A Persian Cafe, Edward Lord Weeks

Thursday, 13 March 2014

What would a future of drone warfare entail?

Noah Smith recently wrote an article predicting that drone warfare is going to make sweeping, and likely disastrous, changes to our lives. It's an interesting article, well argued, and I would encourage you to read through it, but in case this is a brief reconstruction of the argument:

  • For the last 700 years or so, warfare has been dominated by people with guns.
  • Guns were in a sense a "democratising" force in warfare - needing little training to use, they have made it possible for the average person to take part in a conflict if necessary.
  • While guns were not significantly more effective weapons than those preceding them, they were more efficient in terms of benefits (military effectiveness) versus costs (risk of death, need for training, costs of production*). Indeed, while planes and tanks are more dangerous than men with guns, they are less cost-effective and therefore men with guns are still the backbone of any military effort.
  • However, drones are - or will soon be - more cost-effective than guns. Therefore, drones will replace people with guns as the key implement of warfare.
Up until this point, I would suggest that the argument does seem to be basically correct - and indeed fairly astute in terms of its analysis.

  • This means that the people who control drones will have near-absolute power over those who don't.
  • The massive inequality within our society will mean that rich people will have far greater access to drones than poor people.
  • Hence, there will be no realistic way for poor people to threaten rich people. Rich people will no longer be constrained by the threat of violence, and with resources produced increasingly by automated processes they will not be dependent upon the poor for their prosperity either.
  • Rich people will be able to take over nearly all resources and live lives of luxury, while the rest of humanity will be living on the scrapheap at near-starvation.
Okay, this is a pretty scary picture of the future. I'm particularly interested in the idea that ultimately it is inequality which will allow this to happen - as someone who does not see equality as valuable (though I have significant sympathies for Sufficientarianism), this seems like a good solid argument as to why inequality might genuinely be a severe problem. But let's break it down a little.

People who control drones will have near-absolute power over those who don't
I'm not certain it will be possible to fight entirely using drones. There will presumably still be a role for hacking, for bombs, and for infiltration (in the role of an engineer, an entertainer, an escort, etc). That said, let's accept this premise.

Inequality will mean that rich people will have far greater access to drones than poor people
This seems quite obviously true. However, this doesn't necessarily mean that they will have far greater military power. Remember that every single person has a single point of failure: that is, their body. Drones are likely to be available (at least in terms of cost) to pretty much everyone in the developed world, so I would see the principle as less one of overwhelming force than one of Mutually Assured Destruction: sure, some plutocrat can annihilate me and my family, but someone will be able to blow him up in return. I don't see this as necessarily a pleasant situation - it's not exactly clear how one would enforce any kind of justice in this situation, let alone "social" justice - but I doubt that any one person could simply take over the world.

Rich people can and will then take over all of the world's resources through force
Even if they had the ability to do this, this makes several assumptions which are disputable to say the least:

  • That they would want to. Most people are neither completely immoral or completely moral.
  • That it would be in their interest. If they already have more than enough to not be reliant on poorer people for their services, why should they care about getting even more resources?
  • That rich people have a coherent and unified class interest. "Rich people" is not the name of a single, very powerful organisation: it is a set - not even a group - of quite literally millions of people. Even if an individual rich person can clear all the poor people out of some area of value, what is the point of this if some other plutocrat will come along and take it off them? Perhaps there is some way that the first rich person could make his holdings secure, but then why couldn't this be practised by the original holders of the property?

So, while I'm not going to say that drone warfare is a positive development I don't think that it is anywhere near as terrible as Noah Smith believes.

* And, for the morally-inclined among you, risk of collateral damage to third parties.

PS. Another piece about drone warfare which ought to be more widely circulated.

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