Will Drones Go Nuclear?

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U.S. scientists have undertaken research into a new generation of drones that would be nuclear-powered, in the hopes of allowing them to be able to fly for months in remote areas, according to a report in The Guardian today.

“The blueprints for the new drones, which have been developed by Sandia National Laboratories – the U.S. government's principal nuclear research and development agency – and defense contractor Northrop Grumman, were designed to increase flying time ‘from days to months’ while making more power available for operating equipment, according to a project summary published by Sandia,” the paper reported.

The ramping up of drone strikes has been one of the more controversial elements of the Obama administration’s foreign policy, and the idea of adding a nuclear element to the program is only likely to further stoke controversy. Indeed, the report notes that the work has been halted for now over concerns that public opinion wouldn’t accept the idea of “such a potentially hazardous technology, with the inherent dangers of either a crash – in effect turning the drone into a so-called dirty bomb – or of its nuclear propulsion system falling into the hands of terrorists or unfriendly powers.”

The fact that the program has been halted is something that Peter Singer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and an expert on drone warfare, suggests may be lost in the attention on the nuclear aspect of the project.

“What people seem to be missing is that the program was not approved. We are not building it!” he told me. “All sorts of ideas are proposed by scientists, and this one was found to involve a technology not yet ready for prime time and which carries some deep concerns about its implications for operations, legal concerns, and fear of accident impact. So it was not approved.”

Bill Roggio, editor of The Long War Journal, agrees that at this stage, nuclear-powered drones are very much just an idea, and a potentially flawed one at that.

“I don’t think you could keep a drone up for months at a time,” he told me. “I don’t think we’re at that level of maintenance and equipment. The engine might be able to withstand months of flying with the fuel, and that’s great. But there are other systems on an aircraft that require maintenance. So I would say it’s overly optimistic to say that a drone could stay in the air for months. I’d say days would be more likely.”

But he added that even setting this aside, “Planes do crash, drones do go down. So what happens when you have a nuclear power plant on an aircraft that crashes in enemy territory? The technology could fall into enemy hands or nuclear materials could end up with them.”

It was 10 years ago last month that the CIA first used a Predator drone in a targeted killing – in Paktia Province in Afghanistan, according to The Nation. And the intended target? Osama bin Laden. This wasn’t the first use of the drones by the CIA in the region – the organization had been flying unarmed drones there since 2000 – but it started armed strikes after the September 11, 2001 attacks.

Yet while the decision to use armed drones may have been undertaken under the George W. Bush administration, their use has been dramatically ramped up by the Obama administration. Late last year, Global Post released a timeline for drone strikes that suggests a dramatic expansion of their use from 2008.

So, why have drones been embraced?

“One of the reasons we like to use them, aside from longer loiter times, especially in places like Pakistan, is because of the question of what happens if one crashes and it’s manned?” Roggio says. “Because then you have all the implications of a pilot falling into enemy hands and then a search and rescue operation.”

And he argues that although drones have been much criticized for the political toll they have taken on ties between the U.S. and countries like Pakistan over the number of civilian deaths, that it’s the policy and not the technology that’s the real problem.

“It appears in Pakistan that we are doing this against the wishes of Muslim governments, and that’s a PR nightmare…The problems are with how the program is being communicated.”

“Odds are that if we didn’t fly drones then we’d probably come up with another solution. Maybe they’d be cruise missiles, or maybe we’d fly B-52s up to the border and launch longer range air-to-ground missiles. That wouldn’t fix the surveillance problem, but we’d find other ways. To me, it’s more the policies rather than the technology that drives these problems,” Roggio says.

The other question over the use of drones is whether the remoteness of the drone operators from the target in some way desensitizes the military from the killing.

On this, though, Roggio and Singer both suggest that such fears are likely misplaced.

I think this impact is more on the politicians and public than on the operators themselves. The operators do wrestle with issues of combat stress fatigue and burnout,” Singer says. “They (politicians) have helped create a context where nations engage in what we used to think of as war, but without some of the same kind of tough and public deliberations about them. For example, we have carried out more than 300 air strikes into Pakistan, but Congress hasn’t voted on it, the media doesn’t report it the same way, and the public certainly doesn’t view it the same way as if those were manned operations.”

Roggio agrees that the way we view warfare has changed.

“Warfare has over the years become more and more remote-controlled,” he says. “Take a cruise missile. Someone pushes a button on a ship, or cruise missiles are launched from an aircraft, or a pilot drops a bomb from 30,000 feet. If you’re not sticking a knife in someone, it’s all a form of remote control warfare.”

“A sniper looking through a scope and firing from 1,000 yards – that’s remote control isn’t it? What’s the difference between 1,000 yards, 30,000 yards or 3,000 miles? This is what warfare has evolved into.”

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