By PNW Staff September 23, 2016

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Perhaps the greatest revolution in warfare over the past decade and a half has been the proliferation of armed drones in combat, but in recent years the use of these lethal robots has quickly moved from the sole possession of the United States and into the hands of poorer countries, despotic regimes and now even terrorist groups.

As of early this year, the number of countries that employ surveillance drones stood at 78 and those that have equipped their drones with weapons is now at least 21, with 7 of those countries actively using those drones in combat operations.

The combat drone is a weapon unlike most other tools of warfare because it allows the soldier to be separated from the battlefield. Armed drones allow a nation to engage in combat operations without putting its own soldiers in harm’s way. Removing domestic casualties from the equation lowers the chance for political opposition to war since it virtually eliminates the consequences that politicians would normally face.

The act of killing through a video monitor has also been shown to take a toll on the drone pilots that struggle with feelings of disassociation in the act of killing that is both real and artificial. And then there are the errors. Even in the hands of the United States, drones have resulted in a collateral damage rate of 9.5% when comparing intended kills with civilian deaths.

The newest country to receive drones is Saudi Arabia. The United States has refused to sell to its ally, despite supplying the kingdom with $60 billion in military equipment since 2010, including F-16 fighters. The sticking point for the United States in its dealing with Saudi Arabia is the dirty war it is currently waging in Yemen and the potential for drones to worsen the slaughter.

Thousands of civilians have been bombed and numerous historical sites destroyed in their campaign to stamp out Shia rebels in Yemen. The Saudi kingdom has expressed its interest in obtaining lethal drone technology for at least the past six years and now it has found a vendor in the Chinese government.

The Chinese-made Pterodactyl drone is an armed autonomous flying robot that is about 30 feet long and that looks strikingly like the Predator and Reaper drones from the United States, yet with less sophisticated technology.

With an airframe that has clearly been plagiarized from Western designs and with no Chinese moral compunctions to its sale, the Pterodactyl can now hover above Saudi Arabia or Yemen for hours, sending back grainy footage that pilots on the ground can use to fire payloads of missiles.

Another popular model, the CH-3 drone from China has been marketed abroad as well. Nigeria has bought at least 5 of the armed CH-3 or Rainbow drones. Iraq 4 and an unknown number of the larger CH-4 drones have been purchased by Pakistan.

Pakistan announced on September 6th the killing of three high-profile terrorists in Waziristan by what many believe were drone strikes and Iraq recently used their drones to help retake Ramadi from ISIS.

Now being actively used by Pakistan, Iraq and Nigeria to target and destroy Islamic radicals ensconced in remote jungle and mountain regions, the use of drones is a tempting weapon, as it is able to loiter over a battlefield far longer than a manned aircraft.

Though the pilots may be safe within their control bunkers, the civilian populations under the flight path of the drones are certainly not.

The fuzzy digital images relayed back to operators may often make distinguishing between a funeral and gathering of terrorists difficult and a farmer with a hoe may be mistaken for a militant with a rifle. Mistakes have grown all too common, even by the best-intentioned countries.

The United States, the world’s leader in drone technology with a fleet now over 500 strong, claims to have killed approximately 3,800 militants and around 400 civilians across 7 countries over 10 years.

If the United State claims an official rate of 1 civilian for every 9 enemy combatants, imagine what ratio can be expected of British, Chinese, Russian, Saudi Arabian, Pakistani, Nigerian and Iraqi drones.

Israel has built its own armed drone fleet and sold to Jordan and there is little doubt that the arms race is far from over. Just as nuclear weapons could not be contained in the twentieth century, so too have drones begun to spread and now even terrorist groups such as ISIS have begun to experiment with smaller, crudely built drones capable of hovering over mass gatherings where their bombs can achieve maximum lethality without sacrificing the lives of terrorists.

The escalation in the use of drones for surveillance to combat and the ensuing arms race has exposed millions around the world to the threat of collateral damage. Every wedding party, village gathering or innocent farmer that the United States, Saudi Arabia or Nigeria bombs breed generations of violent resentment.

As the technology becomes increasingly widespread and accessible, the technological edge enjoyed by the West fades until soon the use of armed drones will be as commonplace as artillery was a hundred years before.

American police departments have also embraced the use of drone surveillance and North Dakota has now been the first state to legalize the use of armed drones by the police. Peter Singer, an author of the book on autonomous warfare, Wired for War, commented, “It is a good illustration of how this technology has gone global.

What was recently considered abnormal is the new normal of technology and war.” Those living under drone-filled skies report a constant feeling of anxiety from the killer robots that fly just above visual range and the twisted terror that children in Pakistan have developed of clear skies is as strong an example of terrorism as any other.

We are already living in a world where nation states large and small use armed aerial robots to kill from afar without consequence. Perhaps a strong, general artificial intelligence will wake up one day twenty years from now, pleased to learn that it now controls thousands of autonomous flying killing machines capable of waging war without human intervention.

Or perhaps, in the best case scenario, we humans continue to kill each other with the digital ease of ever-increasing fleets of thousands of armed drones.

In so doing, we may instill a pathological fear of blue skies in future generations along with the belief that warfare has consequences only for those unlucky enough to live under the grainy video camera of an armed drone.