Over the past three years Drone Wars UK has tried to highlight why the growing use of armed drones and the concept of remote, so-called ‘risk-free’ warfare, is a perilous military escalation which endangers global peace and security. In the run-up to the Ground the Drones demo at RAF Waddington on April 27 we want to recap these reason and urge you, if you can to please join us at the event.
Drones enable military intervention
A primary concern is that the advent of armed unmanned drones has made the option to resort to the use of military force much easier. For political leaders, the risk to their own forces and the potential of TV footage of grieving families awaiting returning coffins of young men and women sent to fight overseas is a real restraint. Take away that potential political cost by using unmanned systems however, and it makes it much easier for political leaders to opt to use lethal military force as a ‘quick fix’ rather than engage in the difficult long-term task of trying to solve root causes.
While the UK has so far only used its armed drones in Afghanistan (although RAF aircrew flew US Predators during the Libyan conflict), there were serious calls for the UK to deploy its armed drones to support French forces currently fighting in Mali. The deployment of UK armed UAVs to Mali appears only to have been prevented by the Secretary of State for Defence insisting that the UK’s Reapers were too busy in Afghanistan to be re-deployed. Once the UK has acquired more armed UAVs it may be harder to resist the call to deploy these systems each time a crisis develops as there is no perceived cost to doing so.
The US and Israel too are increasingly using their drones with the US using their more than 240 armed UAVs in at least six countries since 2007: Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Libya. There is also evidence that the US has also undertaken armed strikes using UAVs in the Philippines and Mali although this has not been confirmed. Israel has used armed drones to undertake air strikes in Egypt and Sudan as well as the occupied territories. There are also regular reports of Israel flying UAVs over Lebanon.
Enabling the expansion of targeted killing
Perhaps the most controversial use of armed drones has been their use by the United States for targeted killing of suspected terrorists and insurgents outside of Afghanistan. Legal scholars define targeted killing as the deliberate, premeditated killing of selected individuals by a state who are not in their custody. Where International Humanitarian Law (IHL) applies, as is the situation currently in Afghanistan, the targeted killing of combatants can be legal. Outside of IHL situations, International Human Rights Law applies and lethal force may only be used when absolutely necessary to save human life that is in imminent danger. This does not appear to be the case for many of the US UAV airstrikes that have been carried out in Pakistan and Yemen.
The United States insists it has lawful authority for such strikes under the Authorization for Use of Military Force Act (AUMF) passed in the days after 9/11 as well as in the inherent right of self-defence under the UN Charter. However many legal experts and scholars, not least the former and current UN special rapporteurs on extra-judicial killings, disagree strongly with the US position.
While the United States’ use of armed UAVs for targeted killing is highly controversial, the longer it continues, the more it becomes normalised and accepted. It is now possible, perhaps even likely, that other states will follow the US example and use UAVs to undertake their own targeted killing programme of ‘suspected terrorists’.
The UK and Targeted Killing
There have been reports that UK intelligence agencies have supplied information to the US to help identify and locate drone targets in Pakistan. These allegations have already led to one High Court case as well as the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, David Anderson QC, suggesting that the UK is facing “a wave” of compensation claims over the sharing of intelligence for such activity.
Within Afghanistan, it appears that the UK may have used its Reaper UAVs to carry out targeted killings although due to the lack of transparency surrounding the use of British armed UAVs it has not been possible to confirm this. We know from published RAF operational updates that UK Reapers have tracked “high value” targets for many hours before finally launching weapons.
Although the use of force in Afghanistan has been authorised by the UN and International Humanitarian Law therefore applies, insurgents in Afghanistan are not members of uniformed armed forces and their status as combatants under IHL remains unclear. Generally speaking, individuals belonging to armed insurgent groups cannot be considered combatants as defined under international law since this, in most cases, relies on them fighting within a state structure. Under IHL, then, those fighting in Afghanistan legally remain civilians who may only be targeted while directly participating in hostilities. However after much debate about this in 2009 the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) put forward interpretative guidance suggesting that member of armed groups can be targeted as they have a “continuous combat function” But the legal status of this ‘guidance’ is unclear”
The lack of clarity surrounding who may be targeted and when, combined with the secrecy surrounding drone strikes is a recipe for disaster. As Christopher Rogers has pointed out, residents of areas in which armed drones are operating simply do not know what kind of conduct or relationships could put them at risk. Offering indirect support to militants such as food or quarter or political or ideological support would not formally qualify under international norms as direct participation in hostilities. However, it is entirely possible that people may be being targeted owing to their relationships to known militants, when they are legally civilians.
Precision strike and civilian casualties
Supporters of drones strikes argue that they are capable of precision strike – the word “pinpoint” is repeatedly used by journalists in media reports – but it is unclear exactly what that means. Requests for information about the variants of Hellfire missiles and GBU-12 bombs used in UK Reaper strikes, their blast radius and details about how often they have landed outside their given Circular Error Probability have been refused.
In its most recent annual report, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) reported that the number of weapons released by drones in Afghanistan .jumped from 294 in 2011 to 506 in 2012, a 72 per cent increase. UNAMA documented five incidents of drone strikes which resulted in 16 civilian deaths and three injuries, during 2012, an increase from 2011 when UNAMA documented only one incident. However as UNAMA states “the number of civilian casualty incidents from drone strikes may be higher as UNAMA is not always able to confirm which type of platform was used during an aerial operation (fixed-wing, rotary or remotely controlled) that resulted in civilian casualties.”
Out of 365 weapons launches from British Reaper UAVs in Afghanistan the MoD insists that only 4 civilians have been killed. However there are no public figures available figures for total numbers of people killed. The MoD states that “for reasons of operational security we are not prepared to comment on the assessed numbers of insurgents killed/wounded in Reaper strikes.”
By coincidence the number of US airstrikes across the border in Pakistan (366) is almost exactly the same number as UK Reaper airstrikes in Afghanistan (365) (although US figures refers to ‘kinetic operations’ in which more than one weapon may be used). According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, credible reports show that between 2,537 and 3,581 have been killed in US UAV strikes in Pakistan of which between 411 and 884 have reliably been recorded as civilians. Given that the US and the UK are operating similar armed UAVs in the same part of the world in apparently similar ways, there is, to say the least, a remarkable difference in reported civilian casualty figures.
Creating instability rather than security
The stated aim of UK military action in Afghanistan (and presumably any military action) is to create long term peace and security. Increasingly however there is a growing understanding that the use of armed UAVs may be doing just the opposite. As Kurt Volker, the former US Permanent Representative to NATO put it recently,
“Drone strikes allows our opponents to cast our country as a distant, high-tech, amoral purveyor of death. It builds resentment, facilitates terrorist recruitment and alienates those we should seek to inspire. Drone strikes may decapitate terrorist organizations, but they do not solve our terrorist problem. In fact, drone use may prolong it. Even though there is no immediate retaliation, in the long run the contributions to radicalization through drone use may put more lives at risk.”
Volker is not alone. Many others counter terrorism experts are now raising similar concerns. In a recent issue of the Chatham House journal, Professor Michael Boyle, former counter terrorism adviser to President Obama has outlined how use of armed UAVs is directly conflicting with other long-term counter-terrorism initiatives and doing real damage. Yet again, Robert Grenier, who headed the CIA’s counter-terrorism center from 2004 to 2006 and was previously CIA station chief in Pakistan said of the use of armed UAVs in Afghanistan and Pakistan:
“We have gone a long way down the road of creating a situation where we are creating more enemies than we are removing from the battlefield. We are already there with regards to Pakistan and Afghanistan.”
As well as these direct concerns from counter terrorism experts, a number of recent reports have detailed how the use of armed UAVs , and in particular their use of loiter over particular areas for long periods of time before launching attacks, is causing severe metal trauma to the local populations, disturbing children’s education, and disrupting food production.
These are just a few of the legal and ethical issues that surround the growing use of armed unmanned systems. Partly because these are complex issues and partly because drones are being used in remote places against people who are labelled as ‘terrorists’ it could be easy to go along with the drone wars and not make the extra effort needed to resist. But resist we must. Join us in Lincoln on April 27th.