Rather unbelievably, Drone Wars UK is ten years old this week. Although I had been researching and writing about drone warfare earlier, Drone Wars UK as a blog, an organisation, an entity came into being on 1st June 2010. In the decade since, the use of armed drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles – or ‘remotely piloted air systems’ as we are pressed by some to call them – has (ahem) taken off. As we and many others feared and predicted, the use of these systems has become virtually normalised and are spreading across the globe, and yet this is still only, I would suggest, the beginning of the drone war era.
While the existence of Drone Wars UK does not, of course, coincide with the existence of drone warfare itself – unarmed UAVs have been used in warfare in various ways for decades with the first air strike from a drone taking place soon after 9/11 – the past decade has undoubtedly seen drones established as a key tool of modern warfare.
We had a public event planned for this week, bringing experts together to discuss and reflect on drone warfare – and with cake to mark the anniversary – but sadly due to Covid-19 restrictions, that has had to be postponed till later in the year. In the meantime, I answered a few questions about our work over the past decade and our future plans in a video interview, and I’ll be sharing a short series of reflections, taking stock of where we are now, what has changed over the past decade, and where we are likely headed in the near future. As always, we rely on donations to keep our campaign work going. If you are able to make a contribution to our 10th birthday appeal we would be extremely grateful.
Reflections #1: Are ‘drones’ (still) a thing to focus on?
Throughout the past decade, with perhaps the exception of an 18-month period in 2012/3, we’ve been repeatedly told that drones are not something to focus on.
At the very beginning this was because they were thought too obscure and irrelevant to what was happening at the time and there were other issues around peace and security to work on. As time went on and the use of drones became more prominent, we began to be told that drones were in fact no different from other forms of air power so there was little point on limiting our work to simply drones. Later still, as the media coverage of the US use of drones to carry out targeted killings in Pakistan and Yemen grew, and the UK followed down this path, it was argued that drones themselves weren’t the problem, but the way they were being used that was problematic; policy not technology was the thing we should focus on. More recently we have been urged to stop advocating for an end to military drone use as there is now little chance of stopping them and we should focus instead on the future – perhaps on the growing use of AI in military systems and the rapid development of autonomous weapons and killer robots.
And the thing is, all of the people who made those arguments had a good point. There are, of course, plenty of other important issues besides drones; lethal strikes, whether launched from drones or helicopters or any other weapons system are of course worth scrutinizing; the policy of targeted killing is a crucial legal and ethical issue that demands attention, while the development of lethal autonomous military systems is rightly an urgent matter for our times. Drone Wars UK directly and indirectly supports and encourages all of that work and more, but nevertheless we choose to continue to persist in shining a spotlight on the spreading use of military drones and the consequences and implications of that.
Through detailed scrutiny of the use of drones we help spread understanding of the real impact of this type of use of armed force and to challenge, with evidence, the claims of drone war advocates that it is a benevolent, humanitarian, precise form of warfare; to challenge the notion that today, with the aid of drones, war is no longer the hell it once was. This is crucial, we believe, as not only is the public more and more distanced from the impact of the use of armed force, but our government is stepping up what it euphemistically calls ‘strategic communications’ in order to challenge, as it puts it, waning public support for ‘the utility of the use of armed force’. Our work, we are convinced, not only aids understanding of this specific type of modern warfare, but also the wider public and political debate about the ethics, legality and politics of modern warfare in general.
And that scrutiny has had an impact. Over the past decade, British defence officials and politicians have regularly expressed frustration with the public’s aversion towards the use of armed drones. What has become labelled by both the MoD and the defence industry as the ‘public perception problem’ is a broad range of feelings of disquiet primarily focused around the use of lethal force with impunity, and an instinctive dislike of the ‘un-human-ity’ of drone warfare. These broader feelings and perceptions, which some no doubt dismiss as squeamishness, are reinforced, like steel rods through concrete, with grave questions of international law, ethics and human rights.
Questions and Answers
Unfortunately, time and time again, rather than to engage in discussion and debate about these questions, drone advocates have chosen instead to dismiss and deflect, characterising criticism as ‘ignorant’ and ‘misguided.’ Serious questions and doubts are left unaddressed seemingly in the hope that those asking them will simply go away. To be fair, very occasionally, there has been some tentative and welcome attempts by some officials and officers to engage in debate on the issue in public, or in private. But these have been far too few and hesitant, and for the most part, deflection and ridicule is the order of the day. While it was the civil drone lobby that came up with perhaps the most puerile example of this – suggesting the public would be happier if drones were ‘decorated with humanitarian-related advertisements and painted in bright colours’ – not much further behind is the drone advocates inane habit of insisting that drones are not that different from using a medieval longbow or trebuchet.
The reality is that serious issues raised by the use of armed drones are simply not going to fade away and as the use of these systems spreads, we are seeing the impact fill news headlines.
A decade ago, we articulated some of the questions around how drones could impact on warfare. Would they make the resort to use armed force easier? Do they transfer the risk of war away from combatants on to the shoulders of civilians? Would they encourage and spread the use of so-called ‘targeted killing’? Are the claims that they aid precision and reduce, or even eliminate, civilian casualties to be believed? What is the impact on the operators of these systems? A glance at the news headlines, even those from just the past few months, gives us some answers of how they are impacting in the real world:
Q: What impact is this technology having on the resort to use armed force?
- In Libya, cheap, powerful drones kill civilians and increasingly fuel the war – Washington Post
- Soleimani’s death shows just how easy drone killings have become – The Spectator
Q: Are drones transferring the risk of war away from combatants on to the shoulders of civilians?
- The Secret Death Toll of America’s Drones – NYT
- Unlawful Libya drone strike kills 8 civilians – Herald
Q: Are drones enabling a spread in targeted killing?
- US Drone Strike in Iraq Kills Qassim Suleimani, Commander of Iranian Forces – NYT
- How the UAE’s Chinese-Made Drone Is Changing the War in Yemen – Foreign Policy
Q: Are the claims of precision and virtual elimination of civilian casualties believable?
- British airstrikes in Syria and Iraq have killed civilians, insists US military – The Times
- US drone strikes more deadly to Afghan civilians than manned aircraft: adviser – The Guardian
Q: What is the impact on drone operators of remote killing?
- Military drone pilots at risk of ‘moral injuries’ – The Times
- ‘Post-traumatic stress disorder is higher in drone operators’ – The Telegraph
For a decade, we have scrutinised the use of armed drones, drawing attention to the consequences of their growing use and pressing, with partners around the globe, for strict international controls over the use of these systems
We are convinced that persistent and detailed scrutiny of the use of drones and remote warfare in general continues to be needed, perhaps now more than ever. Please consider making a donation to our 10th Birthday appeal.
- Coming Next: A decade of challenging drone secrecy