There's danger in the air

PUBLISHED : Monday, 12 September, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 12 September, 2005, 12:00am

The master strategist Sun Tzu once said: 'Supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy's resistance without fighting.' Those words might well endorse that supremely elusive flying eye with the lethal stare, the drone.

Capable of flying as high as 20km, drones can be used for surveillance in the hunt for the likes of Osama bin Laden, and they can be equipped to attack, the usual weapon being the thunderbolt-like Hellfire missile, which boasts pinpoint accuracy and can blast a gaping hole in pretty much anything.

Anyone with the drone on their side must feel as the Chinese did when they tested gunpowder 'fire arrows' on invading Mongol hordes. Any force facing the invisible might of the drone would find the mere thought of its presence chilling.

'Suddenly you see that mortar team disappear. You never heard it coming. That's got to weigh heavily on their minds,' a United States intelligence officer involved with drones was quoted as saying during the siege of Fallujah.

Despite its lethality, the drone - or UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle), as the acronym-obsessed US military insists on calling the technology - can look ordinary. One commentator described it as 'an ungainly, windowless airplane brimming with cutting-edge digital imaging gear and wireless data transmitters'.

Playing God in a bloodless game of electronic wizardry, the pilot sits inside a van down below, much like a TV news truck, up to 650km away, twisting a joystick that transmits radio signals.

The ability of drones to spy and/or attack without endangering the lives of airmen has made the 21st century doodlebugs indispensable and immensely popular with hawks.

In its 2001 defence bill, the US Congress decreed that within 10 years no less than one-third of US deep-strike aircraft would be unmanned.

Meanwhile, the UAV looks set to make inroads into civilian society, too, performing a policing role. Unmanned aircraft rigged with hi-tech cameras represent a cost-effective crackdown tool that can be used against anyone, from 'terrorists to drug smugglers, arms dealers and human traffickers' crossing from Canada and Mexico, according to a recently released report.

In Australia, it is the same story. American-built Global Hawk and Mariner drones are set to throw an anti-terror screen around the nation's oil and natural gas reserves. Britain wants to buy them. Cash-strapped Japan plans to develop them. Drones look set to multiply like mosquitoes over a swamp.

Depending where you stand on the political continuum, you may see UAVs as reassuring, or no more to be applauded than closed-circuit cameras. They may make the streets safer but will also undermine our privacy.

We live in an era when a Big Brother-style innovation seems to surface every week. The drone looks set to make the idea of an inviolable entity with the right to be protected from prying eyes even more of a joke.

The average information-age citizen is like someone standing naked in a lit room, shielded only by a net curtain.

But nobody seems to be protesting against robot spy planes. As with the environment, it may be a case of 'boiling frog syndrome': if you throw a frog into a pot of boiling water it will jump out, but if you place a frog in a pot of lukewarm water and slowly ratchet up the heat, the hapless amphibian will simply sit there and boil to death.

Same for privacy. We have grown used to the remorseless parade of incursions. As a result, we may notice the cost of hi-tech hardware generated by the black art of warfare only when it is too late.

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