The need for humans to participate in armed conflicts could soon be over. The next generation of military hardware might be able to think and act for itself.
Military hardware will soon consist of “autonomous robots that know neither pity nor fear” — quite a step up from the current generation of UAVs and drones operated by humans from the safety of military bases hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away.
Ever since drones such as the Predator were prepared and armed for use in Iraq and Afghanistan in the early 2000s, stealth weapons have played a key role in the West’s “War on Terror.” It was a Predator drone that located Osama Bin Laden in 2011, and it was a Predator drone that launched the missile attack earlier this month that killed Pakistani Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud. The drones have clocked more than 200,000 hours of flying time in Afghanistan since their inception.
Drone operators work in a safe environment, sometimes in a completely different country to the one that the aircraft flies in. They make judgment calls based on the situation they see on the computer screen in front of them. The success of the program has meant that the US Air Force is training more people to fly drones than it is conventional aircraft.
The legal battle over whether drones such as the Predator and the Reaper contravene international law is still raging. The basis of the argument against their use is that actions viewed thousands of miles away on a computer screen can be misinterpreted and the response could have severe consequences. That legal battle could get a whole lot tougher with the next generation. Future weapons will remove the human element from the equation completely; they will be able to engage targets by themselves, maximizing destruction. They will represent the age-old saying: “Shoot first, ask questions later.”