The era of truly automated drone killings – using artificial intelligence instead of human guidance to determine strikes – is "years and years away," an Air Force General responsible for planning drone missions said Wednesday.
"If the focus is on [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance], it's not that hard to automate a mission … frankly it's not that hard to do," Lieutenant General Larry James said Wednesday at an event in Washington, D.C. discussing the Air Force's drone program. "The strike question, where people say you have an automated drone that can go off and shoot something, that's a different question. I think we're years and years away, maybe decades away, from having confidence in an automated system that can make those types of decisions."
He said that media reports and anti-drone groups have turned public sentiment against unmanned technology, which he said is one of many tools the military uses to fight terrorism overseas.
"I think [automated drones] gets traction because it's science fiction-y. They think a robot can go off and do things on its own and people get enamored with that," he said. "The reality is they're not operating on their own, they're not autonomous … if you look at an F-16 flying and conducting a strike, why is that different from a remotely-piloted aircraft?"
But others think that technology is not so far-fetched. Last year, Jonathan Moreno, author of "Mind Wars: Brain Science and the Military in the 21st Century," told U.S. News that there has already been research done on drones that would make their own decisions about who to kill and would be "programmed with the rules of war."
"I was afraid I'd be dismissed as a paranoid schizophrenic when I first published the book," Moreno said at the time. "But then a funny thing happened—the Department of Defense and other military groups began holding panels on neurotechnology to determine how and when it should be used. I was surprised how quickly the policy questions moved forward. Questions like: 'Can we use autonomous attack drones?' 'Must there be a human being in the vehicle?' 'How much of a payload can it have?'. There are real questions coming up in the international legal community."
James says the vast majority of the military's drone missions – as high as 97 percent of them – are focused on gathering intelligence rather than killing suspected terrorists. Peter Bergen of the New America Foundation testified Tuesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee that few drone strikes have resulted in the death of high-level terrorists.
"Militant leaders are not being killed in any great number," he said. "Maybe 2 percent of the casualties are people you could term 'leaders.'"
James said Wednesday that as many as 200 people, between "pilots, mission coordinators [and] people who do launch recovery and maintenance," are involved in any given drone mission overseas. "They're not unmanned," he said.
Despite growing public resentment toward drone strikes overseas, James said the unmanned aircraft aren't going anywhere anytime soon. The military is currently working on upgrading drones so that they can fly in "hostile environments" – in the Middle East and Africa, Reaper and Predator drones have what James calls "unrestricted use of the air." The military is considering operating drones in other countries and is currently working with countries such as Italy, Australia, Germany and France to provide them with the technology to fly their own drones.
James said that West African countries such as Mali "will be a focus" going forward.
"If there is a [terrorism] threat there and if the nation feels it could be a threat to us, we'll be looking there," he said.