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Battle by binary

Remote Control Conflict

Radar image tracking objects

Conflict has evolved a long way from the time when two sides lined up on the battlefield, able to make eye-contact and taking shots at each other with the front-lines. Military technology has removed the need for opposing sides to even be in the same country!

There have been occasional failures in the use of manned spy aircraft. One of the most significant such failures of a spy mission was on May 1st 1960, when CIA pilot Francis Gary Powers was shot down and captured while flying a Lockheed U2 spy aircraft over Soviet airspace. Prior to the incident the aircraft was unknown and top secret. The capture of Powers led to international fallout and heightened cold war tensions even further between the US and Russia.

Today spy missions don't need to put pilots at risk of capture. The military have UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) aircraft and spy satellites. UAV technology has existed since World War Two, when remote controlled aircraft were flown as training aids for pilots as well as for attack missions. The technology was developed further and the first full-sized unmanned aircraft were flown during the Vietnam War. The MQ1 Predator is the United States Air Force's newest UAV, and can be equipped with a multitude of payloads.

The most recent payload added is the "Hellfire" missile changing the Predator from a UAV to a UCAV (Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle). This move by the military has caused controversy because a human from miles away controls the machine remotely. Such an operator does not have as much information available to them as, say, a fighter pilot who is in the aircraft.

According to the US Air Force the MQ9 B Predator has "an operating ceiling of 50,000ft" and a range of 400m. This allows the vehicle to hang over a battlefield or area of intelligence interest, and provide the USAF with radar images, live video, and a number of other sensor readouts. Adding weapons to these devices has made the element of human error much more dangerous though. There have been cases where the operator has not correctly identified their target, and the results have been bloody, with a high level of civilian casualties. However, as well as missiles the aircraft can be equipped with laser targeting devices, which guide long-range missiles launched from other, manned aircraft, to their target more efficiently and with far greater accuracy. In this respect the UAV is a good tool for reducing unneeded collateral damage. It allows the operator to accurately identify their target and attack it with minimal loss of civilian life and minimal damage to other parts of the area's infrastructure.

The use of UAV's has increased since the new war in Iraq. Information gathered by the flight website Aviation says that "A little more than a year ago, about 700 unmanned aircraft were operating in Iraq. By last December, according to Army data, that number had grown to about 950, and it's expected to soon hit 1,250". In Iraq these UAV's are being used to spot insurgents planting roadside bombs and launching mortar attacks. By having this information relayed back to a central command point the military can then launch counter-attacks.

Spies in the skies

Satellites are another area in which surveillance by the military comes into play. At present very little is known about military satellite projects from the 1970's onwards, due to their classified status. Governments will often launch satellites with imaging engines to photograph areas of interest and provide detailed images of the enemy. These images allow the military to identify the battlefield and organise their troops and resources accordingly. This is a far quicker process than sending reconnaissance troops into the area and cuts down the risk of injury or death during reconnaissance gathering. It also enables governments to gather information about other regimes without their knowledge.

While there are plenty of moral issues surrounding this type of observance, it can help maintain international stability between connecting countries, and to an extent between warring countries, as no soldiers are being deployed in or around the area. In the past when a country wanted to discreetly spy on another to gather intelligence before planning a battle, they would have to use soldiers on the ground. This method was error-prone, the worst of which was the possibility of spies being captured by the enemy. Satellites take away some of the need to have soldiers on the ground, thus reducing the risk of capture, or worse, death.

The use of UAV technology over the past few years has grown exponentially, and the trend does not look likely to stop. With this remote control technology becoming smaller, cheaper, and easier to use, it will be more and more prevalent in the military's operations. There is still an ongoing debate as to whether it saves more civilian lives or whether, joined with today's high powered ordinance, could actually cost more. This is a question that will only be answered in time, but until then we can expect to see more and more UAV aircraft cruising overhead, and to be constantly watched by satellites placed in orbit.

War is never good, but have any good things come from it? This article is part of a series by James Snee, Marc Trepanier, Daniel Valverde and Yi Ming Woo, students at Queen Mary, University of London, investigating how military and security concerns are linked with the advancement of technology.