Nova — “Rise Of The Drones”

Nova — “Rise Of The Drones”

A documentary about the technical side of a controversial subject is always going to have to answer difficult questions, and drones are one of the most controversial subjects around. Are the technical aspects of drone warfare worth examining? Certainly. Is it possible to separate the technical from the political? Of course not. Does Nova do a good job of navigating that inherent tension? I think so, but with some misgivings about aspects of it that may have been impossible to do better.

It takes a little while to get to that point, though. “Rise Of The Drones” seems most problematic early on, particularly in an introduction that seems like it might have been written by American military P.R., starting with video of a fighter jet and narration like “This is the ultimate melding of man and machine... and pilots like Matt McDonagh have long been our heroes” followed by Terminator 3 clips shown to represent the potential “negative” side of drone use.

From there, Nova moves onto describing what makes drones so appealing to the military. They use 300 times less fuel than planes. They're safer and healthier for pilots, who also require much less training. Former Air Force general David Deptula makes a convincing argument that, in the wars of the past, it would take months to gather the information required to find the proper target, then months more to plan a strike, then thousands of bombs to ensure success, while with a drone, all of those are done with one missile in a matter of “single-digit minutes.”

This functions as propaganda because it changes the line of questioning from “Is this right?” to “Is this efficient?” And drones are clearly efficient. The most blatant example of this is when Nova discusses the history of spy planes leading to drones, where the capture of a pilot by the Soviet Union ends up “...clearly demonstrating the need for unmanned spy planes.” But of course, that's not clear. Since the Cold War never turned into a hot war against the Russians, it's possible that there was never a need for any strategic spy plane. Alternately, you could make the argument that successful reconnaissance like what came from the planes served to prevent war, but you're still getting into a more complicated argument than the throwaway line of narration indicates.

But Nova's actually slowly and subtly constructing a more complex framework than that. First, by explaining how drones work as a combination of human and automatic systems, it presents them as merely an extension of previously existing forms of warfare, instead of something new and inherently bad for that. It also ensures clarity in the division between the technology of the drones and the legality of the bombings.

Then, it follows that up with some subversion, particularly from the Brookings Institute's fascinating Peter Singer, whose concise analysis shows the less-obvious effects of the shifts toward drone warfare. By not putting American soldiers in direct danger, it allows the government to describe the attacks as something other than war. “When you're conducting more than 300 strikes into a country you're conducting what would have been called an air war campaign, but we don't call it that now.” Singer also describes how that lack of risk allows the frequency and style of mission to change: “It's meant that we've conducted a lot more strikes that would have been more problematic than if we'd been using manned systems.”

The ambivalence isn't limited to the one source. The drone pilots interviewed seem a little bit uncomfotable with describing what they do (which fits with some news I've read that drone pilots just just as mentally stressed as other combat soldiers.) One makes it very clear that “It's not like a video game, there's no reset button” while also describing how pilots have to observe the aftermath of a strike. “You have to stay there, stay plugged in, and focus on the destruction that you caused from your, uh, aircraft.”

“Rise Of The Drones” concludes with a focus on the potential future uses of drones and drone technology. Some of this is scary/smart, like a researcher who's improving drone cameras for the military by combining 368 cell phone camera chips into an intensely powerful surveillance camera, called “Argus.” Another researcher is developing drones that can work purely autonomously—a clip of a guy tossing a hula hoop in the air as a drone swoops through it makes that point astoundingly clear. Sorting out the past, present, and future of drones is complicated, but Nova manages to pull it off most of the time.

Stray observations:

  • And if you don't like the episode's politics, Nova's list of contributors after its intro makes determining blame it pretty easy: first up is the “David H. Koch Fund For Science”!
  • According to the narrator, the “decision to kill” comes from intelligence officer, battlefield commander, or sometimes pilot themselves. I wish it had spent a little bit more time examining the latter.
  • “The Air Force is now training more remote pilots than manned fighter and bomber pilots combined.”
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