A week ago, a US air strike that officials (speaking off-the-record) acknowledged was carried out by a Reaper drone, killed senior Iranian General Qassem Soleimani and up to 10 others, travelling in a two-car convoy outside Baghdad airport. The targeted killing of a senior Iranian military officer sent shock waves around the globe and appalled many. International law scholars argued strongly that the strike was unlawful, politicians and diplomats articulated the dangerous impact both locally, regionally and internationally and military officials braced themselves for the inevitable retaliation. Read more
November 2019 saw seven civilian casualties incidents from drone strikes in four different war-zones illustrating the growing spread of drone warfare. The seven strikes between them are thought to have killed 41 civilians including 11 children.
Proponents of the use of armed drones often argue that drones are better at warfare as they can sit above the ‘fog and friction’ of war and therefore limit the harm to civilians as they have a better view of the ground. The reality, however, is that drones appear to be transferring the risk of warfare away from combatants onto the shoulders of civilians.
These seven strikes in the month of November are just a snapshot of the impact of drone warfare on civilians. However, the likelihood is that civilians will continue to be killed unless there is progress at the international level on controlling the proliferation and use of armed drones. Read more
General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, manufacturer of the Reaper drone, has recently been awarded a US Air Force contract to demonstrate the ‘Agile Condor’ artificial intelligence system with the MQ-9 Reaper drone. According to General Atomics President David R. Alexander,
“The Agile Condor project will further enhance RPA [remotely piloted aircraft] effectiveness by specifically allowing a MQ-9 to surveil a large area of operations, autonomously identify pre-defined targets of interest and transmit their locations.”
This type of capability represents a tangible step further towards the development of autonomous weaponised drones able to operate without human input – flying killer robots, in other words. From identifying targets without the need for a human decision to destroying those targets is a very small step which could be achieved with existing technology. Read more
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?
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.” Read more
Although some continue to insist that armed drones are in effect no different from other military aircraft, there seems to be increasing acceptance that the technology may lower the threshold for use of force. Stanley McChrystal, for example, former commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, told a conference in London late last year that he believed the capabilities of drones could make them more palatable to military decision-makers and “lower the threshold” for lethal force, while a recently released MoD policy document Future Operating Environment 2035’ asserts that:
“increased use [of remote and automated systems] in combat and support functions will reduce the risk to military personnel and thereby potentially change the threshold for the use of force. Fewer casualties may lower political risk and any public reticence for a military response…”
In the run up to the House of Commons vote on air strikes against ISIS in Syria, there has been much hype in the media about ‘precision strikes’. In particular a new British missile, the Brimstone, has been lauded by the press and politicians with Defence Secretary Michael Fallon going so far as to suggest that it “eliminates civilian casualties.”
The perception of ‘precision’ also underlies much of the support for drones targeted killing, with the phrase ‘pinpoint accuracy’ being deployed by the media almost as often as the weapons themselves. However the details and claims of such ‘precision’ deserve scrutiny. It is important to ask whether we are not in fact being misguided about ‘precision’. Not only in terms of the actual impact on the ground, but also in the permissiveness it engenders for further war. Read more