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US military documents tell the story vividly. In the Gulf of Guinea, off the coast of West Africa, an unmanned mini-submarine deployed from the USS Freedom detects an “anomaly”: another small remotely-operated sub with welding capabilities tampering with a major undersea oil pipeline. The American submarine’s “smart software” classifies the action as a possible threat and transmits the information to an unmanned drone flying overhead. The robot plane begins collecting intelligence data and is soon circling over a nearby vessel, a possible mother ship, suspected of being involved with the “remote welder.”
At a hush-hush “joint maritime operations center” onshore, analysts pour over digital images captured by the unmanned sub and, according to a Pentagon report, recognize the welding robot “as one recently stolen and acquired by rebel antigovernment forces.” An elite quick-reaction force is assembled at a nearby airfield and dispatched to the scene, while a second unmanned drone is deployed to provide persistent surveillance of the area of operations.
And with that, the drone war is on.
At the joint maritime operations center, signals intelligence analysts detect the mother ship launching a Russian Tipchak—a medium-altitude, long-endurance, unmanned aircraft with “U.S.-derived systems and avionics” and outfitted with air-to-air as well as air-to-surface missiles. It’s decision time for US commanders. Special Operations Forces are already en route and, with an armed enemy drone in the skies ahead of them, possibly in peril.
But the Americans have an ace up their sleeve: an advanced Air Force MQ-1000. Unlike the MQ-1 Predator and the MQ-9 Reaper, the MQ-1000 is capable of completely autonomous action, right down to targeting and combat.
Pre-programmed with the requirements and constraints of the mission, the advanced drone takes off and American commanders let it do its thing. “The MQ-1000… immediately conducts an air-to-air engagement and neutralizes the Tipchak,” reads the understated official account of the action. The special ops team then raids the mothership and disrupts the oil pipeline interdiction scheme.
The entire episode involves a seamless integration of robots and troops working in tandem, of next-generation drones “wired” together and operating in teams, and of autonomous drones making their own decisions. But there’s a reason you’ve never read about this mission in the New York Times or the Washington Post. It won’t take place for twenty years.
Or will it?
The “African Maritime Coalition Vignette, 2030s” is a scenario offered up inUnmanned Systems Integrated Roadmap, FY 2011-2036, a recently released 100-page Defense Department document outlining American robotic air, sea and land war-fighting plans for the decades ahead. It’s the sunny side of a future once depicted in the Terminator films in which flying hunter-killer or “HK” units are sent out to exterminate the human race.
Terminators of Today?
In some ways, of course, the future is now. When the first Terminator movie was released in 1984, its HKs seemed as futuristic as its time-traveling cyborg title-character. Nearly three decades later, we’re living in an age in which armed robots do regularly surveil, track and kill people. But instead of a self-aware computer network known as Skynet, it’s the American president or his intelligence officials and military officers who determine the human targets to be terminated by unmanned hunter-killer craft.