Insider’s guide to remotely piloted aircraft

After the first four Czech soldiers were killed recently in Afghanistan, Czech defense officials and experts stated repeatedly that they were professionals who knew and accepted the risks, one of which was the possibility of falling in the line of duty. Non-combat army personnel sitting at headquarters in Prague understandably have a lower expectation of the risks of their profession.

So do, presumably, drone operators working for the U.S. government. They are piloting remote aerial vehicles thousands of miles away from their targets. Richard A. Clarke’s recent novel, Sting of the Drone, is about what happens when the war nevertheless comes to them, making them realize that they too can die in the line of duty. In the book, terrorists fight back by tracking down the drone operators and using flying killer robots against them in their own backyard.

It’s just a novel, but Clarke does an outstanding job of presenting all sides of the drone issue. He explains what the fictional terrorists want (the departure of all U.S. soldiers and drones from Muslim countries), why Ukrainian hackers and Pakistani drug traffickers get involved on the side of the terrorists, and why the U.S. government feels that the civilian casualties of drone strikes are worth the hatred they evoke.

Clarke has a unique perspective on drones, having served for more than a decade in the White House and being one of the early proponents of using armed drones. His access to inside information makes the reader wonder how close he is to the truth when he depicts the CIA using drones to kill terrorist-linked drug traffickers at a hotel in downtown Vienna, disguising it as a falling-out among criminal gangs.

Are drone attacks being used in other ways? To shoot down commercial airlines, for example? Clarke even raises this possibility, but perhaps he is merely telling a good yarn as a way to sell more books.

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