As trigger-words go, proliferation is a biggie. After all, we have the somewhat-creaking Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, which, for better or for worse, might have helped keep the number of states/actors able to deploy weapons that could annihilate the human race remarkably low. I’m sure there are people out there who could talk themselves in circles about the significance of a term of biology being applied to international politics, but hey. For better or worse, the contemporary meaning of proliferation is tied to nukes. Of course, there are other similar regimes in force, covering biological and chemical weapons, and the term is also used in reference to small arms. Now, though, there are people advocating for non-proliferation of UAVs. Fair enough, one might argue, military UAVs are a relatively new technology: control their use, save everyone the hassle of some James Cameron-ite nightmare in the future.
What I find problematic is when people such as Simon Jenkins compare nuclear proliferation to the proliferation of UAVs. To quote his opening lines:
The greatest threat to world peace is not from nuclear weapons and their possible proliferation. It is from drones and their certain proliferation.
To give Mr Jenkins some credit, one would be foolish to argue that UAV proliferation isn’t some sort of threat to world peace, but to place it on the same level as nuclear weapons, or even equate the two, is, in my mind, foolish rhetoric of the highest calibre. Even from a Benthamite “end effect” perspective, UAV’s aren’t responsible for that many deaths relative to nuclear weapons. Anyone who wishes to argue the point, take a quick look at the casualties from Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Nuclear weapons are so terrible because one button press (and authorisation checks etc etc) can end the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. If a contemporary American nuke hit a major population area, the casualties could probably be measured in millions. It would take an awful lot of Reaper UAVs to attain a similar tally.
What Mr Jenkins and similar commentators seem to forget is that UAVs are quite fragile, and easily destroyed. If Pakistan or Yemen bothered switching on their air defence systems, the pesky buzzing would be silenced with ease. Despite American attempts, missile defence versus a salvo of nuclear ICBMs is still an entirely uncertain proposition. Despite the fact that nuclear weapons haven’t been used, the latent threat of their use is in my mind more of a threat to world peace than UAVs (both those that exist and are likely to exist in the medium term). That’s notwithstanding the possibility of states with nuclear weapons collapsing, or criminal networks within those states passing on the technology.
The control of UAV technology is, however, a problem. In short, it isn’t that amenable to control in any meaningful sense of the word. If one wishes to “control” the proliferation of technology automating human behaviour and actions, then there would need to be some form of global bar on research in that area.* I imagine that MIT and Google might have a problem this idea. Similarly, if someone wants to control the design and building of small unmanned aircraft, well, too late, that horse bolted a long time ago. Of course, you could lock up every amateur geek enthusiast, but that would be a bit pointless. The point is, the technology to build UAVs is embedded into our society to a far greater degree than nuclear weapons, chemical and biological weapons and small arms are. UAVs are effectively an extension of the industrial revolution (mechanisation, automation, replacement of human action by machine). I’m writing this on a laptop that was probably made by a large number of robots. UAVs need to be put into perspective – despite their dangers they can’t make human life as we know it extinct and they likely can’t be controlled by treaty. A little less rhetoric and a little more thought from critics of military UAVs might produce a better critique.
*The argument that only weapon-carrying UAVs need control is pointless, since delivery mechanisms could be integrated with any unmanned airframe in the event of a war. If such an unlikely ban became reality, I would imagine that the US and China would quickly start stockpiling “agriculture surveillance” UAVs or something like that.