(TomDispatch) U.S. military documents tell the story vividly. In the Gulf of Guinea, off the coast of West Africa, an unmanned mini-submarine deployed from the USS Freedom detects an "anomaly": another small remotely-operated sub with welding capabilities tampering with a major undersea oil pipeline. The American submarine's "smart software" classifies the action as a possible threat and transmits the information to an unmanned drone flying overhead. The robot plane begins collecting intelligence data and is soon circling over a nearby vessel, a possible mother ship, suspected of being involved with the "remote welder."
At a hush-hush "joint maritime operations center" onshore, analysts pour over digital images captured by the unmanned sub and, according to a Pentagon report, recognize the welding robot "as one recently stolen and acquired by rebel antigovernment forces." An elite quick-reaction force is assembled at a nearby airfield and dispatched to the scene, while a second unmanned drone is deployed to provide persistent surveillance of the area of operations.
And with that, the drone war is on.
At the joint maritime operations center, signals intelligence analysts detect the mothership launching a Russian Tipchak -- a medium-altitude, long-endurance, unmanned aircraft with "U.S.-derived systems and avionics" and outfitted with air-to-air as well as air-to-surface missiles. It's decision time for U.S. commanders. Special Operations Forces are already en route and, with an armed enemy drone in the skies ahead of them, possibly in peril.
But the Americans have an ace up their sleeve: an advanced Air Force MQ-1000. Unlike the MQ-1 Predator and the MQ-9 Reaper, the MQ-1000 is capable of completely autonomous action, right down to targeting and combat.
Pre-programmed with the requirements and constraints of the mission, the advanced drone takes off and American commanders let it do its thing. "The MQ-1000 ... immediately conducts an air-to-air engagement and neutralizes the Tipchak," reads the understated official account of the action. The special ops team then raids the mothership and disrupts the oil pipeline interdiction scheme.
The entire episode involves a seamless integration of robots and troops working in tandem, of next-generation drones "wired" together and operating in teams, and of autonomous drones making their own decisions. But there's a reason you've never read about this mission in the New York Times or the Washington Post. It won't take place for 20 years.
Or will it?
The "African Maritime Coalition Vignette, 2030s" is a scenario offered up in "Unmanned Systems Integrated Roadmap, FY 2011-2036," a recently released 100-page Defense Department document outlining American robotic air, sea, and land war-fighting plans for the decades ahead. It's the sunny side of a future once depicted in the "Terminator" films in which flying hunter-killer or "HK" units are sent out to exterminate the human race.
Terminators of Today?
In some ways, of course, the future is now. When the first "Terminator" movie was released in 1984, its HKs seemed as futuristic as its time-traveling cyborg title-character. Nearly three decades later, we're living in an age in which armed robots do regularly surveil, track, and kill people. But instead of a self-aware computer network known as Skynet, it's the American president or his intelligence officials and military officers who determine the human targets to be terminated by unmanned hunter-killer craft.
Washington's post-9/11 military interventions have been a boon for drones. The numbers tell the story. At the turn of this century, the Department of Defense had 90 drones with plans to increase the inventory by 200 over the next decade, according to Dyke Weatherington, a Defense Department deputy director overseeing acquisitions of hardware for unmanned warfare. As 2012 began, there were more than 9,500 remotely piloted aircraft in the U.S. arsenal.
Today, the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Special Operations Command all field drones with names that sound as if they were ripped from a Hollywood script or a comic book: Sentinel, Avenger, Wasp, Raven, Puma, Shadow, Scan Eagle, Global Hawk, Hunter, Gray Eagle, Predator, and Reaper. The latter three, "Unmanned Systems Integrated Roadmap" notes, "are weaponized to conduct offensive operations, irregular warfare, and high-value target/high value individual prosecution, and this trend will likely continue."
The Air Force's MQ-1 Predator has been the workhorse of America's hunter-killer drone fleet. By the end of 2001, Predators had cumulatively flown 25,000 hours. By this March, according to statistics provided by the Air Force, they had logged 1,127,400 flight hours, 1,041,740 of them in combat.
The military quit buying Predators in 2010, opting instead for the larger, more heavily armed Reaper. These have flown more than 261,000 hours, including 228,000 in combat. The Air Force has already requested the purchase of 24 new Reapers in 2013 and Air Force spokesperson Jennifer Spires tells TomDispatch it plans to buy a grand total of 401 MQ-9s in the coming years.
In other ways, however, a sci-fi-style future is far off indeed. In fact, after a decade of Defense Department cheerleading, as well as endless TV and newspaper puff pieces on the unlimited potential of drone technology, a grimmer and dimmer future for them is coming into view.
Nick Turse is the associate editor of TomDispatch.com. An award-winning journalist, his work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Nation, and regularly at TomDispatch. He is the author/editor of several books. This piece is the latest article in his new series on the changing face of American empire, which is being underwritten by Lannan Foundation. This piece originally appeared on TomDispatch. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.