Frank Rieger Interviews Daniel Suarez : Swarming Killing Machines

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A Predator Drone over Kandahar air base in Afghanistan on the 29th of January 2010 Bild: dapd

He wants to warn of the effects that autonomous drones might have on democratic institutions. Frank Rieger talks to the author and programmer Daniel Suarez about his book „Kill Decision“.

          11 Min.

          Your new book, Kill Decision, dramatically opens a view into a future world, where killer drone technology has proliferated so widely that it becomes practically impossible to determine who is behind an attack and the real goals of the attacker. Could the result be described as the opening of Pandoras box, very much like the Stuxnet attack has been described as a „fire at will“-signal in the field of cyberwar?

          I view drone warfare as the kinetic cousin of cyber warfare, in that they are both radically new, low-cost, low-risk methods of waging conflict. Notably, once the technological landscape was ready, cyber war was swiftly adopted - and not just by governments, but by transnational criminal organizations as well.

          Autonomous combat drones will likely follow the same pattern, and quite soon since the technological groundwork has been laid for their arrival. Drones of insect-level intelligence are readily available and researchers are now working on combat robots of rat-like intelligence. With fifty nations actively pursuing drone technologies, these too will spread swiftly. As with all technologies whose time has come, I expect combat drones are here to stay.

          Incidentally, cyber espionage is helping to facilitate drone proliferation by spreading top-secret designs around the world. A lot of technology is leaking out of Western networks to parts unknown, and the know-how and equipment required to manufacture such designs has also spread to low-cost labor centers worldwide through globalization. Don’t be surprised to see a lot of similar-looking drone designs loitering over battlefields. So yes, Pandora’s Box has indeed been opened. When it comes to high-tech, borders are increasingly meaningless - and yet when it comes to geopolitics, borders still matter a great deal. The tension between those two forces will cause serious problems in the 21st century.

          What are the military and strategic implications of drones becoming the universal weapon of choice for hard to attribute attacks, available to nearly every nation state and subsequently also mercenaries and „security contractors“?

          Setting aside the social and political implications (which will be significant) the arrival of low-cost, difficult-to-trace, no-mercy robotic weapons could change not just the laws of war - but the very nature of human conflict. The age of ’anonymous war’ is upon us - it will be nearly impossible to determine who’s attacking you, even if you capture an attacker’s drone intact. The components were assembled in China? So what? Everything’s made in China, and most if not all of these components are dual-use - that is, they’re commonly used in consumer electronics and process control equipment - making arms control more difficult. Anonymity could nullify an adversary’s superior firepower, since they won’t know whom to target in retaliation. And that might make attacks more likely as a foreign policy option for even relatively weak combatants.

          You’re going to see a ’Cambrian explosion’ in drone variations in coming years - ranging widely in size and sophistication, from high-altitude supersonic platforms all the way down to disposable swarming killing machines. Funding for manned military aircraft will be drastically reduced in coming years as nations move toward unmanned (and in many cases autonomous or semi-autonomous) aircraft that will be able to out-fly, out-perform, and outlast their manned counterparts. No drone is going to ’black out’ in a 20-g turn, and neither is it going to suffer fatigue or lose alertness.

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