Terminators to Tripoli
Killer drones in Libya: The global expansion of remote-controlled warfare.
Drones alone can't win the war in Libya, any more than they've won the war in Pakistan. But they increase our ability to kill the enemy while sparing civilians and avoiding risk to ourselves. To that extent, the unmanned invasion of warfare is a force for good.
On the other hand, it may also create a new kind of mission creep.
"If we tried to overthrow Qaddafi," Obama warned Americans three weeks ago, "we would likely have to put U.S. troops on the ground to accomplish that mission, or risk killing many civilians from the air. The dangers faced by our men and women in uniform would be far greater."
But if drones continue to improve and to take over the conduct of war, the risks to civilians, U.S. troops, and pilots might diminish to the point where we feel emboldened to attempt the overthrow of other dictators. In that case, the unmanned invasion of warfare might turn out to be the most significant invasion of this century, but certainly not the last.
(Readings I recommend: Spencer Ackerman at Danger Room points out that drones need spotters on the ground, so if we don't use "boots" for that in Libya, we might be using the CIA. Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann analyzed the first six years of the drone campaign in Pakistan in a 2010 New America Foundation paper. They updated their assessment four months ago in Foreign Policy. Bill Roggio and Alexander Mayer calculate a lower rate of civilian casualties at the Long War Journal. P. W. Singer wrote a terrific overview of drone warfare and the future of unmanned systems in Slate last year.)
Will Saletan covers science, technology, and politics for Slate and says a lot of things that get him in trouble.
Photograph of Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates by Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images.