A challenge to drone apologists – where is your evidence?

Over the past few week there has been increasing attention to the issues raised by the growing use of armed unmanned drones. As protests at factories and bases have taken place, newspapers have begun to editorialize, politicians have formed committees to investigate and legal action is being undertaken.

Amidst these positive moves there are those of course who would dismiss concerns about drone strikes and remote warfare. Earlier this month Reuters published an Op-Ed piece in response to the Stanford  & NYU Law Schools report ‘Living Under Drones, which investigated US drone strikes in Pakistan. Read more

Drone strikes poll shows mass disapproval

A poll released this week by the US-based Pew Research Center examining international attitudes towards the US included a specific question about US drone strikes.   Asked “Do you approve or disapprove of the United States conducting missile strikes from pilotless aircraft called drones to target extremists in countries such as Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia?” the vast majority of respondents in twenty countries expressed clear  disapproval (see table below).

Only three of the twenty countries surveyed did not disapprove of the strikes by a clear majority: India, Britain and the US itself.  However there was hardly clear support in India where only 32% actually approved the strikes with almost half of respondents (47%) not answering the question, while the majority of those who expressed an opinion in the UK, also disapproved (47% disapprove vs. 44% approve).   As Gabriel Carlyle writes over at the Peace News Blog, its important for anti-drone campaigners in the UK “to bump Britain’s “disapproval” rates up to those of Germany, France, Spain and others”

An important aspect of this poll, which received bare mention in mainstream press coverage,  is the gender gap.  As the analysis by the Pew Center itself states:

There are [large] differences between men and women on this question throughout much of Europe, as well as in the U.S., Japan, and Brazil. In Germany, 54% of men support the strikes, compared with just 24% of women. Fully 57% of British men approve of using drones, but only 30% of women agree. Double-digit gender gaps are found in 10 nations, including a gap of 23 percentage points in the U.S.”

With regard to US support, as Micah Zenko has pointed out, US support for drone strikes seems to have fallen from 83% in February to 62% in April. I suspect that the growing opposition to civil drones flying in US airspace will ‘leak’ across and mean that US support for use of armed drones overseas may well continue to fall further.

For example, this week US Senator Rand Paul introduced a bill mandating that a warrant be sought from the courts before a drone is used for law enforcement purposes.  Almost at the same time a group of twenty-six Republican and Democratic congressmen have written to President Obama demanding that he explain the legal justification for so-called ‘signature strikes’ arguing that such drone strikes generate “powerful and enduring anti-American sentiment” which could lead to further attacks on the US and US civilians. 

US support for use of drones may drop even further when the US public realises that other, ‘non-approved’ nations can also use drones.  While it is not yet reached the news headlines, there continues to be persistent rumours that the Syrian regime are using a drone to target artillery strikes in Homs (see this BBC article for example). 

Ken McDonald, Chair of the human rights organisation Reprieve, wrote an interesting piece for the Times this week connecting the slaughter of innocents in Syria and Waziristan – all justified in the name of ‘security’ (pdf).  The minority who support targeted killing by drone strikes seem to do so in the mistaken belief that by ‘taking out the bad guys’ we can increase security for all.  The stark reality is just the opposite – and the sooner we win this argument, the sooner support for targeted killing and drone strikes will disappear altogether.

Drones: targeted killing is only part of the problem

The US use of drones for targeted killing has rightly received a lots of media attention over the past week. Since the beginning of 2012 the US has stepped up its drone assassination programme in Yemen, while continuing to launch drone strikes  in Pakistan despite repeated pleas from the Pakistan authorities to stop.  Kill lists and extrajudicial killing of suspects, once seen as completely  unacceptable to the global community (and to the vast majority, still does) now seems to have become almost a matter of routine for the US and its President.

Journalists as well as commentators  – and now churches – have rightly been investigating and criticising this particular use of drones, and in both the US and the UK legal challenges are underway to stop further  attacks and to reveal more detail about the process.

But it’s important to remember that targeted killing is not the only problem with unmanned drones.

Earlier this week I took part in an online discussion about the use of drones hosted by the Canadian  think tank CIC.  Author and drone expert Peter Singer and Oxford Professor of Ethics and Law, Jennifer Walsh, argued that there was no particular problem with drones per se. They argued (as most mainstream commentators do) that it’s not the development and use of remote armed technology that is the problem, but rather the fact that they are it is being used outside ‘official’ armed conflicts to undertake targeted killing.  Just to be very clear, the use of drones to undertake assassinations far away from any battlefield is a very serious problem which must be investigated and challenged.

But it’s not just the fact that drones have enabled the expansion of targeted killing. The problem with drones goes deeper than that.

To put it simply, armed unmanned technology  and the concept of ‘remote war’ alters the balance of options available to our political and military leaders in favour of a military response.  Armed drones are making the political cost of military intervention much lower than it had previously been.

Before the advent of armed drones (and particularly since the Vietnam war) public antipathy towards risking troops lives in foreign wars has meant the balance of the options available to our leaders weighed more on the side of political rather than military intervention (with notable exceptions of course).  Now however, the scales have shifted in the opposite direction and drones enable our political leaders to intervene militarily overseas by launching  remote attacks at great distances with no risk to their own forces.  Although some argue that it has been possible to launch attacks at great distances for many years by using cruise missiles for example, it is the ability of the drone to sit and loiter over towns and compounds for many hours and days rather than the ‘one-off shot’ of a cruise missile that makes a crucial difference.

While it is still very early in the drone wars era, the fact that the US used unmanned drones to launch attacks in six different countries during  2011 – Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Libya – shows how much easier it now is to undertake military interventions.

On top of this, is the concern that drones may also make it much easier to launch attacks within particular theatres of war.

According to The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) there have been around 330 US drone strikes in Pakistan and around 40 drone strikes in Yemen.  Though the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq are the first ‘official’ wars in which armed drones have been used in a sustained and comprehensive way, there is as yet no public analysis of the impact of unmanned drones in these conflicts.  Given that the US has ten times the number of Britain’s five armed Reaper drones in Afghanistan – and Britain’s drones have launched over 250 drone strikes –  it is quite possible that there have been over 2,000 drone strikes in Afghanistan (although this is simply a guess).

Due to the secrecy surrounding  the use of armed drones it is difficult at this stage to say for definite that the ‘risk free’ nature of drone is actually increasing the frequency of attacks.  However an official  US military report into an attack in February 2010 which resulted in the deaths of a number of Afghan civilians found that the drone pilots in Creech “had a propensity/bias for kinetic operations”.

We know that drones are loitering over particular areas, towns and compounds for hours and days at a time looking for “targets of opportunity” and this is of serious concern.  Laura Arbour, former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and currently chief of the International Crisis Group said about the growing use of unmanned drones recently  “The most serious concern is the secrecy which surrounds these operations, added to the fact that they are mostly deployed in isolated, inaccessible areas, which makes it virtually impossible to determine whether they are used in compliance with the laws of war.”

While it is right and important that there is growing condemnation of the use of drones for targeted killing, we need also to be challenging the growing use of unmanned weapons technology itself.  No doubt some will respond with the cliché that ‘guns don’t kill people, people kill people’.  And like most clichés there is a rather grim element of truth to that. And others will say also that drones are not intrinsically bad like cluster bombs or anti-personnel landmines as they can be used in other ways than for killing.  Nevertheless armed drones by their nature and the way they are designed to be used, simply makes the world a more dangerous place.

The big problem of arming small drones

Aftermath of drone attack

One of the key concerns about the growing use of unmanned drones by the military is that as there is no risk to your own forces they make launching armed attacks  much easier and therefore more likely. A separate but related concern is how drones are ‘expanding the battlefield’ into areas that would have previously, due to the presence of civilians, been considered off-limits.

Faith in hi-resolution cameras and conviction in the perceived ability of drones to hit targets with great accuracy is giving the illusion of control to military commanders and politicians, control that is simply not possible when firing missiles at, or dropping bombs into crowded urban areas.

The drone industry is of course seeing this all as a ‘market opportunity’ by developing smaller bombs and missiles specifically designed for use by drones in civilian areas.

Last month Raytheon announced that it had flight tested its smallest ever air-launched guided weapon aboard a small drone, while European missile manufacturer MBDA also sees a ‘bright future’ for its small missiles business, having recently bought the company that manufactures the Viper Strike missile.  CEO of the American arm of MBDA, Jerry Aggee, said in a recent interview:

Defense budgets might be shrinking, but the drone business is growing.  We see the same thing occurring around the world. It will take a few more years for some countries to get there, but clearly, unmanned platforms, with smaller, high-precision weapons have a significant place in the market, both today and years in the future.  This is a market that is going to continue.

Shadow drone and Ground Control Station

Perhaps even more scary is the news that smaller drones which up till now have only been used for surveillance are also being weaponized.  The US Marines are now trialling an armed version of the small Shadow drone using a munition developed and fielded in secrecy.

“If it works,” AOL Finance Daily says cheerily, “and proves the concept that small UAVs like the Shadow can operate as armed drones in their own right, this should result in new sales opportunities for the major defense weapons makers.”

While the drone industry dreams of a bright and profitable future, the nightmare scenario of hundreds – or even thousands – or small armed drones flying overhead is fast becoming a reality.

Deaths of UK nationals in US drone strikes must be investigated

Another two British men have reportedly been killed in US drone strikes.  Ibrahim Adam (24) and Mohammed Azmir Khan (38) were said by their families to have been killed in separate drone strikes  up to three months ago.  While reports vary, the Guardian says that Ibrahim Adam was struck while riding a motorcycle and Mohammed Azimir Khan was  killed in a strike two weeks later.

Previous British victims of US drone strikes include Mohammed Azimir Khan’s younger brother, Abdul Jabbar, who  was killed in a drone strike in October last year as we reported here.  Then in December 2010 a further two other British men, named locally as Mr Stephen and Mr Dearsmith, were killed in drone strike in North Waziristan.  Rashid Rauf was reported killed in a drone strike in 2006.

Ibrahim Adam had been the subject of a control order here in the UK before fleeing in May 2007 while Mohammed Azmir Khan had his assets frozen in February 2010 as he had been ‘suspected’ (but not charged) of being involved in fundraising for terrorism.  He has since been removed from the  Treasury’s list of people and organisations subject to financial sanctions.

In total it appears that six British nationals have been killed in US drone strikes in Pakistan.  While the Foreign Office has said in the past that it was “looking into the reports” of the killings, so far none of these violent deaths have been investigated by UK authorities as they have a duty to do.  At the very least a coroner inquest should be held to uncover the circumstances surrounding these latest killings.

Turning away from the drone evolution

Responding to a parliamentary question from Caroline Lucas about the civilian victims of UK drone strikes in Afghanistan last week, David Cameron said “I do not think that the answer is to turn our face away…”

Was the Prime Minister suggesting that it would be morally reprehensible to ignore the victims of British drone strikes and that we would of course squarely face up to our responsibilities to these people and their families?  Alas not.  Instead, and rather predictably David Cameron was arguing that we cannot turn away from drone technology which, as he put it, is  “taking out” the bad guys.

It’s not only the British Prime Minister suggesting  there can be no turning away from drone technology.  There seems to be a growing acceptance of the inevitability of a drone-filled future behind  much reporting and commentary on the issue of armed drones.  “The future belongs to drones” was how The Economist put it this week, whilst a Reuters article argued that drones were “the perfect weapon for a war-weary nation …on a tight budget.”  The Reuters piece went on to quote an unnamed  senior US official:

As the Iraq war winds down, more drones equipped for intelligence gathering and other purposes have been freed up…..The overall U.S. drone arsenal has also increased. “It’s something that in some ways is a natural evolution…..”

As we have noted before this (anything but natural) “evolution” is changing the nature of warfare and making the world a much more dangerous place.  Launching armed interventions simultaneously in six countries around the world without any risk has suddenly become a reality because of drones.  As a thoughtful piece in this month’s Defence Technology International, exploring how drones are impacting on the pace of war, suggests

“Would the U.S. engage in such a wide-ranging air campaign if it were conducted only with manned aircraft flying from overseas bases and carrier strike groups? Has the use of unmanned systems led to more warfare, in more places, because of the smaller logistics tail and the fact that pilots’ lives are not at risk?”

I think the answer to that has to be a resounding ‘yes’ – drones are definitely beginning to lead to more warfare. However in order to avoid difficult questions about international law, the Obama Administration is insisting these are not acts of war but ‘police actions’

Writing in Foreign Policy Thomas Ricks argues: ”The drone strikes being conducted in [Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen] are not being done to challenge those states, but to supplement the power of those states, to act when they cannot or will not.”   (So much for the principle of sovereignty –  if states will not do what we demand we can overrule them with drone strikes.)  “Drone aircraft have changed warfare…. [and] they also are changing diplomacy and foreign relations”  Ricks argues “but it is not war”

To show how much nonsense this idea of ‘police action’ is Greg Scoblete at The Compass says “If Iran suddenly developed the wherewithal to fly a drone over suburban Virginia and blew up the house (and wife and kids) of a man it claimed was in the CIA conducting a terror campaign against Iranian nuclear scientists, I think the U.S. would consider that bombing an act of war, or at the very least an act of terrorism. It certainly wouldn’t consider it “police work.”

A future of drone strikes being responded to with terrorism which lead to further drone strikes and so on can easily be foreseen.   In Pakistan ordinary people are doing what they can to break the spiral as this project shows.   We too in the UK and the US have a responsibility to ‘turn our face away’ from this dreadful future and do what we can to prevent the continuing drone war evolution.