Reviewing the current debate on drones

Alongside intense international law arguments, a wider debate on the impact of the growing use of armed drones, within particular current conflicts as well as on long-term global peace and security, continues. To mark our sixth birthday we outline here the current state of the debate on some of the key issues.


Drones: Is it the technology, the policy, or both?

Can the impact of the technology be ignored?

The starting point for many advocates of the use of armed drones is to dismiss any debate about their use by insisting that there is no actual difference between a drone and a conventional military aircraft.  Former drone pilot T. Mark McCurley for example writes “Is there a difference between bombs dropped off a drone or a fighter?” while Dave Blair argues that “the same weapons deployed from Reapers are also launched from Apaches and F-16s.  The idea of ‘drone strikes’ as distinct from ‘air strikes’ is a distraction.”

It is certainly true that from the perspective of those on the ground there is little difference if the Hellfire missile hurtling towards you was launched from a Reaper drone or an Apache helicopter. To leap however, from this narrow point and argue that the technology therefore makes no difference is disingenuous at very best.

There are real and key differences between armed unmanned systems like Reapers and Predators (never mind the much more advanced drones that are making their way off the drawing board) and conventional aircraft like Tornados or F-15s.  These differences are having an important impact on the way armed conflict is being initiated and fought, and arguably on long-term peace and security. The fact that nations can engage in warfare without risk to their personnel, together with the increased persistence that drones give has both tactical and strategic implications.

Alongside those insisting that the technology is not relevant as it is no different from other platforms are those who argue the technology is not important because it is the policy of undertaking targeted killing that is crucial. This tends to be voiced by those viewing the issue from a strict human rights perspective who do not wish to engage, for a variety of reasons, in wider peace and security questions.

Yet it cannot be questioned that the vast upsurge in targeted killing over the past decade is inexorably linked with the rise of the drone. That is not to deny that such operations were being conducted previously (or since) with other technology, nor is it saying that policy questions are not absolutely crucial. But it is to suggest that ignoring the technology, for whatever reason, is blinkered.

Unfortunately suggesting to either constituency that the technology itself should be examined or that it should be part of the debate about targeted killing often means being denigrated as technophobic, a neo-luddite or even just distracted by shiny-objects.

In reality even those arguing in public that drones are no different from other platforms, know they are different. Indeed, it is a curiosity of the debate that while on one hand maintaining there is no difference, at the same time advocates argue that the differences – remoteness and persistence – make drones better as they can be more precise and ensure less – or even no – civilian casualties, an issue to which we now turn.


Civilian casualties: drones and discrimination

Nabila Rehman holds up a picture depicting the US drone strike which killed her grandmother. Jason Reed/Reuters

Discussion on non-combatant civilian casualties from drone strikes has been one of the most contested issues around the use of armed drones.  Advocates such as former CIA Director Michael Hayden has called the drone targeted killing program “the most precise and effective application of firepower in the history of armed conflict,” while President Obama went even further in April 2016 stating:

“What I can say with great certainty is that the rate of civilian casualties in any drone operation are far lower than the rate of civilian casualties that occur in conventional war.”

As already mentioned drone advocates often argue that the technology mean drones are better at carrying out strikes that conventional aircraft. Former Chief of British Defence Staff, Lord Dannatt wrote last year after the targeted killing of Mohammed Emwazi (‘Jihadi John’) that:

“Drones have the capability to linger at high altitude over a potential target – for days, if necessary…  The decision to strike with lethal force is only taken when there is a very high degree of certainty that the effect of that attack will have the intended result… Little is left to chance.”

Despite the assertions that drones enable us to better control the consequences of aerial bombing, data gathered by journalists and casualty recording organisations show large number of civilian casualties from drone strikes. In Pakistan for example, where US airstrikes were exclusively carried out by drones, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) reports between 420 – 960 civilians killed in just over 400 drone strikes although the civilian casualty rate along with the number of strikes has plummeted since 2012 following an increasing international outcry.

Far from being able to sit above ‘the fog of war’ and launch pinpoint accurate attacks, Reprieve found that US drone strikes killed 1,147 unknown people in multiple strikes that targeted just 41 named individuals and US military analyst found that in Afghanistan in 2013 drones caused 10 times more civilian casualties than strikes by manned fighter aircraft.

Drone advocates often challenge civilian casualty figures arguing that they are falsehoods spread by the enemy; that weapons are being removed from the site of a strike before recorders arrive; or even that Taliban or Al Qaeda kill civilians and place their bodies at the site of drone attacks to increase civilian casualty count. There is simply no evidence for this whatsoever.

And, of course, it must be remembered that civilian casualties from air strikes are not just accidents. Strikes are sometimes launched even if it is absolutely clear that civilians will be killed. In Iraq and Syria, for example the US has just changed its rules of engagement to allow up to 10 civilian deaths per strikes in some areas.  As USA Today explains

“Before the change, there were some limited cases in which civilian casualties were allowed, the officials said. Now, however, there are several targeting areas in which the probability of 10 civilian casualties are permitted.”

In the invasion of Iraq in 2003, strikes that would cause more than 30 civilian deaths per strike had to be approved personally by Donald Rumsfeld.  Over fifty such strikes were proposed by military commanders and he approved them all. US drone strikes in Pakistan too were authorised that would kill women or children alongside terrorist suspects ‘in extraordinary circumstances’ according to Leon Panetta’s memoir.

In addition, a crucial element in any discussion of civilian casualty data is the policy of ‘seeing’ all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent. For example according to information leaked to The Intercept and released as part of The Drone Papers, US drones targeted and killed 19 ‘Jackpots’ between May and September 2012 in Afghanistan.  However in those strikes 136 other individuals were also killed, all of whom were labelled simply as enemies killed in action (EKIA). While it is not clear who these people were – and it may well be that some of them were combatants – the blanket policy of designating everyone killed in such strikes as combatants unless proved otherwise is clearly contributing to the US and the UK’s ability to claim that no or few civilians are killed in such airstrikes.

Occasionally, however, it becomes clear that all the victims of such strikes are not enemy combatants. Last year (Jan 2015) a US drone strike in Pakistan killed American development expert Warren Weinstein and Italian aid worker Giovanni Lo Porto who were being held hostage at the site of the strike.  And again in February 2016, a US air strike involving F-15s and drones on an ISIS training camp in Libya appears to have killed two Serbian diplomats being held there. Both sites, it should be noted, had prolonged and persistent observation by drones prior to the strikes, undermining the notion that such persistence can eliminate civilian casualties. How often have strikes taken place when remote observers see only combatants, yet civilians are present and designated as combatants?

Drone technology is seducing politicians and military commanders into believing that we can see, know and understand what is happening on the ground from thousands of miles away; that we can discriminate perfectly between combatants and non-combatants; that we can precisely launch pinpoint accurate strikes; and that we can control the consequences of any violent intervention. The reality, as we shall no doubt unfortunately continue to see, is just the opposite.


Are drone strikes effective?


Although ‘drones’ and ‘targeted killing’ are not synonymous (please see two important pieces on the term ‘targeted killing’ here and here) without doubt a strong and important correlation between the two has grown up over the past decade.  The US in particular has vastly expanded its targeted killing programme since the advent of armed drones, and the UK too – despite strenuous denials that it would – has used its drones to carry out premeditated extra-judicial killings.

One of the key argument for drone supporters is that the drone targeted killing programme has been effective. Documents discovered in Bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound detailing correspondence between him and senior al Qaeda leaders “paint a picture of an organization crippled by the US drone campaign” writes Jennifer R. Williams, a line that is repeatedly cited by drone advocates as compelling evidence of their effectiveness.

Many others however strongly disagree. Some, like Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations, argue that “the whack-a-mole approach is not having the desired effect.”  When leaders are targeted and killed, they are simply replaced by others. And often, as happened last week with strike on Mullah Mansour, leader of the Afghan Taliban, their replacements are likely even less amenable to peace initiatives.

Others argue that so-called ‘collateral damage’ from drone strikes has angered populations leading to increased radicalisation and increased recruitment for violent groups, leading overall to a net loss of security.

And while some will curtly dismiss such opinions as simplistic liberalism, it should be noted that it is very senior military and counter-terrorism figures  such as General Stanley McChrystal, General Mike Flynn and George W. Bush’s counter-terrorism czar Richard Clarke making the argument that drone strikes are creating more terrorists than they’re killing.

Supporting these conclusions is an interesting empirical study looking at forty air campaigns since 1948 which found that the higher the number of civilian casualties, the greater the chance of insurgent victories.  “One wonders how effective such an air campaign [against ISIL] will be?” the study’s author asks.

The direct link between drones and ‘radicalisation’, ‘blowback’ as it is dubbed, needs of course much more study. One recent Washington Post op-ed argued that far from being radicalised, residents of FATA in Pakistan welcomed such strikes. But others were quick to disagree. “Blowback doesn’t require universal opposition…” wrote John Feffer, “Ultimately, blowback can be just one angry and determined person who makes his mark on history without first showing up in a survey.”

Using one key and obvious metric David Alpher points out simply that “the number of terrorist attacks against American targets within both Yemen and Pakistan went up, not down, since drone strikes began.” The Soufan Group too echoed this point in a recent briefing arguing that in all seven countries in which the US has conducted counterterrorism strikes – Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen – the threat of terrorism has worsened. Given this, can advocates really claim that drone strikes are effective?


Remoteness:  Ancient or modern?

Risk free warfare?

While there are concerns that remote warfare will have a negative impact on peace and security, drone advocates insist that remoteness is nothing new, repeatedly citing the use of the trebuchet in ancient times or the use of the longbow at Agincourt.  To suggest, however, that there is little ethical or strategic military difference between the longbow and an armed drone is akin to suggesting that mobile phone technology is no more remarkable than the carrier pigeon.

A number of different arguments about remoteness and its impact on the resort to the use of armed force (jus ad bellum) and the use of force within an armed conflict (jus in bello), have been deliberated conflated and confused.  One argument above all in this area – whether due to the physical and psychological distance drone operators and crew may perceive strike operations as a kind of video game – has been seized on by furious drone advocates.  They insist this proposition denigrates the professionalism of serving military officers, ignores the fact there is a chain of command overseeing strikes, and overlooks the number of drone pilots leaving suffering from PTSD as evidence that drone pilots are far from ‘videogame warriors’.

While it seems true the drone operators appear to have little leeway to launch strikes independently (although see this report of US military inquiry), some former drone pilots who have spoken out have given worrying testimony.  Brandon Bryant for example has said:

“One guy I knew tattooed a Hellfire missile on his ribs for every shot he took.  Another tattooed the word ‘Infidel’ around his neck. I mean there were some real, honest-to-god psychos in that program who wanted nothing more than to kill people on the ground.”

Others ex-pilots however tell a different story

“Drone operators are licensed pilots. We are not terminators rampaging across the countryside like war’s a video game. We are not heartless; we are not brainless. And we do not like to make mistakes.”

Drones advocates often seize on this one aspect of the debate about remoteness aiming to leverage the widespread support for individual serving personnel, to dismiss the wider arguments. Far from being gung-ho warriors they argue, drone crew are suffering post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as they are required to monitor the consequences of strikes against individuals they kill.

While not in any way dismissing this aspect, official studies show in fact the level of PTSD among drone crew is around half that of the general population of the US. Drone crew are facing high levels of stress and burnout, but this appears also to be due to the high workload and long hours they are required to work owing to increasing use of armed drones.

Due to the almost exclusive focus on drone crew in relation to this aspect of the issue, there are other key issues about remoteness being lost that need much more attention. Will the increasing use of remote systems lower the threshold for war? As western nations increasingly value the lives of their combatants and are loath to risk ‘boots on the ground’, are we transferring the risk instead onto civilians in the area where such strikes are carried out?  And perhaps most importantly, is drone war in fact war? While war does not need to be a fair fight, it does need to be a fight. To be a war it must be a contest. If there is no contest, is there not something else entirely going on? (For more on this see Christian Enemark’s essay here).

The impact of remoteness on armed conflict is raising serious and important questions that deserve focused examination and detailed study rather than just being peremptorily dismissed as little different from medieval warfare


Transparency vs Secrecy

Crucial details missing

In contrast to claims that drones enable us to have a better view and understanding of the impact of our warfare, the increasing use of armed drones are in fact obscuring and disconnecting the public from the consequences of military action. The use of armed drones to undertake military action without deploying ‘boots on the ground’ means that warfare in many respects is becoming ‘out of sight and out of mind’. To challenge this, there has been multiple calls for greater transparency around the use of armed drones with demands from MPs and legislators, human rights groups, UN officials, journalists and researchers. Information sought includes details of the process and legal basis whereby individuals are targeted; data on the reality of remote ‘precision’ strikes, information to aid better understanding of the day-to-day use of such systems, and of course more information about the consequences of their use on the ground.

However, drone advocates persistently argue, as Charles Dunlap does in his response to a New York Times’ editorial that such calls for transparency are “clueless” and “histrionic”.  Secrecy trumps the need for transparency he maintains and, in any case, the public are not that concerned.

Dunlap goes on to argue elsewhere that the US government is in fact already too transparent about drones with, he suggests, statements such as that by President Obama that operations would only be conducted when there was “near certainty that non-combatants will not be injured or killed” aiding adversaries. He goes on:

“I question the wisdom of this sort of “transparency” as it telegraphs to adversaries exactly what they need to do protect themselves from a drone strike: surround themselves with civilians. What’s more, despite that effort at transparency, there is no evidence that the hostility towards drones by those disposed against them in the first place has diminished even one iota. The hard truth is … in the real world, this kind of transparency has bought little, while our enemies have “gone to school” on it.”

There are serious and genuine questions about the use of armed drones that cannot simply be dismissed by arguing that any and all information could be of use to the enemy. If claims that drones “target indiscriminate killers with exquisite discrimination” are to be believed in face of evidence to the contrary, much greater transparency from those operating such systems is needed.

While some argue that little or no information about drone operations should be released, without it, it is impossible for decision makers and the public to make proper and informed decisions about the crucial questions raised.  Without transparency there can be no proper public accountability and oversight of these lethal operations.


drone-headlines4Drones and other forms of remote war are presented as a modern and humanitarian way to deal with international security threats. Through using remote warfare technology and techniques, we are assured, we can safely and cleanly eliminate serious threats to our security and well-being without risk to our own forces.  We should however be exceedingly sceptical about such claims. Drone strikes, kill lists and targeted killing programmes do nothing to deal with the underlying root causes of global insecurity.

Rethinking Security, an important discussion paper, published last week by The Ammerdown Group, argues that “the preferred responses of Western states are manifestly not working.”  Rather they have “exacerbated insecurity, allowed global problems to worsen, and added to the harm already suffered in countries targeted for intervention.”  The paper goes on

“The practice of ‘security’ cannot be limited to neutralising threats, but must encompass a commitment to build peace with justice. It has to evolve away from exercising control over world affairs towards facilitating genuinely democratic participation in them. Security discourse will need to become more reflexive and inclusive if it is to do more than merely legitimate a dysfunctional status quo…There is nothing inevitable about the current cycles of injustice and violence that are jeopardising the security of everyone. The UK can play a more effective part by displacing the desire to ‘punch above its weight’ with a commitment to security as a common right for everyone.

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