Think drone technology is not really the problem? Think again

reaperIn response to my recent Guardian opinion piece on the waning coverage of the military use of drones, a number of below the line commentators made the oft-levelled aside that ‘drones don’t kill people, people kill people.’  Tech writer Kelsey Atherton weighed in on twitter too arguing that drones themselves aren’t the problem, rather it’s how they are used that is the issue (see Kelsey’s Storify of our brief debate here). In a similar vein, academic Stephanie Carvin argues in ‘Getting drones wrong’ in the most recent issue of International Journal of Human Rights, that scholars and researchers should avoid “the magpie-like distraction of the ‘shiny object’ that is the drone” and instead “focus on the larger issues at stake.”

In contrast to these opinions I would argue strongly that the technology itself (armed unmanned remote systems) is a real danger to global peace and security that needs to be addressed.  To be clear, there are of course policy issues here. President Obama has overseen a massive expansion in US targeted killing through the use of armed unmanned drones, which have killed in the region of 3,000 – 4,000 people unlawfully in Pakistan alone. As Reprieve, TBIJ and others have reported, hundreds of innocent civilians have been also killed in these attacks since 2002.

But to ignore the fact that it is the weapon technology that has allowed and enabled this, and in doing so, thereby allowing that very technology to proliferate and grow more problematic, is tantamount to willful blindness. Arguing that drones aren’t part of the problem is for all intents and purposes echoing the NRA’s argument that guns are nothing to do with the homicide epidemic plaguing the US.

Drones: Enabling the expansion of targeted killing  

As Atherton and others have rightly argued US involvement with targeted killing pre-dates armed drones taking to the skies. Kenneth Anderson writes in his 2009 paper ‘Targeted Killing in U.S. Counterterrorism Strategy and Law’ that:

“The United States has long accepted a legal, political, and policy space for the use of force that does not take place in the course of judicially supervised law enforcement operations but also takes place outside of the context of large-scale, open armed conflict meeting the treaty definitions, or rising to a sufficient level of violence, so as to be governed by IHL… Political violence during the Cold War was often covert, often denied, but it was authorized and endorsed by American domestic law, dating back at least to the statutes founding the CIA in 1947. That was so even though the activity in question frequently violated the law and sovereignty of states in which it took place and unsurprisingly was sometimes, too, a source of grave diplomatic and other friction.”

While US targeted killing outside international law did not originate with drones, without a doubt it is the technology that has enabled a wholesale expansion of it – so much so that it has almost become normalised. And it is not just ‘anti-drone’ campaigners who are making this point. The 2014 report of the Stimson Task Force on US Drone Policy, authored by former senior US military and administration officials, states “it would be difficult to conclude that US targeted strikes are consistent with core rule of law norms” and declares that “the availability of lethal UAV technologies has enabled US policies that likely would not have been adopted in the absence of UAVs.”  But the problem with drones is not just their use for targeted killing as we continue to stress.

Drones: Lowering the threshold for use of force

Those who challenge a focus on drone technology are also amongst those who ask ‘What is the difference between a strike launched from a piloted aircraft and a drone?’ While the difference may be negligible at the point of a weapon launch (note that ‘may’), posing the question this way deliberately obfuscates the key issues associated with drone operations – namely remoteness and persistence. It is the ability of drones to be operated remotely from thousands of miles away, as well as their capability to be persistent, that is the key difference with traditional piloted aircraft.

This capacity to use force remotely and persistently appears to be lowering the threshold for military intervention (jus ad bellum) in a way that traditional airpower does not. As no pilots (or troops on the ground) are being risked, the political cost of intervention is much lower. It’s beyond belief, for example, that the US would have used piloted aircraft to breach Pakistan sovereignty to launch hundreds of air strikes in Waziristan as they have done using drones.

So if we pose the question with some context: ‘In Waziristan, what is the difference between a strike launched from a piloted aircraft and a drone?’ the issue becomes apparent: there wouldn’t be any strike if drones were not available.

TARANISThe increasing normality of the use of lethal force outside legally accepted norms is made apparent by Georgetown law professor Rosa Brooks’ recent, and very disturbing, article ‘There’s No Such Thing as Peacetime’. Brooks argues that since 9/11 “it has become virtually impossible to draw a clear distinction between war and not-war.” Rather than challenging this erosion of the boundaries between crucially distinct legal frameworks however, she argues that advocates for human rights must simply accept that “the Forever War is here to stay.” To do otherwise she insists is “largely a waste of time and energy. “Wartime is the only time we have” she insists, “We might as well get used to it and get back to work.”

Questions around whether drones are lowering the threshold for use of force within the situation of armed conflict (jus in bello) are harder to answer without much more transparency. Former UN Special Rapporteur Philip Alston talked of a ‘PlayStation Mentality’ – a phrase that tends to infuriate those involved with armed drone operations. Drone advocates and those operating armed drones insist that the decision to fire a weapon from a drone is not merely in the hands of a drone pilot but is rather the product of a long chain of decisions. On the other hand the only publicly available US military investigation into a drone operation in which multiple civilians were killed found that the Predator drone crew had “a propensity towards kinetic operations”. In addition, reports of so-called ‘double-tap’ strikes, and statements from former drone pilots provide some insight into the possibility that such a mind-set may exist.

But it is important to remember that it is not only those who are directly hands-on in day-to-day operations for whom drones may be engendering a ‘propensity to use kinetic force’.  Politicians, policy makers, counter-terrorism officials and commentators all seem susceptible. In a recent op-ed for The Wall Street Journal, for example, American academic Amy Zegart argues that drones should be used not just for targeted Killing but for “targeted hurting

“Lethal drones may make possible a new form of high-tech coercion: targeted hurting. Targeted terrorist-killing operations are designed to take an enemy off the battlefield. Targeted hurting could be designed to change any enemy’s behavior—by destroying selectively the family members, friends, associates, villages or capabilities that the enemy holds most dear.”

And making the point that it’s the weapon technology driving the policy and not the other way round Zegart concludes:

“As robotic warfare technologies proliferate and evolve, the U.S. is in a strategy race with other countries engaged in drone programs. If we do not develop innovative ideas about how these weapons can be used for coercion as well as combat, others will.”

The very existence of drones means that the use of lethal force is being contemplated and put into effect in ways that wouldn’t have happened before the development of such technology. Above all, it must be remembered that we are only at the beginnings of the drone war era. The Predator and Reaper drones currently in operation are slow, unsophisticated prototypes of future drones that are slowly but surely making their way from the drawing board to the skies. While so far only three countries have used armed drones, this is likely to change in the near future with both US and China now apparently willing to sell armed drones.

It is absolutely right that as a matter of policy those who use armed drones comply with current international law norms. However attention also needs to be paid to the technology that is undermining those very norms and is liable to decrease security still further in the future. When international law and policy experts are accepting permanent war and looking to how drones can innovate new ways of “destroying selectively the family members, friends and associates” of an enemy, drone technology is definitely part of the problem.


A new Drone Wars briefing examining some of the issues raised in this post in greater detail is due for publication later this year.



2 thoughts on “Think drone technology is not really the problem? Think again

  • The concerns on the expansion of questionable killings while possibly violating sovereignty and the lowering of the threshold for the use of force are valid and need to be addressed continuously (also when resulting from the use of other weapon systems). My main critique would be that these seem issues of disarmament and arms-control agreements rather than weapons law. So, instead of asserting that drone technology is unlawful per se, the focus should be on establishing arrangements that mitigate the negative consequences of its proliferation.

  • Of cause the warmongering political class has progressively become detached from the killing since the times when Kings and Chiefs were first and foremost leaders who lead armies into battle and died alongside of them. The British ‘Royal Family’ still make much play of this ethic, superficially and distastefully so. The offspring of the likes of Bush and Blair are less likely to make such an appearance though plundering their victim’s estates may well not be past their ethics.

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