On the Record

War By Remote Control: Drones Make It Easy

Peter W. Singer

Editor’s Note: Drones have been a key tool in the U.S. counterterrorism fight in Pakistan, and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. In an interview with NPR’s All Thing Considered at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, Peter Singer discusses the evolution of remote-controlled warfare, and the political complications inherent in this type of warfare.

RACHEL MARTIN, NPR: We’re standing beneath a very old airplane.

PETER SINGER: Essentially a plane that’s made out of canvas, wood, very fragile compared to materials today.

MARTIN: It’s a replica of the Wright Military Flyer built in 1909 when a lot of people didn’t think such a thing was even possible.

SINGER: So we first have the concept that’s really, you know, what we would now call science fiction. In fact, in 1903, The New York Times says that it will take millions of engineers and mechanicians tens of thousands of years to build an actual flying machine. The very same day, two brothers in Dayton, Ohio, start to assemble the first real flying machine in their bicycle shop.


SINGER: The U.S. has carried out 307 airstrikes into Pakistan. In the Libya case, the president said we’re just going to provide support to the Europeans, so I don’t need authorization from Congress. Because as they put in the letter to Congress, U.S. forces won’t have any risk of casualties. But we carried out 146 airstrikes, including the one that helped get Gadhafi in the end. And the point here is that engaging in combat and people being at risk have always been together until now. The technology allows you to disentangle them, and now a new age of war has started.


SINGER: And so what we’re seeing is that these robotic planes, but also we have them on the ground and at sea, they are revolutionary technologies. Revolutionary technologies are technologies that are really rare in history. They’re things like the steam engine, gunpowder, the computer, the atomic bomb. The key is that they’re not technologies that solve all your problems, rather they’re technologies that open up an incredible amount of new both possibilities and dilemmas and perils to figure out.

Listen to the full interview or read a transcript »