Teenagers and ‘blobs on a screen’ die as the drone wars continues to develop

16 year-old Abdul-Rahman, son of Anwar al-Awlaki, a 'military-age man' according to the US, killed in drone strike in Yemen

The drone wars continue to develop with strikes taking place over the past ten days in Yemen, Somalia and Libya as well as Afghanistan and Pakistan.  The RAF reported, in a unsurprisingly low-key way, that the 200th British drone strike had taken place in Afghanistan at the end of September, while according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) the 300th CIA drone strike in Pakistan took place last week in South Waziristan.  Amidst the frenzy of reporting around the death of Mummar Gaddafi this week, the Pentagon revealed that the US had carried out 145 drones strikes in Libya.   Details about the strikes in Yemen and Somalia are hard to come by and any reports are hard to confirm. In a revealing article Nick Turse has documented the spread of US bases connected with drone wars and suggests there are more than fifty such facilities around the world.

But statistics do not tell the whole story.  Occasionally we are given glimpses into the human impact of the drone wars.  On 14th October a US drone strike in Yemen killed nine people including 16 year-old Abdul-Rahman al-Awlaki, the son of Anwar al-Awlaki who was himself executed in a targeted drone strike last month.  According to a report in the LA Times the al-Awlaki family said Abdul-Rahman was only going to dinner and was not involved in terrorism. “His Facebook page shows a typical kid,” the family said.  “A teenager who paid a hefty price for something he never did and never was.”   In response a US official simply said the teenager was “a military-aged male travelling with a High Value Target”.   Glenn Greewald’s article on the killing of the 16-year old teenager and the media’s silence on the matter deserves to be read.

Two other victims of drone strikes also received attention last week. Jeremy Smith, 26, and Ben Rast, 23 were US servicemen mistakenly killed in a US drone strike in April 2011.  While the 390-page Pentagon report has yet to be released, the LA Times states that the report blames “poor communications, faulty assumptions and a  lack of overall common situational awareness.”

Jerry Smith, father of one of the victims spoke to the LA Times after he had been briefed by US military officers and shown video images of  the attack.  According to the LA Times:

Smith was shown video images taken by the Predator, he said. He saw “three blobs in really dark shadows” — his son, Rast and the other Marine mistakenly identified by the Predator crew as Taliban. He said it was impossible to see uniforms or weapons.  “You couldn’t even tell they were human beings — just blobs,”  he said.

So much for the famed accuracy and  incredible hi-resolution images that drones are supposed to provide.  The victims were ‘blobs on a screen’.

But it’s not just on the ‘battlefield’ that the drone wars are being expanded.  Behind the scenes, funds are being pumped into further research, development and training.  Work is being undertaken to ensure that drones can fly longer to further develop their persistence; to weaponize current non-armed drones such as Fire scout and  to develop technology that will allow new drones to be built in the future.  BAE Systems work with ten universities to develop this ‘flapless’ drone technology demonstrator called Demon (video) is just one example.   In addition the UK MoD has recently announced a new five-year programme to fund research and development into drones called the UAS Pipeline (pdf).   With regard to training the UK Empire Test Pilot School is to introduce a course to train UAV pilots while in the US the air force is investigating what is the ‘right stuff’ for a drone pilot.

Amidst all this depressing news it was good to see David Cortwright, of the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, forthright piece for CNN this week.  Let’s give him the last word:

“The development of drone  weapons raises profound moral questions about the future of war. U.S. officials  are fond of drone weapons because they are inexpensive and seem to make the waging of war less costly. They allow leaders to conduct military operations without risking the lives of U.S. soldiers or drawing public disapproval. They give the false impression that war can be waged with fewer costs and risks. Any development that makes war appear to be easier or cheaper is dangerous and morally troubling. It lowers the political threshold of war. It threatens to weaken  the moral presumption against the use of armed force.  The use of drone aircraft perpetuates the illusion that military force is an effective means of countering terrorism and resolving political differences. We should know better by now.”

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