Drones for Pakistan - a Potential Game Changer

January 25, 2010

Soon after the US Defense Secretary Robert Gates left India's shores last week for Pakistan, came the announcement that the US was considering offering UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles popularly called drones) to Pakistan. This was supposedly to appease Pakistan to get them to join the US' war against al-Qaeda (see the New York Times story here).  

Although the drone technology being provided is meant to be used against al-Qaeda it does not require a long stretch of imagination to see where it will end up getting used eventually - against India.  It is appalling how neither the Indian establishment nor the Indian press has made any noise about this particular handout from the US to Pakistan considering the immense game changing quality of this deal.    

Drones are essentially unmanned aircrafts the latest of which can fly for more than 2000 miles, stay unobtrusively at an altitude of about 3 kilometers and stay put in its position for even up to 14 hours. The latest advanced versions are able to sense the heat of human beings on earth from that height and precisely destroy something as small as a car from that height using Hellfire missiles with much less collateral damage than an F-16 would. These are therefore highly preferred by the Obama administration to eliminate terrorists in Pakistan, the most high-profile recent casuality being Beitullah Masud. The drone program is considered to be so successful that Mr. Obama has authorized more predator killings in hist first ten months than what Bush did in 3 years.

What is all the more striking about this is that being unmanned, these are actually controlled by operators who could be sitting anywhere in the world. According to experts, more questions about what it means to be "at war" is being raised due to this program. The operators of these drones are very often suburban home dwellers who drive down to their office for an 8 hour war from an air conditioned office (much like a video game) and then go home for dinner to their family. It is not clear how the concept of "being at war" itself will change with this kind of technology.

Admittedly, the US is wary of providing this technology to any other country as it provides them a military superiority over anyone else in the world. What they are offering Pakistan is only the surveillance technology and not the firing capability. However, this first step itself is going to introduce an inequality between India and Pakistan. Pakistan will now gain the capability to intrude into Indian airspace without being detected. And its Air Force will gain knowledge of the technology which is just one step behind the Predator missile-enabled technology. 

From the deafening silence with which this news is being greeted by the Indian establishment, it is clear that the Indians were probably told and their acquiescence sought by the US before this offer was made. Perhaps that was one of the items in the agenda of Mr. Gates' visit last week. If so, it is a shame that India has agreed to this deal without thinking through the consequences. This is like the old Arabian tale of the camel and the sheikh. We are letting the camel just enough room to get his head into the tent to make him more comfortable. It won't be long before he occupies the whole tent throwing the sheikh out.

For more details on the Predator program, robotic warfare in general, and its consequences, here is an excellent  book by P.W. Singer: Wired for War.

An experienced profesional of more than 20 years. Enquiring into the context of the big issues of the day so as to understand them is a quest I pursue all the time. As Niall Ferguson said "To understand something, you need to understand its history". Hoping to bring some much needed multi-layered perspective into the burning issues of our country and the world by looking at ourselves from the outside rather than from within.
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