Reflecting on the recent rash of writing on morality and drones

There have been a number of articles published recently on the morality of drone wars, many of them suggesting  that those of us with grave concerns about the growing use of drones have either got it wrong, are confused, or are just plain misguided.

Writing in The Observer, Peter Beaumont posed the question ‘Are drones any more immoral than other weapons of war?‘  After suggesting that “much of what has been written on both sides of the debate on the surrounding moral and legal issues has been ill-informed and confused” he then goes on to give a rather unhelpful summary of the international law arguments surrounding the use of force against non-state actors based on the recent paper ‘The Strategic Context of Lethal Drones’ published by the American Security Project.     Read more

Drone developments accelerating

A number of announcements made in the past two weeks to coincide with the Farnborough airshow show the quickening pace of developments around the use of drones and unmanned systems.  Perhaps the most significant was the UK MoD’s announcement that it was setting up a new unmanned systems capability development centre (UASCDC)  to be based at Boscombe Down in Wiltshire

Click image to see presentation: UAS CDC info from slide 19 onwards

The new centre, which will be run in conjunction with defence giant QinetiQ,  aims to develop new drone programmes “from concept to deployment” as well as “facilitate engagement between industry and the MoD to make the best use of collective expertise and facilities.” Although there is as little public information available as yet, some slides about the new centre were included as part of a recent general presentation to industry by the MoD.

It was also announced that the new Unmanned Systems Centre will join with ADS, the UK Aerospace, Defence and Security trade association, and Farnborough Airshow to hold a new ‘expo’ on autonomous unmanned systems at Farnborough in July 2013.   Although shy of using the word ‘autonomous’ (substituting the more acceptable phrase ‘intelligent systems’,  the week-long event is clearly focused on autonomy as ADS Director, Kevin Jones states in a filmed interview (below) “Yes…. we are talking about systems that have the technology and the capability to make their own decisions…”   The event planned for 2013, is a “precursor to a complete Intelligent Systems Air and Ground Expo that will occur at the Farnborough International Airshow 2014 where, as a show-within-a-show, this event will have command of the global aerospace stage.”

The push towards arming smaller drones – and therefore making armed drones more ‘useable’ in crowded urban and civilian areas – also continues.  MBDA announced a “concept vision” of a new range of small missiles for UAVs including Gladius with a launch weight of only 7kg, including a 1kg blast/fragmentation warhead

Meanwhile Raytheon announced that its new purpose-built bomb for small tactical drones, (imaginatively called the Small Tactical Munition) may, following more live testing, enter service within a few months . Raytheon recently issued this video showing the bomb being test launched from a small drone.

Another example of the growing proliferation of drone technology can be seen in the Israeli company IAI’s announcement that it was in discussions with a number of organisations and academic institutions around the world to set up drone training academies.  The academies will offer training on IAI’s own UAVs including Heron, Panther and Hunter which can serve as training for pilots going on to fly those drones or as a generic training course.  According to Defense News:

“IAI has been training customers at a campus in Israel for nearly 40 years but only recently started referring to the site — which the company refers to only as “a secure location near Tel Aviv” — as an academy. It also conducts UAV training flights from Ein Shemer, an army airfield in northern Israel.”

Although BAE Systems had hinted that an announcement (and possible contract signing) in regard to the proposed joint UK-French Telemos drone would take place at the Farnborough airshow in the end nothing happened and a scheduled press conference was cancelled.   President Hollande of France did meet with David Cameron and in the subsequent joint press conference  President Hollande said “We want to work in common on drones. The defence minister is coming to London on July 24, when two arrangements will be signed regarding drones.”

Meanwhile the political case for drones continues to be made in the US as well as the UK.  Two articles extolling the virtues of drones – and challenging those who are critical of them – appeared over the past few days few days.  First Washington think-tank the American Security Project argued that drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere were perfectly legal and rather than not having a legal argument, the US was deliberately not explaining its legal position: 

 “It is of strategic value for the US to refrain from providing justification [for the drone strikes] because to acknowledge any legal framework is to implicitly agree to be bound by its terms. By remaining formally unaccountable to international frameworks, the US can operate unimpeded by the red tape of the international legal community. From any angle, such a strategy is in the best interest of US national security. It is also important to note that a lack of public justification does not mean the US is not acting in accordance with international legal frameworks.”

Many might say that operating purely in your own national security interests and regarding international law as mere ‘red tape’ would put you in the same class of rogue state as Syria, for example, but obviously the American Security Project does not agree 

In the same vein, a New York Times op-ed tried to make the moral case for drones arguing that not only was using drones ethically permissible, but it also might be ethically obligatory  due to their advantage in identifying targets and striking with precision. In a quick and strong rebuttal Jeremy Hammond of the Foreign Policy Journal demonstrated that it was in fact making the immoral argument for drones.  Rather than summarise his piece I’d really recommend you read the whole article.

Despite ongoing serious moral and legal doubts, behind the scenes the development of armed drones and unmanned systems by the military and the defence industry is proceeding at a frightening pace.  As always there is need for more transparency, accountability and a proper public debate.

Drone advocates fight back on legality and ethics

John Brennan, White House Terrorism Adviser

Over the past week there has been what looks like the beginning of a concerted effort by advocates of drones to put their case to the public.

On Monday, Obama’s chief counter-terrorism adviser, John Brennan gave a widely reported speech defending  the use of drone strikes.  Brennan stated that “in full accordance with the law—and in order to prevent terrorist attacks on the United States and to save American lives—the United States Government conducts targeted strikes against specific al-Qa’ida terrorists, sometimes using remotely piloted aircraft, often referred to publicly as drones.”  He argued that the targeted drone strikes on known individuals (he didn’t talk about or even mention the other sort of targeted drone strikes – so called ‘signature strikes’)  were not only “legal” and “ethical” but also “wise”.  (see full transcript of speech here)

Others much more knowledgeable about the intricacies of international law and targeted killing have already critiqued  the speech.  See for example ‘Thoughts on Brennan’s Speech’ by Human Rights First,  and Further Reflections About John Brennan’s Targeted Killing Speech on the ACLU blog.

Although Brennan’s speech received the most coverage, his was not the sole instance of drone supporters making their case this week.

Bill Roggio, editor of the Long War Journal –  seen by many as a kind of unofficial media outlet for those conducting ‘the war on terror’ –  made a rare TV appearance on the US cable news network, C-Span.  Several time Roggio made the point that not speaking about the drones strikes was a “public relations nightmare” and that  “the American public really should have an understanding of what we are doing”.  He argued that the US administration needed to “be more open” and  “we should be making the case as to why we are conducting this program.”

In addition it was reported this week that during a seminar organised by US think tank The Stimson Center, US Air Force Chief of Staff, Gen. Norton Schwartz, went on the offensive  in regard to the ethical questions that surround the use of drones.  As National Defense magazine, put it Schwartz insisted that ethics were ‘not a relevant question’:

“Is it more honorable for us to engage a target from an F-16 or an F-15 [manned fighter] than it is from an MQ-9 [remotely piloted aircraft]? Is that somehow more ethical? .. Oh come on,”  “We have very explicit criteria, rules of engagement, legal standards to engage a whole variety of targets.”   The issue is not whether this is ethical, he said. If a weapon is intended to strike a legitimate target that poses a threat to U.S. forces or allies, “I would argue that the manner in which you engage that target — in close combat or not — is not a terribly relevant question. … If what we’re doing is righteous, and I believe it is, the exact modality is less relevant.”

Of course none of these arguments are new.  But what is interesting is the sudden desire of those advocating or supporting drone strikes to be speaking about the issue in public.  Perhaps there is a feeling they are beginning to losing the argument? Whether this is true or not, those of us challenging the rise of the drone need to respond loudly and clearly.  Speaking of which…..

Romancing the drone…

Pretty in Pink?

Anyone with even a passing interest in the military soon discovers the peculiar phenomenon of ‘military speak’, in which a spade can never quite be called a spade.

Bombs and bullets are called ‘ordnance consumables’, a missile strike or bombing raid is known as a ‘kinetic event’, and despite its offensive purpose, the industry and its business must always be described as ‘defence’.  Military speak is essentially about maintaining a psychological distance between the day-to-day sanitized business of planning, preparing (and profiting) from armed conflicts and the awful brutal reality of warfare.

The same coyness over language applies of course to drones.  Over the past few years I‘ve lost count of the number of times I been told not to call drones ‘drones’.  The current preferred term in the military is ‘Remotely Piloted Air System’ (RPAS) after they rejected ‘Unmanned Aerial Vehicle’ (UAV) as being ‘off message’ (“such a generic term can be unhelpful, particularly when working with an uninformed audience” said the MoD last year).

The term ‘drone’, though widely used and understood by the public and media alike, is snubbed both by the military and those wanting to get a civil drone industry of the ground.  Not only is it seen as too dull a name for such a ‘sophisticated piece of kit’ but its association with death and destruction is of course problematic.

This week the Guardian revealed that the Unmanned Aerial Systems Association, a UK lobby group, is planning a public relations offensive to counter the negative image of drones.  This website (Drone Wars UK) was cited by the lobby group as part of the problem to be overcome.   They recommend  that drones deployed in the UK “be decorated with humanitarian-related advertisements, and be painted bright colours to distance them from those used in warzones”  As the guardian reports:

“John Moreland, the general secretary of UAVSA, said the industry was uncomfortable with the word “drones” and wanted to find new terminology. “If they’re brightly coloured, and people know why they’re there, it makes them a lot more comfortable,” he said.

The idea that the public could be persuaded to accept drones by painting them bright colours has rightly been mocked across the blogosphere.

A more serious strategy in the attempt to rebrand drones is for advocates to play up their potential to be used by green or human rights groups. Last week the New York Times carried a think piece arguing that drones should be used to monitor human rights abuses. Like many drones themselves however, the idea has come crashing down to earth after being comprehensively rubbished by human rights advocates (see the excellent post from Laurenist and also from Mark Kersten).  Even one noted supporter of drones, @drunkenpredator,  ridiculed the idea on twitter.

Drones do not have a negative image because of the work of Drones Wars UK, but because of the awful impact that they have in Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere, and because of the serious concern that remote warfare will mean more warfare.

The public will not be reassured by any renaming or rebranding exercise.  What is needed is for the legitimate concerns about drones in warfare and their impact on civil liberties to be taken seriously.

Industry lobbying to change drone export control rules

The main international agreement controlling  the proliferation of drones, the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), is coming under increasing pressure from drone manufacturers who see it as out-dated and ‘a drag’ on the development of their industry.

The Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) is a non-binding voluntary agreement between a number of countries who have agreed to curb the spread of unmanned delivery systems capable of delivering weapons of mass destruction.   The MTCR was originally established in 1987 by Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States, but has since grown to a total of  thirty-four.

The MTCR controls two categories of delivery systems and applicable technology.  Category One systems are capable of delivering a 500 kilogram warhead further than 300 kilometres, while Category II covers systems that carry a lighter warhead or have a range of less than 300km.   Although all decisions are taken on a national basis, and there is no sanction by other countries if the MTCR is broken, there is a “strong presumption of denial” underpinning Category One – that is, an assumption that MTCR signatory states will not export such systems.  Countries have greater discretion about exporting Category Two systems.

Although the primary focus of the agreement was to control  the spread of ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (or drones as they are commonly known) were included as they too can deliver weapons of mass destruction.

Now however, with the rapid development in the use of drones , the MTCR’s control over the export of drones is seen as an obstacle by the drone industry.  Wes Bush, CEO of US drone manufacturer  Northrop Grumman, is one  senior military industry figures who has publicly spoken out against the MTCR saying that that controls  “hurt industry” and the agreement “needs an overhaul”. 

One way that drone manufacturers have already begun to get around the controls is to make small changes to their drones to make them come under Category Two rather than Category One.   In March this year the US government cleared an unarmed version of the Predator drone for export after changes were made so it would come under MTCR Category Two rather than Category  One,  and then in May it was revealed that the Israeli manufactured ‘Dominator 2’ had also been cleared for export after changes had been made to its basic design.   Israel is not officially an  MTCR country but states that it agrees to abide by the MTCR controls.

Another suggestion for getting round the agreement made in a recent US forum on the matter is that the industry provide drone “services” to other nations rather than selling them the actual  drones, “a move which would bypass MTCR restrictions because the UAV would remain under [the selling countries] control.”  While this may sound unworkable, it should be remembered that Israel is renting its Hermes drone to the UK for use in Afghanistan on a ‘pay by the hour’ basis in a very similar way to this suggestion.

There is little publicly available information about the internal working of the MTCR as much of what happens takes place behind closed doors.  The most recent Plenary Meeting of MTCR countries took place in April 2011 in Argentina where discussion about the impact of the MTCR on the growth of the drone market clearly took place as this International Institute for Strategic Studies briefing, written before the meeting, makes clear:

“Several MTCR member states, and their defence aerospace industries, have an interest in considering how the regime addresses medium- and high-altitude long-endurance (MALE/HALE) UAVs. With domestic defence budgets coming under pressure, there is renewed impetus in identifying additional export markets for these types of UAVs, including commercial and paramilitary applications. The present MTCR guidelines are a hindrance and complicate their sale.”

While the bland statement issued at the end of the meeting made no mention of these ‘rumblings’ (as the ISS called them), it is clear that pressure is continuing to be applied behind the scenes.

Aviation Week quoted an (unnamed) CEO of one UAV company talking about the issue: “People will say ‘You’re only doing this because you want to sell more UAVs’, and that’s exactly what we want to do.”

We shall be monitoring industry lobbying on this issue.  If anyone has any info to share we shall be delighted to receive it.

Drones for Peace?

On 7  September the awkwardly named ASTRAEA (Autonomous Systems Technology Related Airborne Evaluation & Assessment) programme held its annual conference at the Royal Aeronautical Society in central London.

The aim of the ASTRAEA programme is “to enable the use of drones (sorry, Unmanned Aircraft Systems) in all classes of airspace without the need for restrictive or specialised conditions of operation”. In other words its an ‘industry-led’ programme to develop systems and technology to allow drones to fly in civilian airspace in the UK.  The programme has a £62m budget and is 50% funded by the tax-payer and 50% by AOS, BAE Systems, Cassidian, Cobham, QinetiQ, Rolls-Royce and Thales.

Tim Robinson from the Royal Aeronautical Society has written a thorough report on the conference, cheerily called ‘Drones for Peace’ on the RAES blog.  While ASTRAEA likes to portray itself as about ensuring the safety of the public, the real guardian of public safety in respect of airspace, the Civil Aviation authority (CAA) told delegates at the conference ‘that it is for industry and the [drone] community to prove that it will meet standards – “whatever you propose it must be safe” said John Clark from the UK CAA according to Tim Robinson’s report.  Given the amount of drones that crash, it would seem that there is a very long way to go before it can be argued that drones are safe to fly in civil airspace.

Another concern of the conference was to highlight the civil use of drones.  This is in part about demonstrating that there are ‘exploitable markets’ beyond military use and partly about trying to  reassure a sceptical public that drones are ‘a good thing’.  Environmental surveys, monitoring protection of wildlife habitats and disaster relief were all highlighted as potential uses of drones.  And it is certainly true that drones have the potential to be used for good.  But before we get carried away let’s not forget who is funding ASTRAEA:  BAE Systems, Cobham, QinetiQ, Rolls-Royce and Thales the biggest military companies in the UK.  ASTRAEA is first and foremost a military project.

And that leads to what Tim Robinson called in his post the greatest challenge to drones: the ‘public perception’ issue.

As noted earlier (almost) all military usage so far has skewed public perceptions that they are ‘killer’, ‘spy’ ‘robots’, evoking thoughts of big brother ‘drones’ snooping far above…  However, these cultural concerns over ‘machines taking over’ – which stretch all the way back to Luddites, the Industrial revolution, through to Metropolis, Terminator films and Blade Runner – should not be easily dismissed. The public, politicians and media need engaging and reassuring that these drones can be a ‘force for good’. As a study by aviation consultancy Helios notes: “A concerted effort needs to be made to sell the efficiency, environmental and agility benefits that UAS offer over manned aircraft operations.”

This need to “engage the public” has so far led the ASTRAEA  to launching a video competition to “improve the public perception” of drones.  The contest, won by ACC Media of the University of Central Lancashire can be seen below.

We have previously reported that the UK MoD has stressed the need to develop a communication strategy to win over public opinion about drones.   With industry now joining in, it seems we will be bombarded with more propaganda aimed at connecting in our minds the word ‘drone’ and the word ‘peace’.  The age of Big Brother has truly arrived, in more ways than one.