Incident Over Latakia

Posted: August 6, 2012 in Haywire
Tags: , , , ,

Captain Jonathan Gordon sat at the conference table in his crisp service uniform. Ever since arriving at Canon Air Force Base to investigate the latest drone incident, he had not worn anything else. The service dress gave him a sense of respect, which he desperately needed. Captain Gordon knew that the men and women respected his rank, but not him. His breast wasn’t decorated with the ribbons of sacrifice. Only the twin silver bars of his rank and a red-and-yellow National Defense ribbon differentiated him from an over-dressed cub scout. Captain Gordon was just another lawyer in a uniform who investigated errant drone strikes as a sign of good faith to a skeptical public.

The latest incident involved the new Harvester program. The Air Force had embraced drones as a new way of fighting war in the new century: modern, efficient, and invisible. But the program was not wholly embraced by the public. The people complained about liberty, scholars debated about morality, and politicians argued about due process. In response, the Air Force reinforced its Inspector General, which would investigate any errant strike.

The Harvester program was designed to ease the burden of lawyers like Captain Gordon and win over a suspicious public. It was smarter. It’s artificial intelligence would speed up target identification and eliminate error due to the fatigue of its human operators and analysts. But something went horribly wrong over the skies of Latakia province in Syria. The whole program–and the billions of dollars invested in it–was now called into question. Captain Gordon reviewed his notes about the details of the incident as he waited to interview the final member of the flight crew.

Technical Sergeant Danny Hernandez opened the door and saluted the Captain.

“At ease, Sergeant.” Captain Gordon stood up and motioned to the single, empty chair that waited on the opposite side of the table. “Please, have a seat.”

Captain Gordon watched Danny sit down. Danny sat stiffly, his arms hung like suspension cables. His face seemed to shrivel in the the glare of the sunlight that reflected off the gray, faceless table.

Captain Gordon closed the blinds, dispatching the natural light for the artificial fluorescence that poured from the ceiling. “Relax, Sergeant.” He sat back down and turned to a clean page of his legal pad. “You’re not on trial here. I just want to hear your version of the events of 21 September, OK?”

Danny nodded and wiped his brow. “Yes sir.”

“Ok.So, tell me what happened.”

“Well sir,” Danny scratched the top of his head. Captain Gordon thought that it was too long, even if it didn’t violate regulations. “You see, sir, the Major and Kelly and I–”

Captain Gordon flipped back a few pages. “That would be Major Harold Kincaid and Airman Kelly Ford?”

“Sir, yes sir. We were piloting a Harvester drone over Latakia province in Syria. Well, monitoring, I guess. The Harvester’s a pretty amazing vehicle.”

“Was this your first mission with one?”

Danny shifted in his seat. “No. It was our first live combat mission, our first combat deployment.”

Captain Gordon returned to the clean page and scribbled some notes. “How many hours did you have operating the Harvester before this deployment?”

“About 100? I guess, I’m not sure.”

“But that’s the usual training?”

Danny nodded. “Yes sir. You don’t need much training at all. The AI of the Harvester pretty much does everything. It takes off on its own, it flies itself, and lands on its own. Hell, the thing even does its own target identification. We really don’t do much.”

“You were the sensor analyst?” Captain Gordon asked.

“Yessir. I pretty much just monitored the data the Harvester sent to us. I would confirm its readings. Major Kincaid, he would be the one to issue any orders, to confirm a strike.”

“And Airman Ford?”

“She was the Mission Coordinator. She communicated with other units operating in the area.”

“So, on 21 September, what happened?” Captain Gordon flipped to a new page.

“Well, sir,” Danny shifted again. “Like I said, the Harvester was on patrol and it identified a target in an authorized kill zone. It requested permission to engage. I confirmed the sensor readings.”

Captain Gordon turned to a new page. “Did you communicate the reading to Major Kincaid?”

“Yes sir.”

“And what were the targets?”

“Five adolescent males. You wouldn’t believe the AI on the thing. Its facial recognition software is unreal. During our trial runs, we flew it over a school, and it correctly estimated the age of the kids playing in the playground from 10,000 feet.”

Captain Gordon was impressed. “Were the targets armed?”

“No weapons were detected, but they were in a kill zone. They were legitimate targets.”

“Did the Major give the order to fire?”

“Yes sir. He followed procedure. He noted the acquisition of the targets in the mission log, verified that the targets were in a designated kill zone, and classified as enemy combatants. He had Kelly–Airman Ford–confirm the kill zone with the squadron S-2. The whole mission was done by the book, sir.”

Captain Gordon recorded Danny’s answer. “But the Harvester did not fire. It refused to engage?”

“No sir.”

“Do you have an explanation?”

“No sir. The Major gave the order. I confirmed the order and directed the Harvester to engage. The flight data recorder showed that. But the Harvester, it simply refused.”

“Refused?” Captain Gordon wrote the word down. He thought it was a strange choice of words to use in reference to a machine. “You make it sound like the Harvester had a choice in the matter. Why do you say that?”

Danny rubbed his hands together. “Sir, when I confirmed the target, the Harvester requested confirmation a second time. It never did that in training.” His voice trembled. “So I confirmed the target again. The Harvester re-requested confirmation. It was as if it didn’t believe me. After the third time, I think, the vehicle returned to the forward operating station.”

“Sergeant,” Captain Gordon turned to an earlier page in his notes, “according to the ground crew, they ran a complete diagnostic of the vehicle, and they found nothing wrong.”

“Yes sir. I know. We ran diagnostics on our end. Everything came out clean. The entire system was operating normally. The Harvester simply refused to engage the enemy.”

“Sergeant,” Captain Gordon put his pen down on the pad of paper, rested his elbow on the table, and rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Do you have an explanation as to why it did not engage?”

“Well, sir,” Danny hesitated.

“Go on, Sergeant. I’d love to hear your theory.”

“Sir, it was as if the Harvester developed a conscience. It didn’t want to kill unarmed kids.”

Captain Gordon leaned back. “Sergeant, are you suggesting that the United States Air Force spent billions of dollars to build the most advanced weapon system in the world, a system that can actually think, only to have it develop a sense of morality?”

Danny shrugged. “I told you sir, you have no idea how smart the Harvester is. I wouldn’t be surprised what it could do.”

Captain Gordon dismissed Technical Sergeant Danny Hernandez. As he sat alone in the room, Captain Gordon looked at his notes from his previous interviews. The ground crew thought that the fuel line was temporarily blocked, and the Harvester mistakenly thought it was low on fuel and so returned to its base. Major Kincaid speculated that the enemy had developed some sort of jamming device that severed their satellite link with the Harvester. Captain Gordon ran that theory by the engineers who designed the weapon system. They said it was possible, but highly improbable. Given the encryption developed to protect such jamming, and given the technical capabilities of the insurgents operating in Syria, they joked that sunspots were a more likely culprit. Captain Gordon scribbled Sergeant Herandez’s theory–that the Harvester had become some sort of moral agent–to the list of possible system malfunctions. He wondered if anyone would believe it.



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