From the first thrown stick or stone, it seems we’ve been at it. Or some of us. Mostly male.
The American journalist Sebastian Junger knows a thing or two about it, having spent a lot of time with US forces in Afghanistan. He’s seen Javelin shoulder-fired missiles launched in anger. And he says: “Each Javelin round costs $80,000. The idea that it’s fired by a guy who doesn’t make that in a year at a guy who doesn’t make that in a lifetime is outrageous.”
Indeed it is. And in the world of explosive missile technology, the Javelin is a relatively cheap shot. Compared with, say, a nuclear warhead launched from a submarine.
But Junger’s remark also throws light on the mixed-up world we live in, where everything seems to be current at once: clothing styles, music. And weaponry.
While ISIS, and certain governments, use medieval techniques of torture and beheading, other forces respond with drones and high-cost, high-technology bombing raids. Saudi Arabia deploys the lot.
To a certain mindset, the drone appears to be the perfect weapon-delivery system. It can fly in, pick out a target and kill without its operator coming within 1,000 miles of danger.
In that sense it’s a natural descendant of the ancient ballista used by Alexander the Great on his campaigns of conquest around the ancient Mediterranean and Middle East. A machine that could hurl missiles into a beseiged city while remaining out of range of the defenders’ spears and arrows.
The drone is not quite the video-game wheeze that some have suggested – at least not for every operator. Some have spoken of the trauma of looking into your victim’s eyes – albeit through the lens of a very remote camera – before shooting them. The pilots of bomber aircraft never face their enemy so personally.
Barack Obama’s enthusiasm for drones has not been universally shared. The killings of innocent civilians, including children, in supposedly non-combat areas such as Pakistan have been public relations disasters. Not, perhaps, such disasters for Obama as for the bereaved families, but not good news either.
On the other hand, Obama inherited his wars from the previous White House regime. And switching from boots on the ground to drones in the air didn’t only withdraw his own troops to a place of greater safety. It also reduced non-combatant deaths to hundreds from hundreds of thousands.
But as with any military advance, the question arises: what happens if the enemy seizes control of your weapon? Or turns your own technology against you?
Nato forces in Estonia have been taking part in some very serious war-gaming. The scenario involves an enemy hacking their computer network – and taking control of all the country’s drones.
This may sound sci-fi and futuristic, but it isn’t. It’s real, and it’s now.
Former RAF officer Ian West is Nato’s head of cyber security, based in Belgium. And he says: “Every single day we are operational, experiencing attacks and defending against them.”
Russia and China are known to have recruited large forces of computer hackers. West adds: “Many people think of hacktivists as 16-year-old youths sitting in their bedroom, and of course there are many like that. But when you put enough of them together and under the control of a few people who know what they are doing, they can become a formidable army.”
An army like that could readily disrupt the finances, the power supply or the transport system of any country it chose to attack. And if it went for the military, it’s not just drones that might be vulnerable.
Britain’s Trident missiles are deployed on Royal Navy Vanguard nuclear subs. You might think that such a high-powered, high-cost fleet would be controlled by the safest, most sophisticated computer system available. In fact, it’s run by an off-the-shelf Microsoft operating system known as Windows for Submarines.
Meanwhile, the rise of the drones is not just an airborne phenomenon. They’re being rapidly developed for under-sea use too. By the time the next generation of Trident comes into service in the 2030s, it will do so in a very different technological world.
Paul Ingram of the British American Security Information Council explains: “Trident is old technology. The submarines are big, they’re expensive, with very long lead times. The technology chasing them will be 30 or 40 generations on by the time they hit the water.”
No wonder Britain’s chiefs of staff would rather not put all their eggs in one basket. And Trident is one very big egg.
- I have been invited to take part in Labour’s review of its defence policy, including Trident. Not because I’m a party member – I’m not – but because the invitation is open to all. If you want to join in the consultation, you can do so until April 30 at YourBritain.org.uk