Book Review: Precision strike warfare and international intervention

Precision Strike Warfare-coverPrecision strike warfare and International Intervention: Strategic, ethico-legal, and decisional implications. Edited by Mike Aaronson, Wali Aslam, Tom Dyson and Regina Rauxloh.  Routledge 2015

This new collection of essays on the use of armed drones, written from a variety of academic disciplines including political science, psychology, sociology, and international law, arises out of a multi-disciplinary conference held at The Centre for International Intervention (CII) at Surrey University in 2012. The book follows on and compliments the joint CII/RUSI report Hitting the Target? How New Capabilities are Shaping International Intervention which also arose out the gathering.

The books aim, say the editors in their introduction, is to explore how precision strike technologies are reshaping approaches to international intervention, focusing specifically on the strategic and foreign policy drivers, the ethical and legal implications, and the implication for decision making at strategic, operation and tactical levels. An ambitious aim for one book and it would be fair to say that in many ways the book is merely opening up the subject for further exploration and research.

While all the essays are interesting and informative, I particularly appreciated three of them.

Dealing with risk: precision strike and interventionism in the Obama Administration by Andre Barrinha and Luis da Vinha examines the issue via the sociological idea that we now inhabit ‘the risk society’. This posits that having “moved beyond the linear faith in progress” we find ourselves inhabiting a society in which “actions have unexpected consequences and risks that are magnified by technological developments.” When we try to manage these risks we simply end up generating further risks.

The authors maintain that “the contemporary use of combat drones does not aim at winning a war, for the war against terrorism that the US is waging does not have a defined territory, a clear enemy, or a clear end.”   Instead they argue, the drones strikes are merely “an endless risk management exercise” and as such, according to the risk society theory, are bound simply to create further risks. “The use of drones for targeting individuals in countries against which the US is not at war is no exception to [the theory]” say the authors pointing to the damaged relations caused by the violation of sovereignty, the increased risk of suicide attacks in Pakistan and the attempted terrorist attacks in the US itself.

In their conclusion the authors refer to Rupert Smith’s obvious point, but one that bears repeating: “it is crucial that military objectives should be chosen for their value in achieving the political purpose or aim, not just because they are militarily possible.”

Covert drone strikes and the fiction of zero civilian casualties by investigative journalist Chris Woods is an excellent overview and summary of the issue of civilian casualties arising from the covert use of drones by the US in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. Woods quotes Obama’s acknowledgement in his key ‘drones speech’ in May 2013 that “much of the criticism about drone strikes both here at home and abroad – understandably centres on reports of civilian casualties” a subject that Woods has done much to bring to the public’s attention.

More than at any time in the past civilian casualties, or ‘collateral damage’ as the military insist, is today seen as a serious political problem for those wanting to ensure domestic and international support for a military campaign. Inevitably then the battle over both the presentation and actuality of civilian casualty figures is key, and explains why Obama spokespeople have talked about drones as “the most precise weapon in the history of warfare” and that, as Woods puts it, “for a significant period the US intelligence community sought to portray an unreasonable reality – one in which armed drones had reached a point of such perfection that they were no longer killing civilians at all.”

Woods lays out in detail the reality, rather than the fiction, There is much evidence that hundreds of innocent civilian have been killed in such strikes. Of great significance here, as Woods point out, is the fact that there is little difference between the overall figures of the agencies monitoring drone strike casualties in Pakistan and the CIA’s own overall estimated casualty figure – all are within 5% of each other. The difference comes in the categorisation between ‘combatants’ and ‘civilians’. Woods reminds us that it has been extensively reported that US administration ‘count all military aged males in a strike zone as combatants unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.’   This and perhaps other similar ‘sleights of hand’ may well be behind the fiction of ‘perfection’ and ‘precision’ and calls us to even greater scrutiny of both the justifications and consequences of the use of armed drones.

Which brings us to Degrading the moral thresholds for the use of force and the calculations of proportionality by Conway Waddington.  Waddington argues rightly in my opinion that “quantitative claims about collateral damage should not form the sole basis for the debate.” Rather the moral and ethical arguments about whether drones are lowering or “subverting” as Waddington puts it, the restraints on the decision to use armed force are at least as important.

However Waddington like a great many academics and others working on this issue are loath to focus on the technology, insisting that drones are merely “a side issue” and that “the prominent role of drones in the execution of targeted killing strikes should not lead to a fixation on drones themselves.” Nevertheless he (grudgingly) acknowledges that armed drones “do facilitate a strategic approach to national security which has taken on many morally questionable practises,” echoing the recent important finding in the report from the US Stimson Center that “the availability of lethal UAV technologies has enabled US policies that likely would not have been adopted in the absence of UAVs.”

Questioning whether the “proportionality equation” in respect of non-combatant casualties resulting from US drones strikes is being applied appropriately Waddington asks “how morally balanced is the weighing of civilian casualties in proportion to US national security?” and does the use of drones contribute “any biases or imbalances in the proportionality equation.”   Reviewing statements about the adherence to international law by the US in relation to its drone strikes Waddington states dryly “the appropriation of Just War Theory-based language does not ensure against improper application of the underlying philosophical principles contained within.”

He goes on to quote Donald Rumsfeld saying “We did not start this war. So understand, responsibility for every single casualty in this war, whether innocent Afghans or innocent Americans, rests at the feet of al Qaeda and the Taliban.”  Waddington wonders if such an institutional view has impacted on “the proportionality equation employed by the US with regards to drone strike collateral damage.”

More broadly Waddington agrees that restraint on the use of force is undermined by that fact that the political costs of using lethal force and going to war is lowered as there are no risk to forces personnel. He also argues that the “perceived tactical efficiency of drone strikes, if overstated ” may lead to drones being used in in appropriate ways. In other words if the ”only available tool is a hammer, it is possible for all problems to start to look like nails.”

In the books concluding chapter the editors urge that a great deal more research is needed on precision strike warfare, including in the areas of engineering, international law, international relations, political science, psychology and sociology. I would suggest further study is particular needed into just how precise and capable precision strike capabilities are. This reviewer notes for example that in 1991 Pentagon officials reported that the Hellfire missile delivered ‘pinpoint’ accuracy. Since then the Hellfire has been upgraded at least six times, with officials arguing in each case that the new version was more accurate than the prior version, making current Hellfire missiles apparently six times more accurate than pinpoint accurate!

As well as calling for cross disciplinary research the editors also make the case for dialogue on the issue between various stakeholders including scholars, technical experts, policymakers, activists and the media. Such dialogue “is vital if advances in technology are to be used for the wider benefit of humanity” say the editors. It would be hard to disagree.



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  1. Weekly Roundup 12/1 | Center for the Study of the Drone

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