Why we persist in opposing the growing use of armed drones

Campaigners protest outside RAF Waddington, October 2018

Over the past two weeks, campaigners have been in New York taking part in meetings at the UN urging diplomats to control the proliferation and use of armed drones.  Drone Wars UK was one of the more than 50 organisations signing a joint statement released to coincide with the meetings.  Here in the UK, despite freezing wet weather, campaigners also held a protest at RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire calling for an end to the growing use of armed drones.

Over the past decade armed British Reaper drones, remotely controlled by RAF pilots at RAF Waddington, have launched hundreds of air strikes in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria and have supported and enabled hundreds more US strikes. The UK has moved from acquiring a handful of these systems for temporary use in Afghanistan to insisting they are a now an essential military capability with plans to field a fleet of 26 while investing hundreds of millions of pounds in developing much more lethal and autonomous drones.

And, of course, it is not just the UK. Over the past few years we have seen the number of States using these armed drones rise from the initial three – US, Israel and the UK – to more than a dozen, with clear signs that many more countries will acquire them over the next few years.

In short, the use of armed drones is fast becoming normalised and consequently fading gradually into the background. That’s not at all unexpected, but rather a foreseen element of a pro-active strategy.

Risk Free?

In response to concerns about the public’s aversion to military casualties (often dubbed ‘war weariness’), as well as military fears about the impact of multiculturalism, the MoD set out in an internal 2012 study a plan for moving away from ‘boots on the ground’ operations towards the increasing use of drones, special forces and proxy armies as a means to dispel domestic opposition to military intervention overseas. After Iraq and Afghanistan, it was argued, to gain domestic support for military interventions they must be seen as being as risk-free as possible.

Linked to this idea of ‘risk-free war’ is a concerted effort to persuade the public that modern war is much less devastating that it was in the past – humane even. Weapons today are so precise, we are told, they virtually eliminate civilian casualties. The UK Rules of Engagement are so tight, it is insisted, weapons are only ever launched if there is an expectation of zero civilian casualties. While some question the plausibility of claiming that there have been (almost) no civilian casualties while launching thousands of bombs and missiles, it is hard to argue that this strategy has not had an impact.

Dangerous and deadly

Behind the veneer however, the reality is that this new way of waging war is perhaps even more dangerous to civilians and to global peace and security. Despite claims of pinpoint accurate strikes, NGOs and casualty recorders continue to detail large numbers of civilian casualties from air war.  These arise particularly in urban areas which would not perhaps previously have seen large-scale bombing, but are now targeted as we have precision weapons.  Internal military data which counters the prevailing narrative that drones are better than traditional piloted aircraft is simply classified.

It is also hard not to connect the awful terrorist attacks that have taken place here in the UK and in Europe to these interventions. While the public and senior military and security officials understand that there is a clear link between military intervention and terror attacks at home, politicians continue to baulk at the connection. The reality though, as Air Marshall Greg Bagwell argued in his interview with us earlier this year, is that there is a connection:

“When you have an asymmetric advantage, enemies seek to find a way around it, and that is what terrorism is.  There is a danger that you shift the way an enemy target you and looks for vulnerabilities, and that is where we find ourselves.”

Permanent War

But perhaps the most dangerous aspect of the rise of remote drone warfare is the two-fold way that it is ushering in a state of permanent war. Firstly, with no (or very few) troops deployed on the ground, when drone operators can engage in warfare from their local base and commute home at the end of the day, there is little public pressure to bring interventions to an end.

We are perhaps seeing this reflected in the UK campaign to support Iraqi forces fighting ISIS. Both Iraq and Syria declared military victory over ISIS almost 12 months ago following the fall of Raqqa. The US and the UK, however, are continuing to launch strikes against the fighters that remain (about 4% of the original total according to recent UK government figures). Gavin Williamson insists that UK strikes will continue until the group is absolutely and totally defeated. This even though other nations are withdrawing their forces and senior UK commanders acknowledge that ISIS is no longer a credible military force.

Civil society groups host side event at the UN First Committee this week to discuss the expanding use and proliferation of armed drones. Image: @UNIDIR

Secondly, the way that drones are lowering the threshold for the use of force and in the way that certain states are attempting to change international law norms in relation to preemptive strikes means that military intervention has become more likely, moving away from being the option of last resort. The US (and UK) use of armed drones to launch so-called targeted killings outside the context of an armed conflict has opened Pandora’s Box. Seemingly, slowly but surely, decades old international legal rules limiting military intervention are being eroded. This simply makes the world a much more dangerous place.

Some argue that more than a decade-and-a-half after their introduction there is little now that can be done to prevent the growing use of armed drones. In contrast, we believe that as these systems spread we have to redouble our efforts to prevent their harm to global peace and security.

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