Are Unmanned "Stealth" Drones the Future Of Modern Warfare?

News of the Navy's first successful landing of an unmanned X-47B drone aboard an aircraft carrier this Wednesday has been labelled a "historic" game-changer for drone warfare. This has left various critics reeling, and this fear-inducing "success" story is already facing some major technical hiccups. The history-making stealth drone failed the following day to successfully repeat its landing, and is currently stuck in coastal Virginia awaiting system corrections.

Still, the glimpse of success for unmanned (or "robot") warfare is frightening for many, and new developments legitimately raise fear that today's advances will ultimately leave human oversight (and emotion) in warfare in the proverbial dust. While the programs threaten various moral and material drawbacks many have been quick to identify,  the ground-breaking advances in drone warfare this week deserve more serious, careful, and realistic scrutiny for potential benefits than some have been willing to consider. 

The reality is that the United States is not the only nation developing unmanned, stealthy drones. And if they do merit any benefits in maintaining a competitive edge in our national defense, their non-combat capabilities are also worth a second glance. 

Britain, France, Russia, and possibly China are all working on similar technology for unmanned, jet-powered stealth drones capable of performing in combat. Secretive behavior of Chinese drone programs have garnered particular concern from the U.S. security community, who fear rapidly-expanding Chinese drone capabilities combined with a relative lack of adequate checks and balances for their use pose a real threat to American — and global — security.

Developing similar programs in the U.S. will not only maintain a necessary defensive edge in combat, and these programs will support and defend, rather than replace, existing programs by ultimately playing non-combat roles.

"Don't expect manned fighters to go away anytime soon," write Gordon Lubold and John Reed in Foreign Policy this week, claiming these advances in unmanned capabilities will be used instead to refuel other planes in midair and serve as scouts to defend and enhance the accuracy of manned fighters. 

U.S. defense officials have been, for the most part, cheering on recent advances in expanding drone capabilities. In response to Wednesday's successful landing of an unmanned drone, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus declared "It's not often that you see into the future, but that's what we got to see today." "This is history," echoed Navy Captain Jaime Engdahl.

Naval experts explain that stealthy, unmanned jets capable of operating from carriers will play a crucial role by 2020 in the Navy's strategy, particularly in the Pacific. "Such craft could take off from a carrier far aways from an enemy's shores — and hopefully out of the range of anti-ship missiles — refuel each other and penetrate an enemy's advanced air defenses to perform strike or spy missions," writes national security expert John Reed. 

Drone policies have, of course, long raised substantive and vocal criticism from respected policy experts for their moral and political perils. Not only would unmanned drone combat heighten the mechanized nature of killing in this dicey, poorly defined gray-area in the international laws of war, their usage has arguably spurned growing anti-Americanism and fueled terrorist retribution from Yemen to Pakistan.

The newest project is, of course, a major and controversial expense on the U.S. economy. The X-47B drone project was initially funded under a $635.8 million Naval contract in 2007, and its expenses are said to have raised to over $800 million today. 

Still, the potential merits of expanded drone programs (particularly in non-combat roles) deserves serious, careful scrutiny. Thursday's failures suggest these programs' combat capabilities may not be as advanced as some have initially feared. And potential for the technology's non-combat usage is often overlooked. 

Threats from similar advances internationally and arguments for non-combat uses for new unmanned technologies can offer, on the one hand, compelling support for the Naval programs raising fear and intrigue this week. And, while the answer to immoral combat policies should never stand in replicated policies (and the morality of any unmanned combat activity should always merit close scrutiny), the argument remains that expanding U.S. stealth jet capabilities — particularly unmanned capabilities — may offer a crowning development in defense capabilities that will anchor U.S. security strategies in the 21st century. 

If unmanned drone warfare really is the "future" of modern warfare, the moral and material expense of these advances can and will remain up for debate for years to come. But overblown debates about "killer robots" should maintain measured composure while the real potential demonstrated by week's test programs in the context of equivalent global drone programs continue to come to light.

Video footage of Wednesday's historic landing can be found here (with images).

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Rachel George

Rachel is a PhD candidate in International Relations at the London School of Economics. She holds a BA in Politics from Princeton and an MA in Middle Eastern Studies from Harvard. Her interests include journalism, U.S. foreign policy, human rights, and international law.

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