Eyes on the Sky for the Future of Modern Warfare

U.S. drones and North Korea's satellite launch show the need for increased public discourse as the tools of modern warfare expand.

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North Korea's trippy space dream sequence ending in the destruction of New York City. Iran's launching of a monkey into outer space. And debate over the U.S. drone program that allows for the targeted killings of terrorists and American civilians suspected of colluding with them from far, far above. It was very much "eyes in the sky" this week when it came to global events.

Looking up is something we should be prepared to do much more of in coming years, according to international affairs experts, as technologies like satellite weaponry, armed drone aircrafts, and other once seemingly futuristic tools increasingly come into play around the globe. The role of such revolutionary weaponry will continue to be a hot topic of discussion as governments seek ways to bolster defense mechanisms on tighter and tighter budgets.

"When I talk to Chinese defense analysts and scholars when I visit China...they're happy to let us patrol the sea lanes and do all these traditional great power things that require these big, extremely expensive systems," said David Ignatius in a recent interview for Great Decisions in Foreign Policy on PBS. "They want to jump over the world of aircrafts and manned bombers into a new era in which the wars will be fought in space."

[See a collection of cartoons on President Obama's Drone Policy.]

Wars fought in and around the final frontier are a central theme in Stratfor founder George Friedman's 2010 book The Next 100 Years, which posits that solar, space-based weapons will be in use by great powers sometime around 2060. While relatively closer to earth, drone technology continues to spread at a rapid pace.

"The last I counted there were approaching 50 countries that either had or were developing drone attack capabilities. So this is a world where drones will be available, not just to the United States but to many countries—including our adversaries," said Ignatius. "It's a world where overhead, unseen many places in the world there may be these cruising drones with the ability to kill people."

The United States, for example, had only two drone aircraft during the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, according to Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations. Today, the United States boasts 7,500 unmanned drones, at least 400 of which can be armed.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Has Obama Gone Too Far With His Drone Policies?]

"The use of drone aircraft as opposed to thousands of troops on the ground may be more effective at eliminating terrorists or specific enemies or specific problems," former senator Richard Lugar told me last summer in an interview on U.S. defense issues. "This is a new concept and it leads to questions of privacy even in terms of our own law enforcement in the United States."

Those issues were on full display before and during the Senate hearing for President Obama's nominee to lead the CIA in his second term, John Brennan.

"It's a very different world. I'm not comfortable to the extent to which these issues have discussed public, to the extent in which there really is a legal framework that wraps around that," said Ignatius. "And I worry about that—not just in terms of the legality and morality of U.S. actions—but if the whole world moves into this area, have we really set up a structure that will guide others to the sensible use of these weapons?"

[Take the U.S. News Poll: Are Obama's Drone Strike Policies Justified?]

But the idea of wars fought in and around space has long penetrated popular culture through science fiction novels, television and film. Today, one can visit the Museum of the Moving Image New York for the exhibition Spacewar! which showcases the evolution of space-based video games. The drone debate has also spawned an avant-garde, "drone proof" clothing line of Stealth Wear inspired by the notorious unmanned aircrafts currently favored by the United States as well as blueprints for a "drone-deflecting city" somewhere in the Middle East.

So, as weaponry moves modern warfare further and further away from earth into uncharted territories, it seems that a much-needed public discourse has once again begun.

  • Read Michael P. Noonan: Are Special Operations Forces Safe From Sequestration?
  • Read Malou Innocent: Afghanistan's Challenges Show the Limits of U.S. Military Power
  • Check out U.S. News Weekly, now available on iPad.