As Revolutionary As the Introduction of Gunpowder: Peter W. Singer on Drone Warfare

05/28/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Ian Masters Journalist, commentator, author, screenwriter and documentary filmmaker

We don't know the legality of drone warfare, because right now we're at the stage of simply denying that it even happens.

Peter W. Singer, author of Wired for War: The Robotic Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century, testified before Congress on drone warfare last week. He spoke with Ian Masters about that testimony, and the nature of robotic warfare.

Singer began by addressing objections that drone actions do not constitute warfare:

This is by any other measure the equivalent of a war. It's about three times the number of air strikes we did in the opening round of the Kosovo war. But we don't view it as a war. And the real question here was, Is it because Congress hasn't weighed in, either to support it or to oppose it? Is it because it's being run by the CIA, not by the military, and so therefore it doesn't fall under the same authorization? Or is just the fact that we're using robotics, and so we don't view it in the same way?

These are not the only questions raised by long-distance drone strike. Central problems revolve around determining who is responsible for ordering the attacks:

We know when it's a military operation, there's a distinct chain of command; there's authorities that are followed; there are . . . people who are experienced in military affairs making decisions, for example over things like collateral damage. When it's authorized by a JAG officer, that's something that they've been weighing and learning about their entire career. The CIA, by comparison, its role is in the intelligence and gathering and analytic world. . . . It's an agency that's headed by civilian appointees . . . the simple reality is they're not someone who has spent their career as a lawyer focusing on things like, "How do I weigh the collateral damage of an air strike?" . . .The one pure air war campaign that we're fighting right now in Pakistan isn't being fought by the US Air Force. It's being fought by the CIA.

More fundamentally, the nation has yet to determine what constitutes the legal rules of engagement:

We don't know the legality of it because right now we're at the stage of simply denying that it even happens.

Singer went on to put these developments in context:

This is an introduction of a new weapon that's along the lines of the introduction of gunpowder; the introduction of the atomic bomb. It has that magnitude of consequences and ripple effects, in everything from our politics to our laws to our commerce.

Just as problematic, this technology as the power to make "war seem costless." When systems are "government owned [but] contractor operated," accountability gets ever more remote. "You don't have to worry as much about the political consequences of sending soldiers into harm's way," Singer explained.

I remember doing a discussion with a soldier, and he described how one of the great benefits of a robotics system is that he doesn't have to worry about writing a condolence letter to someone's mother.

Ultimately, the people at either end of the drone's weaponry come to live in almost alternate universes.

We describe them with adjectives like "costless," "efficient," "effective." Whereas [people in the Middle East] describe them as "cruel" and "cowardly." . . . So we're living in two very different worlds.

We are still in the early stages of understanding what robotic technology will become.

Robotics today is where the automobile was in 1909, or where the computer was in 1980, or where the airplane was in 1919.

Ian Masters can be heard Monday-Thursday at 5:00 PM PST and Sundays at 11:00 AM PST streaming live at Find the archives and free podcasts at the audio archives.