Friday, March 19, 2010

Arms Race Update - Attack of the Drones

North Americans have been largely spared the sort of attacks experienced in other lands. We're surrounded by oceans vast enough to have kept most potential aggressors at bay. The Japanese sent over a few dozen balloons and their subs lobbed a few shells on shore targets but, by and large, we've not had much foreign aggression to contend with.

We did, however, institute a joint US-Canada air defence command, NORAD, to monitor the aerial approaches to our countries and maintain a fighter deterrent to potential aggressors. The focus was mainly on the bomber threat from the former Soviet Union. We deployed a sophisticated, conventional force to meet a somewhat less sophisticated, conventional threat. Well, what about the unconventional?

The Brookings Institute is examining the risk to the North American homeland from attack by unmanned, aerial vehicles, UAVs or drones. The point is no place is out of reach when "..a 77-year-old blind man from Canada designed an unmanned system that in 2003 hopped the Atlantic from Newfoundland to Ireland."

America has gone heavily into drone technology and its potential rivals and its enemies have been watching. Today, two-thirds of military expenditures on drones and drone technology is coming from countries other than the US.

Anyone with the money and a moderate amount of skill can acquire, assemble and launch an intercontinental drone from components freely available on the marketplace. And, as the Brookings report showed, drones can be devilishly hard to track, much less down. They're relatively stealthy and fighter jets have great trouble flying slowly enough to gun them down.

So, here we have an emerging 21st century threat to North American security with an enormously high-tech but potentially ineffective 20th century defence. We know that we're vulnerable, the bad guys know that we're vulnerable and, now, you know it too. It's conceivable that even Peter MacKay and Stephen Harper have finally clued into it ...but then again.

The question is what are we going to do about it? That the threat is real is beyond question. If the bad guys want to hit hard at Main Street, USA, drones are a far better option than highjacking airliners to fly into buildings. These can deliver real WMDs and they don't even have to succeed. The psychological blow is struck as soon as the public learns somebody actually launched one of these drones that could have caused widespread devastation, because, once it's happened the only question on peoples' minds will be when the next one will be launched, the one that will actually get through?

We've spent a lifetime, my lifetime at least, taking war to other peoples' backyards. In fact we're currently waging protracted but ineffective wars in the Middle East specifically (so the Right tells us) that we don't have to fight "them" at home. What if these rightwing nutjobs are wrong? What if their perpetual war actually ensures that the bad guys have every reason to bring their war to us? Tough questions, tough times.

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