In a camouflaged trailer truck in the Nevada desert, a bank of computer screens shows live images of a mud-walled compound in Afghanistan, 8,000 miles away. Those pictures are coming from a Predator unmanned aircraft that you, hunched over the computer in the darkened room not far from Vegas, are flying remotely.
Soon two vehicles stop in front of the targeted mud-baked house. Half a dozen bearded men hurry into the house. Seconds later, you squeeze the trigger in Nevada and a 500-pound bomb flattens the building. Classic Hollywood stuff? Yes, except that this is happening in a real battlefield, and as P.W. Singer, a military expert at Brookings, writes in a new book Wired for War, The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century, war by remote control is growing and leading a fundamental change.
There is a strange disconnect about it. Singer talks of pilots shooting missiles at enemies thousands of miles away and then getting into their Toyotas to be home for the kids' soccer practice. "You are going to war for 12 hours, shooting weapons at targets, directing kills on enemy combatants, and then you get in the car, drive home, and within 20 minutes you are sitting at the dinner table talking to your kids about their homework," he quotes one pilot as saying.
Of course it can all go wrong. Ask the people on the ground in Afghanistan and Pakistan who say missiles fired by drones have often killed civilians.
It is not just military pilots sitting outside Las Vegas flying bombing missions in Afghanistan; there are robots sniffing for IEDs in the streets of Baghdad, and soldiers on the ground flying a whole menagerie of drones over the battlefield.
Small UAVs such as the Raven, which is just over three feet long, or the even smaller Wasp (which carries a camera the size of a peanut) are tossed into the air by individual soldiers and fly just above the rooftops, transmitting video images of what's down the street or on the other side of the hill.
There is more coming. The Pentagon is researching robots the size of flies to carry out reconnaissance work now handled by elite Special Forces troops.
"It sounds like science fiction, but it is fact: On the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, robots are killing America's enemies and saving American lives. But today's PackBots, Predators, and Ravens are relatively primitive machines. The coming generation of "war-bots" will be immensely more sophisticated," Singer writes.
Indeed America is increasingly relying on war by drones. As Danger Room notes, the "big surge in Afghanistan and Iraq has been the astronomical increase in robotic planes." It quotes an air force study to say that there was a 74 percent increase in combat hours flown by Predators in 2008
Is it too much of a good thing and are there dangers here? Yes, there is almost something seductive about this kind of riskless warfare, says Singer. By lowering the human costs of war, you might be tempted into more wars. As General Robert E. Lee famously observed more than a century ago : "It is good that we find war so horrible, or else we would become fond of it."