A bombastic tune resonates in a completely dark room. The music reaches a climax, then light beams hit a figure hidden in the shadow. In few seconds, the slick shape of a small aircraft appears, while white smoke rises from the floor. The music gives no sign of letting up, sounding something like a second-rate version of the Ride of the Valkyries by Richard Wagner. Then, after about a minute, everything stops. The sharp design of the aircraft is completely revealed under the light. The sampled sound of a jet engine closes the scene.
Take a wild guess. No, I’m sorry. It’s not a footage from Iron Man 3. Robert Downey Jr. is not about to show up in an armoured suit to present a new weapon from Stark Industries.
The scene I tried to describe above is in a video released by the British company BAE Systems. It’s the presentation of one of their drone prototypes to the Ministry of Defence, back in 2010, in Warton, Lancashire. Every single frame was calculated to not reveal anything more than the necessary to the public about Taranis, the new drone BAE is trying to develop. What was so special about this brand new aircraft ambitiously named after the Celtic god of thunder?
“Taranis was supposed to fly this year,” Chris Cole tells me, on the other side of the phone, from his office in Oxford. “The worrying thing about autonomous drones is that they can replace men in the killing process. They react quickly. They are cheaper. They don’t question orders while humans can do.” Cole, head of the Drone Wars UK blog, was trying to explain why Taranis is so special.
The worrying thing about autonomous drones is that they can replace men in the killing process. They react quickly. They are cheaper. They don’t question orders while humans can do
And indeed, a large part of the answer is because it is semi-autonomous. It can fly on its own, according to a pre-set flight plan. It is considered the first step towards autonomous Unmanned Air Vehicles (UAV), not only in terms of flying but also in terms of combat. “As far as we know, Taranis is autonomous when it comes to flight. We don’t know if they are developing it to expunge the man from the loop in combat” says Cole.
The path to a fully autonomous drone is still long. However, the £143 million invested to develop the Taranis system and the fact that BAE is the prime contractor for the MoD show the strong interest UK has in UAV technology. In fact, the next step towards autonomous drones is already represented in the form of another BAE prototype named—with less testosterone—Mantis. This prototype would be able to engage targets on its own. “It’s fully autonomous. There is no man in the loop with a throttle. All you do is launch the aircraft with a click of a mouse” explained Andy Wilson, BAE’s sales and marketing director for military autonomous systems, back in 2009, when the Mantis was presented in Dubai.
Centuries ago, wars were fought on the back of a horse, with sword and shield, and any hint of an autonomous fighting machine would have been considered witchcraft. Seventy years ago, during the Battle of Britain, Sir Hugh Dowding planned the nation’s defence against the German Luftwaffe, counting on the bravery of human pilots in thousands of Spitfires. It’s unlikely he could imagine the least autonomous of these modern drones. The truth is, ten or fifteen years ago, most of us couldn’t even think about this technology ourselves—at least not without a good degree of sci-fi knowledge. Today the shift in modern warfare is real and evident.
At the end of October 2012, the Royal Air Force announced the desire to increase its UAV fleet from five to ten American-built Reaper drones. But the race to acquire as many of these high-tech toys as possible is not happening just in the UK. The US is the pioneer of this kind of warfare. Recently, Israel used its Hermes drones in the Pillar of Defence offensive against Gaza. And many more examples could be added to the list.
“At present, it is estimated that around 76 countries possess some type of drone. However, most of these countries, with the known exceptions of US, UK and Israel, only possess surveillance drones,” says Tomasz Pierscionek, member of the Medact’s board, who conducted studies on the use of UAV’s. “We are seeing a new arms race developing as many countries want to join the club by getting their hands on drones. At the NATO conference in Chicago in May 2012, Turkish President Abdullah Gül expressed an intention to purchase US made Reaper drones to use against Kurdish rebels.”
How did we get to this point, where the race to build drone fleets is rapidly picking up speed, and the Tom-Cruise-like, Top Gun pilots are taking a back seat in modern wars?