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DRONES CAN BE entertaining radio-controlled hobby craft. They’re useful for aerial photography and employed in news and traffic reports. They’re increasingly seen as delivery vehicles. And, alas, they’re the hot topic in warfare.

Andrew Cockburn addresses this concept in “Blips on the Screen,” in the London Review of Books, December 3, 2020. Here are tidbits from his review of four books on this topic, together with my usual Internet sleuthing, and a bit of sci-fi reflection.

The Bayraktar (Turkish: “standard bearer”) TB2 is a UCAV (unmanned combat aerial vehicle) flown by Azerbaijan in its conflict with Armenia. Image from

All-Seeing Omnipotence? Cockburn notes, “The record of this year’s wars shows that although these weapons may not provide a decisive edge in combat they excel in self-advertisement, projecting an image of all-seeing omnipotence.”

It’s a false omnipotence, though, because drone warfare has plenty of countermeasures. Cockburn observes, “The accuracy of drones’ laser-guided munitions depends on an unobstructed view of the target: even smoke, easily generated, provides an effective camouflage. What’s more, remote-controlled weapons rely on an uninterrupted signal to their controller, which is eminently jammable—a tactic at which the Iranian military seems adept, having used it to capture an American ‘stealth’ drone in 2011.”

High vs Low Tech. “During the Vietnam War,” Cockburn recounts, “civilian scientists in service to the Pentagon devised an ‘electronic fence’ made up of thousands of sensors dropped across the jungles of North Vietnam. These were designed to detect enemy troop movements by such tell-tale signs as the smell of urine or ground vibrations from the movement of trucks and tanks,”

“But the North Vietnamese,” Cockburn relates, “soon devised effective countermeasures, depositing buckets of urine far from their troops in locations that were then duly bombed while supplies continued to flow undetected along the jungle routes from north to south. The super-secret operation was ultimately revealed in the Pentagon Papers, leaked by Daniel Ellsberg.”

Gorgon Stare vs the Internet. Another example cited is Gorgon Stare technology, named for the Gorgons of ancient Greek legend. These creatures had a gaze so terrible that anyone who looked upon them immediately turned to stone.

A General Atomics MQ-9A Reaper.

The Predator B Reaper is a large drone, its wingspan of 65 ft. 7 in. just a tad smaller than that of a Gulfstream G280 business jet. With an operational altitude at 25,000 ft., Reapers fitted with Gorgon Stare technology used video cameras that, Cockburn writes, were to offer “ ‘persistent, wide-area surveillance of small towns,’ enabling intelligence analysts to track the movements of malefactors.” 

Cockburn continues, “But the air force unit assigned to test the system in 2012 was less impressed. Alongside its derogatory conclusions, their report included a pair of high-altitude photographs of the unit’s own base. One had been taken by Gorgon Stare, developed at a cost of $500 million to the taxpayer. The other, identical in quality of detail, had been downloaded from Google Earth, free of charge. In neither were humans distinguishable from bushes.”

Cockburn doesn’t mention real-time aspects of either technology, however.

Turkeys and Civilians. “In 2010,” Cockburn cites, “a U.S. air force drone crew watching infrared video of a night-time convoy of Afghan vehicles, as revealed in the transcript of their conversation, thought that warm dots in the trucks they saw on their screens were weapons. In fact, they were turkeys, presents carried by the peasant passengers for their relatives in Kabul. (The trucks were attacked, killing 23 people.)” Not to say the turkeys as well.

AI Drones. The concept of Artificial Intelligence has been an evolving technology in drone warfare. Frank Pasquale describes this in ” ‘Machines Set Loose to Slaughter’: the Dangerous Rise of Military AI,” in The Guardian, October 15, 2020. Pasquale writes, “In the past, nation states have come together to prohibit particularly gruesome or terrifying new weapons. By the mid-20th century, international conventions banned biological and chemical weapons. The community of nations has forbidden the use of blinding-laser technology, too.” 

He cites that NGOs have successfully urged the UN to convene member states to ban weapons that act on their own, without direct human control.

On the other hand, Pasquale observes that “Expense is the chief impediment to a great power experimenting with such potentially destructive machines.”    

A Scary Sci-Fi. I recall a tale (maybe you remember its identifying details?) about just such a lamentable state of affairs: Two world powers come to realize they’re on paths of mutual economic ruin if they continue developing more and more costly AI weaponry. 

Then, through mutual understanding, they reach an AI military detente: Use humans instead. ds 

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2021 

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