Wednesday, June 28, 2017

On the Realities of Drone Warfare

One of my frustrations has been the grossly distorted dialogue on the use of drones, or remotely piloted aircraft.  Much of the public discussion is grossly misleading.  I even wrote a chapter in a book making the point that remotely piloted aircraft are just a different platform for military action and that the ethical and legal issues are really no different than that of piloted aircraft.

I was therefore pleased to see an excellent description of the reasons for the public disconnect by U.S. Air Force Major Joe Chapa at the War on the Rocks blog.  Chapa's main point is that those who write about drones really don't know what they are talking about, and that those who have actual experience with drones don't speak out.  The article is rich with examples of how incorrect information about drones has perpetuated as a result.  He gives many examples, but I especially appreciated that he addressed one of my pet peeves:
For instance, in her 2013 book, Drone Warfare, Code Pink founder Medea Benjamin claims:
In 2003, the Defense Department developed a new computer program… The dead show up as blob-like images resembling squashed insects, which is why the program was called “Bugsplat.” Bugsplat also became the “in-house” slang referring to drone deaths.
.  .  .
Only a few authors have gotten it right. Bugsplat was software that depicted the expected blast and fragmentation pattern of the various air-to-surface weapons in the U.S. inventory. But it wasn’t that “the dead” were depicted as squished bugs. People were not depicted at all. The software was developed to show how urban terrain would impact the blast and fragmentation pattern of a given weapon on a given target. The “splat” was about patterns, not people. To take one simple example, dropping a 500-lb, GPS-guided GBU-38 onto an open field would generate a significantly different blast and fragmentation pattern than dropping a GBU-38 onto a house with some windows and an open door. This software can incorporate diverse structural elements and produces a graphic image of the pattern in which some rays would protrude further from the center (e.g., where an open door stood) than others (e.g., where the windows were) and others would be even more stifled (e.g., by the concrete walls with no windows). The resulting image looks like a bug splat on a windshield. Benjamin’s interpretation is believable but not accurate. And each time her description is reflected and propagated in the literature, the accuracy and legitimacy of the ethics debate suffers another blow and the divide between military practitioners and the interested citizens for whom they fight gets a little wider.
.  .  .
A sociologist, anthropologist, or social psychologists might, even with this better understanding of the software’s purpose, contend that the insensitive name belies animosity toward the enemy, suggesting that one wants to crush one’s enemies like bugs. Whether, or the degree to which, military members (and their civilian counterparts) view enemy fighters and the foreign citizens among whom they hide in this way is a discussion worth having, but not under the dim light of an incorrect etymology. There are two facts that are almost never cited alongside the “bugsplat” references. First, the purpose of the software has always been to better understand the precise effects of the weapons in order to reduce collateral damage and civilian casualties. Second, this “Bugsplat” software was renamed “Fast Assessment Strike Tool-Collateral Damage (FAST-CD)” more than a dozen years ago (2003). Filtering one’s view of how military personnel approach war through the outdated naming conventions of software engineers sidesteps the important questions that ought to be the subject of serious investigation. And yet, the misconception persists and has become endemic in the public mind.
Read the entire article here.

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