The guy in the knit shirt leans back in his leather chair, his hand wrapped around the joystick. On the console display, two plane-shaped icons show the available ammo. As the target vehicle crosses his screen, he squeezes the red button. The car vanishes in a fireball.
I'm watching this scene in a demonstration video on my home PC. My 7-year-old son, who's watching it with me, knows all about computer games. "It went down on this car, and it made a big explosion!" he tells my wife. "It was really cool."
But this is no game. This is the real thing. It's called the Universal Control System. It directs aerial military drones. Raytheon, a high-tech defense contractor, exhibited the system last week at an air show in Britain. It looks and feels like a video game. But it kills real people.
Drones are the future of warfare. Through them, we can hunt enemies abroad at no risk to ourselves. They're perfect for post-Iraq missions, sparing us the difficulties of an official troop presence in foreign hot spots. We're already flying more than 1,000 of them in combat. The big ones hunt and kill. Go ahead, shoot at them. You can't hurt the pilots. The pilots are in Nevada.
Operating them isn't easy. With existing technology, you can see only what's visible through the drone's nose-mounted camera. To call up data and input commands, you have to use a keyboard. The training is laborious. Many pilots lose their targets. Some drones crash.
Raytheon looked at this mess and realized that civilian gamers had better equipment. So, it hired game developers to redesign drone operation. "We took the best-of-breed technologies from the gaming industry and coupled them" with military needs, says a Raytheon executive. The result is a user-friendly array of throttles, switches, and thumb controls. It's based on an Xbox processor and looks like a PlayStation.
The most important upgrade is visual. Multiple wide-screen monitors wrap around the pilot, producing a 120-degree field of vision. They integrate actual video from the drone with an interactive digital replica of the surrounding buildings and terrain. By digitizing the picture, UCS can lay information over it, displaying your available weapons and the location of nearby troops. Want to add a new drone to your command? Just click the icon.
Raytheon calls this visual field a "synthetic environment." The pilot, seated in a "virtual cockpit," enjoys "better situational awareness than any manned platform," the company boasts. The terms are disorienting. In ordinary life, environments aren't synthetic, cockpits aren't virtual, and awareness of a situation comes from actually being there. But the world on the screen isn't ordinary. It doesn't even feel like life.
Is the "synthetic environment" real? That depends on which end of the missile you're looking at. In the targeted car, it's as real as death. But from the console, it looks more like virtual reality. If the drone goes down, you're not in it. The environment you actually inhabit is pretty nice. To enhance "operator comfort," Raytheon offers "ergonomic, memory seating," "ergonomically-correct displays," and "adjustable hand and foot positions." According to the Associated Press, "The leather chair is adaptable to individual users, who can also control a heating and cooling duct above their head at the touch of a switch."
If you've seen combat in the flesh, you know what the fireball on the screen means to the people in the car. But to a teenager raised on Doom and Halo, it looks like just another score. He can't feel or smell the explosion. He isn't even there. The eeriest thing in the demo video is the total silence that accompanies the car's destruction. The only sound that follows is the pilot's triumphant verdict: "Excellent job." It's like something you'd read on the screen after getting a high score at an arcade.
The military already grooms teenagers through a video game called America's Army, explicitly designed to let the user "virtually experience Soldiering in the most realistic way possible." The next step is to combine virtual combat with real consequences, by turning gamers into drone pilots. "The current generation of pilots was raised on the PlayStation, so we created an interface that they will immediately understand," says one Raytheon spokesman. Another points out, "The Air Force will be able to recruit pilots who already have the dexterity required." In fact, the Guardian reports that "operators could simply be trained to the requisite level of proficiency on … Xbox 360s or PlayStation 3s, rather than costly simulators."
Forty-one years ago, John McCain was shot down over Vietnam. He broke three limbs and spent five years in brutal imprisonment. Anyone who has been through such hell knows that drones do a great service by protecting American pilots. But kids with PlayStations live in a world where the pilot—the console operator—is the only real human being. They don't understand war's horror the way McCain does. And he isn't the military of tomorrow. They are.