Drone program grows while military shrinks

Molly Wood Jan 27, 2012

The new Defense Department budget was announced yesterday by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. The grand total? $525 billion, down form $531 billion in the current fiscal year. The Pentagon aims to cut $487 billion from its budget over the next 10 years. That means a reduction of 100,000 troops, base closures, and cutting back on ships and aircraft.

One area that is not slated for reduction, however, is the UAV program. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, commonly referred to as drones, are going to see a 30 percent increase under the new plan. “I actually would argue that this budget is only the start of that,” says Peter W. Singer, director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative at Brookings. 

He says drone aircraft are evolving rapidly, in part because the military is so dedicated to using them. The previous generation of drones needed people on the ground controlling just about everything. They were kind of a larger version of a remote control toy airplane. But after plenty of research and development, the drones of today are capable of doing quite a bit independently. “(The) current generation can take off and land on its own,” says Singer. “It has smart sensors, that is they can, for example, detect a disruption in the dirt from a mile away and say, that disruption in the dirt, that’s this thing you humans call a footprint and this is where the footprint came from.”

The military has about 7,000 drones in use today, says Singer. In many cases, they’re on attack missions in Afghanistan but piloted from an Air Force base in Nevada. The next generation will do a lot more without people helping at all.

“For example, air-to-air refuel on its own,” Singer says, “React to changing situations on ground, like an enemy missile. Or if an enemy radar pops up, react in such a way that you can get out of danger, that you can stay stealthy. There may be targets on the ground, the system could have a set of target identification software that will allow it to identify and then take it on.”

Does that mean drone aircraft being able to independently make a decision to kill a human being? “Yes,” says Singer, “but we’re not in the world of the Terminator or anything like that now. Autonomy is often talked about sort of this it’s either you pushing all the buttons or it’s the Terminator out there making all of its own decisions. The reality is there’s a spectrum in between and we’re sort of moving slowly up that spectrum

Singer says the move to drones isn’t just a matter of technology, it’s a matter of history. “Whether you’re talking about ancient Greeks going off to fight Troy,” he says, “or my grandfather going off to fight in the Pacific after Pearl Harbor, this experience of going to war was fundamentally the same. You were going to a place of such danger that your family might never see you again. You might never come home. And that has been a constant of what it means to go to war for the individual warrior. Until today.”

Also in this program, Motorola has filed a patent infringement suit against Apple, charging that Apple has violated patents belonging to Motorola. It seeks the remedy of banning the sale of the iPhone. It’s the latest battle in what has become a global patent war. We present a letter from a lawyer/soldier in that war, taken from the Ken Burns documentary series, “The Patent Wars.”*

My dearest Millicent,

It grieves my heart to report that we are again in pitched battle.

My regiment of attorneys representing Motorola are met with a most intimidating foe: Apple.

The fighting shall be fierce and there will be much suffering.

Our goal: A ban on iPhones, such innovations as a hidden antenna violate our patents. Blast these patents, Millicent, for they led us to this patent war.

Our case seems destined to die, strewn among motions and briefs lying still on the courtroom floor.

How many technologies must be throttled in the war, my darling?

What price, figuratively and literally, must consumers pay?

I fear what I have become.

Your husband,

Robert Jones, esq

Motorola Legal Team.


* not a real series, don’t go look it up.

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