"We believe it will transform the way we fight wars in the future."
~David Lanman, UAV technology planning, Air Force Research Laboratory,
on Boeing's new X-45a. May 23rd, 2002.
The latest batch of drones slipped by overhead at around three in the morning, we were told. Hunting in packs, the pilotless craft, each with a 34 foot wingspan, tail-less, and capable of delivering a variable payload of guided and unguided weapons, were based on the flying wing design, first operated by the Luftwaffe over a hundred years ago, and "perfected" by the turn of the century.
Supposedly, they were on their way to forward targets and air-attack suppression installations. Radar, SAM sites. Troops, if anyone had bothered to deploy them yet. We had not seen any.
A rumor had circulated around the base that the drones were a myth. Flying silently at high altitude before returning to secret hangars for rearmament and the downloading of reconnaissance information, no one ever saw one until it had been shot down or crashed. The staff sergeant suggested such units were specifically programmed as cannon-fodder for the enemy, or even self-destructed by our own forces over enemy territory.
"To make us think we've got air support out there."
He meant, to make us think the work would already be mostly done. The truth was, it might have been. Countless bunkers, depots, and machineries might already be reduced to rubble just over the horizon. They were all positioned miles away anyway; all we had in way of evidence of combatitive action were satellite images and those allegedely (ha ha) taken by the drones. The geography did not have to match any preconceived notions; no humans had been out there to verify what we were told the ground units saw. If reports came through of a refinery's having been successfully bombed from five miles up, five hundred miles away, we believed it. Why not?
"Because it all goes to the computer at central command first."
The staff sergeant again.
"It builds morale. So we stay willing to live out here, fighting, 'cause we know it's working. I'm telling you, man, the drones are a myth."
I nodded, and smiled. He hadn't followed the theory to a further logical conclusion: if the drones were a myth, the enemy could be, too. Everything could be, the whole thing. An entire war on paper, composed of reports verified automatically by the data processors and filtered out to the field personnel, who had only the reports to go by.
But it was no good thinking that way; it led to stifling discontent, paranoia, madness, perhaps discharge. Hmm. Perhaps I should rethink my thinking.
I was career military, a captain in the forward division of the Technical Infantry. Drivers, we were known as to the other groups. Also Gamers, Geeks, Joysticks, and Ant Farmers. The first humans on the ground in modern warfare, closest to the action, such as it was or was not, and still well beyond the sound of a rifle or the stench of burning gasoline. The only real danger to us were the enemy's drones, if they had them. Perhaps they flew over our heads just as our own went by, silently, in the dead of night. The thought of a computerized ballet of giant unmanned planes, swirling around each other like the fragile crates of the first World War had been somehow amusing until the story broke that the drones were not built with the means to engage each other at less than a hundred miles. Both sides ran the numbers, and concluded that a drone was most likely to be lost defending itself in close-quarters air-to-air. That would result in loss of the payload before it reached the target, which of course was why it was sent out in the first place.
The drones were therefore programmed to just ignore each other. Anti-aircraft closer to the target would worry about them. At least, if they went down, the theory was, they'd do so nearby, maybe take out something.
I have been out here for six years already. It's strange, they call it a war, but it's really more of a day job. There are set hours, 9:00-6:00, an hour for lunch. I gave up driving years ago, graduated to supervisory position, shift commander. Happily, there are enough programmers so no one has to work too late; adjusting to incoming recon is a matter of entering a few new codes and redirecting the droids' operating procedure. The Advanced Technical Infantry units only needed instructions in extreme circumstances; most possible scenarios and accordant responses are preprogrammed. They match the observable factors to the internal checklist, and approximate. Maintenance of those units is more difficult, but they are a developing technology.
Our guys still require a relatively high degree of human interpretation and strategy, and their numbers need a base simply for upkeep and recombination (recovered units are sometimes rebuilt from each other; two totaled droids can become one operational unit). That's why they put us down with them, as technicians. So when the staff sargeant said "fighting," that is what he meant. This conflict was in its seventh year, with only four human casualties--friendly fire, the result of unfortunate mistakes in their programming. Fatal errors, the programmers laughed.
A conflict of this duration was unexpected. We had not taken on an equal opponent in years, decades--in nearly a century, actually. The last field war had ended in days, when swarms of our "men" simply overwhelmed the opposition, which still relied on lightly armed, barely armored FABs. That's how "Ant Farmer" was added to the list of diminutives for the Tech Infantry. One programmer controlling one battalion. Hundreds died at the click of a button, all on-screen in the comfort of air-conditioning, necessary for the computers.
Those old control rooms made me feel ill. Banks of monitors, men and women wearing earpieces and visors, coordinating their troops' movements, assigning drones to clean out this or that sector, sitting blank-faced as a hundred technical infantry marched at an unchanging, uniform cadence into an enclave of live men who couldn't or wouldn't run. The operators never spoke to each other, never needed to. Just sat, emotionless, executing the commands from above. Three random letters to kill ten or twenty men. I wondered how they could do it, until I remembered the protocols. Programmers never saw unaltered pictures from combat zones. Only numbers. And you can't see a man's eyes in infrared.
Fascinating and horrible at once. As an engineer and scientist--I used to be both--the advancements are enthralling, almost frightening. I feel much better employing them against now, like against like.
Unfortunately, so does everyone else. Hence the longevity. There have been no protests to end this. No Red Cross initiatives, no activists screaming about grotesque conditions and crimes against humanity. Humanity is not at risk. We are hardly participating at all. No one dies, so no one cries. Every day, we just grind metal against metal. We destroy automated factories, sabotage automated supply lines. No one --nothing--is demoralized, or weary, or angry. We are just waiting.
Waiting. And waiting. Drones overhead, we wait. Routing in sector 10, we wait. One million units destroyed, we wait. Because they will never run out of "men," and no one misses those that are lost. Because, since the first large-scale deployment of the drones, war has been the slow, painstaking bleeding of the enemy's ability to regenerate. First deplete the standing forces, then attack the means to create more. And wait, until to one side or the other, to continue is cost-prohibitive. That is the last standard of victory. The loser is the one that can no longer afford to fight, whose corporate backing finally pulled out, who deployed an inferior product to a live-fire, multinational proving ground.
Victory means a renegotiated contract.
It can all be done with a pen. No one has to sacrifice a son or daughter anymore, a husband or wife. The drones can do it all. If they're really there. If it's really happening. I wonder, sometimes, about that staff sergeant. Maybe he knows something I don't--or believes something I only know. But we can both feel it. Discontent, paranoia. Questions.
We still have another three million units in reserve.
"Did you see this morning's press statement?" he asked me yesterday evening, handing it to me.
The latest development. A new technology, developed by three R&D corporations in conjunction, winner of a massive government contract to produce ten million units in the next five years.
The next generation of droids will be able to hone in on unrecognized electronic impulses, like those that occur in a CPU or the human brain. When sent into the field, they will have the ability to identify and kill anything, Man or machine, that literally doesn't think the way they do.
Beneath the picture of a complex sensor array, a caption, by the Director of Developing Technology for the Armed Forces:
"We believe it will transform the way we fight wars in the future."