It’s now commonly estimated that more than 50 nations have drones, are making plans to develop them, or are at least planning to buy them from those who do produce them. In other words, the future global skies are going to be a busy -- and increasingly dangerous -- place. They will be filled not just with robotic surveillance aircraft, but also with non-U.S. remotely piloted armed assassins which, thanks to the path Washington has blazed, need pay no attention to anyone’s national sovereignty in a search for their version of bad guys to destroy. Iranians, Israelis, Russians, Chinese, Indians, British -- you name it and if they don’t already have something robotic aloft, they undoubtedly will soon enough. And those estimates don’t even include insurgent groups and terrorists, who are undoubtedly giving real thought to how to develop and use the equivalent of suicide drones.
Just keep an eye on the news, because those numbers are only going to rise. In fact, just this month they’ve gone up by at least one, thanks to the decision of the Obama administration to sell surveillance drones to the Iraqis (and it is evidently also preparing to arm Italy's six Reaper drones with Hellfire missiles and bombs). Right now, Washington is almost alone in launching drones at will in countries ranging from Yemen to the Philippines, but that won’t last long. Already we know that these wonder weapons, hailed like so many previous wonder weapons as the ultimate answer to a military’s problems, as the only game in town, will kill many, but won’t deliver as promised.
Take Pakistan. Last week, among other attacks, a U.S. drone launched two missiles at a bakery in the North Waziristan tribal area, killing (we are assured by ever-anonymous officials) four suspected “foreign” militants “buying goods.” (No information was available on the fate of the baker, of course.) Strange to say, the Pakistani people, or at least 97% of them, haven’t taken as well as Washington might have expected to its urge to launch endless drone attacks on their territory, no matter what they or their parliament might say. Drones, which have certainly killed their share of “bad guys” (and children) in the Pakistani borderlands, have also managed to throw U.S.-Pakistan relations into chaos, caused a surge of anti-Americanism, undoubtedly created future blowback among the relatives of the dead, and have almost singlehandedly made it impossible for the Pakistani government to reopen its borders to supplies for our Afghan War. This, in turn, has helped send the already-exorbitant costs of that war skyrocketing, an immediate form of blowback for the American taxpayer.
Like most wonder weapons, drones have proven a distinctly mixed bag for Washington wherever they have been used (though you wouldn’t know it from the press they get), but like most wonder weapons, not delivering ultimate global victory or even victory on local battlefields hasn’t stopped them from proliferating. In search of the perfect solution to impossible-to-win local and global wars, Washington has ensured that drones will proliferate everywhere on what, for all of us, will turn out to be the worst possible terms. Assassination was once a complex, secret, shameful, difficult to arrange, and relatively rare act of state. Now, it’s as normal, easy, and -- amazingly enough -- almost as open as sending a diplomat to another country. Nick Turse, co-author (with me) of the first history of drone warfare (2001-2050) Terminator Planet, suggests in his latest post, “A Drone-Eat-Drone World,” just why the drone has a remarkably dismal future ahead of it and why that won’t stop the dronification of our planet for a second.
Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050 (co-authored by Tom Engelhardt and Nick Turse) is now available for purchase and marks the first in a new book series called, Dispatch Books, an experiment in publishing that will feature the best work from the site's editors and regular contributors. See here for details on the venture and for a special offer from TomDispatch.com.