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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin, in for Guy Raz.

New tensions today between the U.S. and Pakistan. Islamabad is accusing NATO of killing more than 20 Pakistani soldiers in an incident on the Afghan border. Pakistan has shut down one of the main supply routes for U.S. troops into Afghanistan. Pakistan is also pressuring the U.S. to leave an air base sometimes used by the CIA for drone strikes, a demand they have made before.

U.S. drones have been the key tool in the counterterrorism fight in Pakistan, also the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. But the technology has raised all kinds of questions about the nature of aerial combat. That's our cover story today: the evolution of remote-controlled war.

To understand where drone technology came from, it's helpful to travel back in time. I'm standing in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum with Peter Singer. He's a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. 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.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Here, the Wrights without even a high school education were first gripped with the dream of building a machine that would fly...

SINGER: Then people look around and they go, hold it, this might be useful in that other thing that humans like to do, which is fight.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: The war department opened bids for a heavier-than-air flying machine. The Wrights signed a stiff contract.

MARTIN: And all of this starts in someone's imagination - people think they're crazy, and all of a sudden, it's adapted for all kinds of uses.

SINGER: It's just like any other technology, whether - it's what happened with the horseless carriage or what happened with the computer, starts out as imagination, and then it gets crossed with innovation, profit seeking, and most importantly, that horrible human need to figure out how to destroy one another.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: This is Titan 1-4, no signs of life.

MARTIN: Today, like the Wright brothers, the Air Force is still trying to convince people that what they do isn't science fiction.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Titan 1-4, hold your position.

MARTIN: That's literally the tagline for this Air Force recruiting ad.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Unmanned aircraft is identifying enemy sniper.

MARTIN: It shows a robotic aircraft scanning a desert landscape with a camera that looks like a bright red eye, alerting troops on the ground of a nearby sniper.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Thanks, Baker 1-1. We got it from here.

MARTIN: The message on the screen: It's not science fiction. It's what we do every day.

Back at the Air and Space Museum, there's an exhibit featuring planes a lot like the one in the Air Force ad. You've heard them called drones, though the Air Force doesn't like that term much. They call them remotely piloted aircraft. Peter Singer has written about remote technology in his book, "Wired For War."

SINGER: So right here at the other end of the museum, and I think somewhat ironically, wedged in the corner because even the Air and Space Museum sort of doesn't know what to do almost with this next generation. You've got a Predator, you've got an X-45 down here. They're actually just like that Wright brothers' flyer. They're the first generation of all this. They may look exotic, they may sound exotic, but they're already outdated compared to what is now operating and what comes next.

MARTIN: What does come next? Singer says not a single Western aerospace company has a manned combat aircraft in research and development. The Air Force says it now recruits more pilots for unmanned planes than fighter and bomber pilots combined. The MQ-1 Predator is the military's main workhorse. In September 2001, the Air Force had one. Today, they have 57 Predators, flying 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. We wanted to know what these changes mean for the men and women in uniform.

MAJOR GENERAL JAMES POSS: I am Major General James Poss. I'm deputy chief of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance for the United States Air Force.

MARTIN: Poss helps oversee the Air Force's surveillance programs, which mostly revolve around drones. It's a program that's grown dramatically in just the last few years. Take this story from a couple of years ago. Poss was speaking to a group of new Air Force officers in Alabama, trying to get the crowd fired up.

POSS: You know, I asked how many folks were going to fly transport aircraft — big cheer. How many folks wanted to fly fighter aircraft — huge cheer. Then I asked them, well, who wants to fly the single most effective weapon system in the global war on terror in the United States Air Force, who wants to fly the MQ-1 Predator? Not only was there silence, there was a couple of boos. But this was about...

MARTIN: Poss knew how they felt. He joined the Air Force in May of 1992 for the same reason: He wanted to be a fighter pilot. But it wasn't long before he found out he needed glasses.

POSS: So had to go with plan B, which was to be an intelligence officer, which I have to admit has been almost as much fun as being a fighter pilot.

MARTIN: But an Air Force recruit today might not need a plan B. Remote aircraft pilots don't need perfect vision. They don't have to worry about getting airsick. The job has become more popular with recruits. In fact, the Air Force now has a career path specifically for drone pilots. They're still looking for the same qualities: spatial awareness, quick critical thinking skills. Still, flying drones is different.

POSS: Unlike a person that deploys to combat, our remotely piloted aircraft force never leave combat. And that's got unique psychological stresses. You really don't get a break. And even more jarring is you do leave your ground control station and drive home and you have to mow the lawn.

MARTIN: Because at least when you're deployed or in a combat zone, everyone is aware that you've endured this.

POSS: Absolutely.

MARTIN: And this group of pilots doesn't have that built-in support.

POSS: Well, they've still got the built-in support of their fellow airmen that are conducting the mission. The difference is you never leave the combat zone. I mean, we've got a Predator pilot that hasn't left the skies of Southwest Asia for nine years. We've got an international...

MARTIN: What does that mean? Someone has been sitting somewhere...

POSS: Someone has been - this captain has been sitting at Creech Air Force Base, flying over Southwest Asia eight to 10 hours a day, five to six days a week, 52 weeks a year for the past nine years. It's a lot of unique stressors that you put on this type of force. But the overwhelming advantage we get to the Air Force is that if you want to go and talk to a world expert on Iraq or Afghanistan, maybe you don't need to go to Iraq or Afghanistan, maybe you need to talk to that young captain down at Creech because they've been staring at that ground for the past nine years.

MARTIN: So that seat, the one you could potentially sit in for nine years, what does that feel like?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: If you'd like, you could hop in the seat, fly the airplane around, get a feel for it.

MARTIN: I paid a visit to Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico, a big training center for drone pilots. One of the instructors let me try flying a simulator for the MQ-1 Predator.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: There's nothing to it. And I promise you won't break anything.

MARTIN: Let's see. OK. So I'm actually sitting in the pilot operator chair now.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: So we call this the heads-up-display, and projected on to it is all your flight information, including an artificial horizon, your airspeed, your altitude, et cetera.

MARTIN: The computer terminal is made to look like the control panels in a real cockpit. And the operator can decide how much the plane should do on its own. For instance, you can program the aircraft to fly itself around a given range.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: But as you can see, you don't have a lot of control over what the airplane's doing. So if you're trying to maximize the quality of the image that you're producing, now you may have to do a little more work as the pilot. So I'm going to take off that pre-programmed mode.

MARTIN: OK.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: So if you push forward on the stick, the nose is going to dip.

MARTIN: Oh, hello. Is it possible to crash these?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Oh, sure.

MARTIN: It is?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: It's not difficult.

MARTIN: There's not some fail-safe program in here that keeps them from crashing.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: No. They, you know, this airplane, because it's a tactical airplane, is designed to give the pilot as much control as possible when you're flying it via a satellite link. It is possible to over-control the aircraft or to lose your situational awareness and put the airplane into an unrecoverable situation.

MARTIN: An unrecoverable situation, as in the plane goes down, but the pilot isn't injured because he's in front of a computer in New Mexico. There is physical and psychological distance between the pilot and the plane. And Peter Singer says that distance is changing the way we think about war.

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.

MARTIN: And the big question is, how much more automated will war become? Singer says there are dozens of other countries that are at different stages of developing their own drone technology. Will there be a time when air-to-air combat is fully automated? General Poss says maybe.

POSS: But I always see a human making that final call on whether or not that is a legitimate target, and I certainly always see a human making the call on whether or not to release a weapon on that target.

MARTIN: Back at the museum, Pete Singer says once a revolutionary technology has been unleashed, it's hard not to push its potential.

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.

MARTIN: Dilemmas, like how to use drone strikes in an enemy state with its own drones or in a country that's supposed to be an ally like Pakistan.

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