Opposing the Rise of the Drones

by Chris Cole

One night last summer Shakeel Khan and his family were at home in North Waziristan when there was a huge explosion.  ‘I was resting with my parents in one room when it happened. God saved my parents and I, but my brother, his wife, and children were all killed.’ The children were five and three years old. Khan says, ‘I must support my aged parents now but I earn very little We don’t have enough to reconstruct our house and fear that the drones will strike us again.’  Shakeel Khan and his family, living in a remote part of Pakistan, had become victims of one of the newest weapons on the planet: unmanned drones. 

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), commonly known as drones, are aircraft which can be piloted remotely using wireless technology. Most military drones are fairly small and used over distances of a few kilometres for intelligence and reconnaissance purposes.  Over the past few years however we have witnessed the rapid rise of the use of armed drones such as the Predator and the Reaper. They are used by US and British forces to launch attacks at great distances while the operators sit safely in air-conditioned trailers over 7,000 miles away in a base near Las Vegas.  It is not just the US and the UK. Israel too has used armed drones to launch attacks in Gaza (indeed it’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that the drone wars were conceived in the occupation); Italy has been using drones over Libya; and it is estimated that over forty other countries are now trying to buy or develop their own drones. A recent defense market report predicted that annual global spending on drones would double to $11.5 billion over the next few years. 

While supporters of unmanned systems like drones argue they are in effect the same as piloted aircraft, others are beginning to see that by removing one of the key restraints to warfare – the risk to one’s own forces – unmanned systems seem to be making armed attacks much more likely. This year alone US forces have been engaged in armed conflicts in six separate countries (Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan), something that many military experts are saying would not be possible without the use of drones. 

Drones are also clearly eroding legal and human rights. In Pakistan and Yemen, for example, the CIA are using drones to undertake assassinations of individuals placed on a so-called ‘high value target’ list. The hi-profile targeted killing of  US-born cleric Anwar al-Alwaki this weekend is just the latest example.  Human rights organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have condemned such killing and the UN Special Rapporteur on extra-judicial killing has repeatedly called on the US to explain how they justify using drones to target and kill individuals under current international law.   Although the UK has never officially confirmed that it operates a High Value Target list, it has hinted that it does and a recent presentation at an MoD conference in Cardiff told the delegates to assume ‘that a HVT list was agreed and maintained.’ 

As well as targeted killing, drones are being used to deliver what the military call ‘persistent presence’.  Without on-board pilots, drones are able to loiter over a particular area for hours, days, and even weeks, enabling weapons operators and intelligence analysts back at base to scrutinise particular areas looking for suspicious behavior and ‘targets of opportunity’.  It is suggested that this way of using drones is leading to high civilian casualty rates, and it is perhaps easy to see why. With young servicemen and women subjected to long hours of boredom whilst in control of lethal technology, mistakes are bound to be made.  While the secrecy surrounding the circumstances of drone strikes makes these allegations difficult to prove, a NATO enquiry into attack on a convoy in Afghanistan in February 2010, in which 23 civilians were killed, reported that drone operators had ‘downplayed’ the presence of civilians as they wanted an attack to go ahead. 

Earlier this year the British MoD admitted for the first time that it had killed Afghan civilians in a drone strike in March 2011. Responding to a parliamentary question from Green Party MP Caroline Lucas about the deaths David Cameron said, ‘I do not think that the answer is to turn our face away...’  Unfortunately the Prime Minister was not suggesting that we should of course face up to our responsibilities to these innocent victims, but was, rather predictably arguing that we cannot turn away from drone technology which, as he put it, is ‘taking out’ the bad guys. 

In the US too, officials argue that drones are efficiently and carefully taking out only the ‘bad guys’.  John Brennan, a former member of the CIA and currently a senior counter terrorism advisor to President Obama, has been mocked in the mainstream press for arguing in response to questions about drone strikes in Pakistan that ‘…for the past year there hasn’t been a single collateral death because of the exceptional proficiency, precision of the capabilities that we’ve been able to develop’.  Those claims were shown to be patently untrue by the excellent research work on drone strikes in Pakistan by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.  The BIJ working with local researchers, journalists and lawyers in Pakistan have uncovered hundreds of civilian deaths including those of more than 160 children, in drone strikes in Pakistan over the past seven years. 

Military planners are also pushing for greater autonomy for drones and other unmanned systems.  Some are even arguing that the autonomous systems themselves will be better at making the decision about when and where to fire weapons than humans.  Gordon Johnson, formerly of the Joint Forces Command at the Pentagon, for example, commenting on the growth of robotic systems suggested that, ‘they don't get hungry. They're not afraid. They don't forget their orders. They don't care if the guy next to them has just been shot. Will they do a better job than humans?  Yes.’  While the technology for fully autonomous systems utilising artificial intelligence is still some way off military planners are pushing ahead with exploring the underlying technology that will increase autonomy of drones. 

Many in government and the military see drones as the ‘perfect weapons for a war weary nation on a tight budget,’ as one journalist recently put it.  They are much cheaper than traditional piloted aircraft, they enable the military to undertake armed attacks at little or no risk and their use is much easier to keep secret. However, both the military and the drone industry recognise that a major obstacle to the continued use of drones is the ‘public perception’ of drones.  They recognize, as they put it, that the public has a ‘natural scepticism’ about the use of unmanned drones.  It’s no coincidence then that we  have seen a steady rise in stories about how drones and other unmanned systems could potentially be used for good purposes such as search and rescue, wildlife monitoring and environmental surveys; the idea of the ‘killer drone’ needs to be overcome. 

This week activists around the UK will be taking part in a Week of Action to highlight the impacts of drones around the world and to educate the public about the deadly use of drones.    From street stalls, to demonstrations outside drone manufacturing and testing facilities to public meetings activists will be opposing the growing rise of the drone.  Why not join them? 

For partial list of Ground the Drones Week of Action events see:  http://www.space4peace.org/actions/ksfpw11.htm

Chris Cole is founder of Drone Wars UK and blogs at dronewarsuk.wordpress.com.

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First published: 04 October, 2011

Category: Activism, Foreign policy, Politics, Terror/War

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10 Comments on "Opposing the Rise of the Drones"

By MTPT, on 04 October 2011 - 13:23 |

A variety of issues are being conflated here, and the result is - bluntly - a mess.

You have, at least, and in no particular order, (a) opposition to autonomous weapons systems; (b) opposition to targetted killing as a tactic; (c) questions over the extent to which the United States has complied with international legal obligations to minimise civilian casulaties when using force in self defence; and (d) opposition to the military use of drone aircraft. This muddle is clear in the reference to Philip Alston’s comments on drone strikes by the US - Alston is not, contrary to the impression given, concerned with the fact that the attacks are conducted by drone aircraft, but with the fact that the US is conducting targeted killings of individuals it considers part of groups engaged in armed conflict against it. Alston considers the latter to be extra-judicial killing, but crucially his comments would apply equally to strikes conducted by manned platforms, or to killings by methods used in the past by the Israeli military and intelligence services (with whom the concept very largely originated) such as smuggling bombs alongside targets.
Similarly, whether Alston is correct to characterise what the US has done as extra-judicial killings is distinct from any question as to whether the US has complied with obligations to minimise civilian casuaties (personally, I think it’s open to question whether the US has complied with those obligations in all cases, but I think Alston is simply incorrect to characterise the strikes themselves as being extra-judicial killing - he’s trying to import concepts that would apply in circumstances where an individual was in US custody or jurisdiction and apply them to the use of force in international law).

By David, on 05 October 2011 - 06:38 |

From the confident tone, MTPT, one might have expected somewhat more telling criticism than this.

The author was arguing (I thought reasonably clearly) that the use of drones facilitiates these sorts of morally and legally questionable tactics. So there’s no “conflation”. You just have to follow a pretty straightforward argument.

By Tom, on 05 October 2011 - 07:44 |

‘MTPT’, I don’t think there is any conflation of issues here, rather there are a number of issues raised by the use of drones which the author effectively outlines in the piece and which you helpfully categorise from (a) to (d) in your comments.   If there is a ‘mess’ or a ‘muddle’ it is in your moral compass. You write, ‘the US is conducting targeted killings of individuals it considers part of groups engaged in armed conflict against it’.  Fine, but any state or armed group can claim that it is raging a war, insist its victims are part of that struggle and justify atrocities on that basis.  This assertion by the US state is nothing more than an assertion.  Equally Al-Qaeda might assert that it is at war with the US, and justify attacks on US civilians on that basis. If indeed the US/UK drone attacks are not in violation of any principle of international law or ethical standards, as you seem to imply, then it follows that you would have no objection if Pakistan (or any other state) flew UAVs over England and dropped bombs on any English home it pleased?  If you reject such a right, then you need to outline on what principle the US (or UK) should be granted the right to do so in exception to other states.

By MTPT, on 05 October 2011 - 10:01 |

@David: I’ll save comment on your tone, and simply invite you to point me to where he asserts that, let alone backs it up.
He states, for example, “Drones are also clearly eroding legal and human rights”, then launches into a discussion of the operation of targetted killing and “High Value Target” lists. Both of these - as I pointed out in my comment - could be equally conducted by manned platforms.
Further on, he states “It is suggested that this way of using drones is leading to high civilian casualty rates, and it is perhaps easy to see why. With young servicemen and women subjected to long hours of boredom whilst in control of lethal technology, mistakes are bound to be made. “, but apparently doesn’t feel the need to tell us who suggests this, let alone back it up (let’s gloss over the fact that “hours of boredom whilst in control of lethal technology” goes equally for anyone standing guard with a loaded weapon…).
The fact you think his argument is clear and straightforward may equally indicate that you make the same conflation of issues when approaching this topic.

By MTPT, on 05 October 2011 - 10:16 |

@Tom: As I point out above, and further in response to Dave, the conflation occurs (in particular) when the author treats drones as being sui generis. There are numerous examples of manned platforms conducted targetted killings (here is one recent example: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/aug/10/taliban-chinook-helicopter-crash-killed ) and of such strikes causing the deaths of people who were not targetted (see, for example, http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2011/05/31/501364/main20067440.shtml ).
I did, however, love the hyperbole that followed:

“If indeed the US/UK drone attacks are not in violation of any principle of international law or ethical standards, as you seem to imply, then it follows that you would have no objection if Pakistan (or any other state) flew UAVs over England and dropped bombs on any English home it pleased?  If you reject such a right, then you need to outline on what principle the US (or UK) should be granted the right to do so in exception to other states.”

If you want to play hypotheticals, then yes, were positions reversed, Pakistan may have the right under international law to conduct strikes within England (or indeed Scotland, Wales, or Northern Ireland, since we’re talking about the UK). Those strikes would presumably be justified on the same basis articulated by the United States - namely self-defence and collective self-defence - and would certainly be subject to the same obligations to minimise civilian casulaties to which the United States is subject. If Pakistan simply “...dropped bombs on any English home it pleased”, this is unlikely to meet that obligation; so far as I am aware nobody credible asserts that the US is doing that. The charge against the US is that it has not done enough to prevent civilian casulaties, and I noted above that I have some sympathy with that argument.

Violation of Pakistani soverignty is a different matter, although related. I’d suggest this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Caroline_Case and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caroline_test as good starting points.

By David, on 05 October 2011 - 12:01 |

Matthew - in terms of the broad, anti-war left, you’re generally not going to be dealing with “questions over the extent to which the United States has complied with international legal obligations to minimise civilian casulaties when using force in self defence”.

Firstly. most of us don’t accept that American wars, like that in Afghanistan, tend to be waged in self-defence. We generally see them as aimed at maintaining or extending US hegemony in the world, and so by that token aggressive and imperialist in nature.

Secondly, we tend not to accept the idea that the US strives to minimise civilian casualties, with the only question being over the extent to which they succeed or fail in doing so. Rather, we see the US military as being, as an institution, indifferent at best to civilian casualties, except where they might impact adversely on the need to win “hearts and minds”. In addition, there is the literature on state terrorism from left/critical scholars which suggests that civilian casualties may in some cases have a practical use to Western militaries and their proxies, in terms of eliciting a desired reaction from a target population.

From this perspective, it follows that any developments that reduce the cost of armed action by the United States, and facilitate the sort of tactics discussed in the piece, will carry with them the dangers that I’ve outlined here. Now I don’t ask you to become a left-winger and accept this general perspective, but you need to at least understand it in order to understand the argument you’re trying to engage with.

If you take the view prevelant from the centre to the right of the spectrum, which is that the US is essentially a benign force in the world which rarely does worse than making regrettable mistakes or tactical errors, then of course you would feel no particular concerns about the development of drone technology, since “questions over the extent to which the United States has complied with international legal obligations to minimise civilian casulaties when using force in self defence” would be entirely separate from the technology used. But you’re dealing with a different perspective here. Your expectations about how that technology will be used, and ours, are radically different.

I hope that clears up some of the confusion

By MTPT, on 05 October 2011 - 14:17 |

David: Even accepting those assumptions, and the limitations that would follow, I still consider there is a seriously conflation going on here.

I’ve not said that the US action in Afghanistan is self defence, simply that the US has generally asserted that international legal basis (which is also their general political basis). That is a (depending on your view, the) valid justification for the use of force in international law. If your frame of reference is such that you assume that the US is not acting in self defence, then it follows that you have to consider their use of force to be internatonally illegal (ignoring, for these purposes, any question of double effect: whether the US is acting in a manner legally, and indeed “morally”, but with the effect additional effect of creating greater US hegemony). Similarly, I’ve made it clear that I do not assume that the US is complying with its oblgations to minimise casulaties. You and I may (and I suspect do) have quite different frames of references as to what those obligations are, but under International Humanitarian Law (especially the Rome Statute of the ICC and the Fourth Geneva Convention), the killing of civilians is not a crime unless they are deliberately targetted, or the collateral casualties are dispropotionate to the military objective. Hence, arguments against US targetted killing have focused on arguing that the individuals targetted are civilians or that the number of civilians killed was disproportionate to the military objective.

(As an aside, I’m well aware of the extent to which some on the left allow those and similar assumptions to colour their response to the use of force in international relations

Even with such assumptions in place, it does not follow that drones qua drones facilitate the tactics you consider illegal. A comment made to me in another forum yesterday was that drones distance their operators from the effects of their actions. The same is obviously true of the pilots of manned air platforms (and potentially more true of them than of UCAVs, given the significantly better optics available on what are, generally, weaponised reconaissance platforms), and further of those selecting targets and issuing attack orders. If drones facilitate “...the sort of tactics discussed in the piece…” - which I think is questionable - they do so only in the same way as having any kind of air power does, and in a much less significant way than having a chain of command which allows orders to be issued by individuals who do not have to execute them. That last may, in fact, be mitigated by the use of unmanned platforms - persistence, for example, ensures that the aftermath of an attack is visible to those issuing orders in a way that manned platforms with more limited endurance could not deliver.

It not necessary - and I do not - subscribe to a generic “right of centre” view as to the benignity of US motives in order to be able to make a distinction between a piece of technology and the manner in which it is used. There is a choice as to whether to make a moral judgement about individual actions - which can be difficult and arguable - or more sweeping moral judgements about types of technology - which is ultimately easier to do. The choice of the latter is exactly why charges of neo-luddism are sometimes levied against those opposing drones, since it replicates the Luddite’s approach to mechanisation.

I have never come across a modern military theorist who argued that inflicting civilian casualties was a useful tactic, either in conventional war or counter-insurgency operations. In the former, even the air-power advocates of the 1930s with their strategic bombing doctrines were concerned with eliminating military and industrial targets, not with attacking civilians; if nothing else, as the Battle of Britain demonstrated, diverting resources to attack civilian targets grants opposing forces respite. In the latter, it has been understood for decades (going back to Liddell-Hart and Galula) that the support of the population - which you rather dismissively skip over as “hearts and minds” - is crucial to a successful COIN campaign. Vietnam, where that dismissive phrase got its currency, is a text example of a failure to apply that principle.

I would be interested to be pointed to the scholars who suggest civilian casualties have practical uses, but I must confess that I suspect they are making post-hoc claims as to motives, subject to the kind of assumptions you’ve outlined.

By David, on 05 October 2011 - 15:12 |

If drone technology doesn’t facilitate the tactic of “targetted killings” then I guess the mystery is why the Pentagon uses them for that purpose. Yes, they could use other means, but the response to that is “so what?”, given that they don’t, evidently prefering this method to others.

On state terrorism, R.Blakeley’s “State terrorism and neoliberalism: the North in the South” is a good starting point. Also worth reading D.Stokes, “Why the End of the Cold War Doesn’t Matter: the US War of Terror in Colombia” from Review of International Studies, 2003, 29/4: 569-85. The journal “Critical Studies on Terrorism” is also worth looking at.

By MTPT, on 05 October 2011 - 16:25 |

David: There’s no mystery. In the case of Pakistan, most operations are conducted by the CIA, which has UCAVs rather than manned ground attack aircraft (the Predator/Reaper reconnaisance heritage), so most are conducted by UCAVs. Within Afghanistan, where the US military operates, targetted killings are also conducted by strikes by manned aircraft and ground raids. The raid that killed Bin Laden - which was, let’s be clear, a targetted killing - is an example of the US using other means. Again, you’re focusing on whether unmanned platforms facilitate targetted killings to the exclusion of any consideration as to whether they are the only weapons that do so - clearly that’s not the case; you’ve only to look at the Israeli use of targetted killing which involves little or no use of unmanned aerial platforms.

I’ve read Blakeley; the historical account is fine, but IMV the concept of “state terrorism” is worse than useless. The requirement of a duty to protect, for example, adds nothing, and she’s using a monolithic notion of “The State” which is difficult to properly apply to scenarios involving quasi-state-aligned non-state actors receiving assistance from state agents acting on their own or non-state authority, RUC collusion with Loyalist paramilitaries in Northern Ireland being a good example.

I think Hoffman’s definition of terrorism correct, save that he lacks the courage of his convictions when he applies a sub-national actor qualifier: if you follow through on his observation about terrorism reflecting lack of power, you produce a much more interesting and useful definition, one that would, for example, include the Contras, post-coup Chile, and collusion. Moreover, such a definition - unlike Blakeley’s - is useful in the context of discussions of COIN and 4GW conflicts where shifting networks of actors become more important. As Critical Terrorism Studies, most of it leaves me wanting to bash the authors with copies of “On Guerilla Warfare” and “The Sword and the Stone”, as they seem to have an inability to conduct End/Ways/Means analysis, and end up viewing terrorism as a political philosphy rather than a tactic deployed in support of one (whether one employed at a discrete phase in a conflict (Mao) or as a different model of armed conflict (Hames)). Funnily enough, most “practitioner” works, including those two, don’t have the problem.

On which note, I realised I had come across one theorist explicitly discusses the usefulness of civilian casualties, but then it was Al-Suri!

By David, on 07 October 2011 - 07:17 |

Yes, this is a bit of a non-argument isn’t it? Clearly the Pentagon finds drones advantageous in the situations in which it uses them, otherwise it wouldn’t do so. Given our view of US/Western militarism in general, and in these situations in particular, you would expect the anti-imperialist left to describe, interrogate and critique something that grants an advantage to the Pentagon. All of this should be reasonably obvious.

To the extent that the physical distance between the person being killed and the person doing the killing may increase the killer’s moral detachment from their actions then, again, the concerns about US soldiers being able to kill Afghan villagers at the push of a button from the safety of an air-conditioned facility in Nevada should be reasonably obvious. Do other technologies carry similar problems? Yes. Does talking about drones in one article mean that one is in favour of those other technologies? No. So another non-argument there.

You say you’ve read Blakeley and some of the crtiical terrorism studies literature. You’ll know then that the key point about state terrorism made by critical scholars is that the tactic of terrorism - an act of violence designed to elicit a political response from a target audience by the spreading of terror - is something that states and non-state actors are equally capable of, and indeed that it is a historical fact that Western states engage in such activities either directly or by proxy. You’ll know that, of course, because you’re familiar with the relevant scholarship.

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