of conducting combat missions in space. Some space experts are calling this new drone as representing the arrival of the "weaponisation" or militarization" of space, the final frontier.
Thus, it is clear that US bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, and other places would be used to send dual-purpose beasts for fighting extremists and for containing adversaries. It is not clear if the people of these countries are ready to own them. However, as the capture of the Kandaharian Beast in Iran shows, the chances of them causing miscommunication and conflicts have increased. There are also serious legal, humanitarian and ethical concerns connected to the drones. For example, Pakistan is already grappling with the erosion of sovereign rights, as a consequence of drone attacks. Although, up until a few days ago, it was hosting drones at the Shamsi air base without the knowledge of its public.
Recently a scientist from the Georgia Tech Research Institute, Charles E Pippin, successfully demonstrated two unmanned automated aircrafts coordinating and identifying tarp targets through sensors. The technology is still a few decades away before it can be used; however, it is already causing alarm about what experts are calling “lethal autonomy.” The world envisioned by science fiction futurists in which robots actually conspire to take over the warring earthlings, now appears all the more conceivable.
The writer is the chief analyst for PoliTact (www.PoliTact.com and http:twitter.com/politact) and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.