Drones: PR, Proliferation and Prangs in the Pacific

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) have continued their excellent work exposing US drone strikes in Pakistan by publishing extensive new research.  According to their research, more than 160 children are among at least 2,292 people reported killed in US attacks since 2004.  In addition they suggest that there are credible reports of at least 385 civilians among the dead.   Full details including a searchable database of  drone strikes is available on thebureauinvestigates.com.

Clearly rattled, US officials have gone on the PR offensive and challenged the figures (AFP reported an anonymous US official saying “The  numbers cited by this organization are way off the mark”)  and US officals have also attempted to discredit the report by suggesting that a source, Mirza Shahzad Akbar, a Pakistani lawyer who is suing the Central Intelligence Agency on behalf of civilians has an “agenda” and has ‘possible links with Pakistani Intelligence agencies’.    However a New York Times editorial on the drone strikes this weekend challenged the CIA’s claims that no civilians have been killed saying “We find that hard to believe”.  So do a great many people.

As well as the US military going on a PR offensive,  the drone industry too is trying to challenge the ‘killer drones’ image.  According to National Defense Magazine

“the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International hosted a news conference at the National Press Club on August 10 to talk about the warm and fuzzy side of robotic machines [with] several executives on hand …to discuss the humanitarian roles of robotic equipment.”

As well as launching its PR offensive, AUVSI are trying to persuade the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) to relax the rules on flying drones in civil airspace.  AUVSI are arguing that ‘limitations to UAV flight in U.S. airspace are hindering the industry’s growth and getting in the way of job creation.’  (We have previously reported on efforts to similarly persuade the Civil Aviation Authority in the UK.)  Privacy and safety it seems have no place to limit the ‘tremendous impact’ that lifting such “restrictions” would bring. By co-incidence It was announced this week that the FAA are investigating Rupert Murdoch’s  News Corps for using a drone in civilian airspace to film flooding in North Dakota.

Drone strikes andproliferation have continued over the past two weeks – notably a strike in Yemen on 1st August killed 15 people and a strike in North Waziristan killed over twenty people on 10th August. Press reports have also indicated that Italian Predator drones are also now flying missions over Libya.    Russia is about to show off its new combat drone, Lutch, at the Moscow airshow and the Welsh Government have been granted a certificate by the local planning authority to use the Llanbedr military airfield in Snowdonia to test and develop drones.   The Welsh government are freeholders of the site and are keen to lease it to Llanbedr Airfield Estates who wish to develop  the site.

There was much press coverage in the run-up to the test flight of DARPA’s new Hypersonic drone, the Falcon, last week, including this piece in the Guardian.  The Falcon drone, built by Lockheed Martin at a cost of about $320 million, is designed to fly at twenty times the speed of sound and undertake strikes anywhere in the world in less than one hour.  Red faces all around then when the test failed and the Falcon crashed into the Pacific.  Back to the drawing board!

Internal MoD briefing on British drones reveals push to capture public opinion

An internal briefing on British drones by the leading RAF staff officer working on the controversial weapon system stresses the need for the MoD to develop a “communication strategy” to win over public opinion in support of armed drones.  As part of such a strategy, MoD Air Staff officer Wing Commander Chris Thirtle urges the MoD to “stress the equivalence of [drones] to traditional combat aircraft.”

The MoD’s Defence Current Issues Briefing on Remotely Piloted Air Systems (RPAS), commonly known as drones, comes just three months after the MoD think tank the Development, Concepts and  Doctrine Centre issued The UK Approach to Unmanned Aircraft Systems which saw clear differences between manned and unmanned  aircraft saying for example “inevitably, some unmanned aircraft activities will face legal challenge, or create moral and ethical dilemmas….”

Click to view MoD's Current Issues Briefing on RPAS (drones)

As well as stressing the importance of public opinion, the presentation also reveals some new details about British drones, including:

  • Official confirmation that RAF 39 Squadron who control British Reapers over Afghanistan from the Nevada desert will be returning from the US to work alongside the new drone squadron at RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire
  • That 2 out of 3 weapons fired from British drones are Hellfire missiles
  • That the five additional Reaper drones to be purchased from General Atomics will be in service by 2013, increasing drone flying hours in Afghanistan to 72 hours per day

While the MoD is apparently busy developing its public communications strategy on armed drones, I am still awaiting communication in response to my January 2011 request under the Freedom of Information Act for information about the 124 people killed by British drones in Afghanistan.

Debating drone use as pursuit of autonomous drones continues

Earlier this month Foreign Policy magazine website ran an article called ‘Don’t Fear the Reaper’ arguing that those opposing drones are “misleading the public” and “distracting attention away from some more important and bigger issues.”  Strong accusations indeed.  While far from being the first article that has been written arguing that drones are no worse than other weaponry (or even, a good thing), this was a seemingly well argued piece coming from two academics involved in the field of international relations and as such deserved something of a response.

Luckily Brian Terrell from Voices for Creative Nonviolence has taken up the challenge and responded with “Four Realities About Drones: War of the Killer Robots.”   As a part-time student myself,  I appreciate the academic temptation to want to disregard the messy reality of real life and simply focus on the underlying ethical issues. However drones are the concrete embodiment of those underlying ethical issues – and are being used each day to tear flesh and families apart. As such it’s our human duty to engage with both the ethical issues and the day to day reality.  Academics castigating and sneering at those who engage in public education and action on the issue is not helpful.

Meanwhile….   The ‘insatiable’ demand for drones will inevitably lead to greater autonomy according to a senior US military official this week.  The Air Force Times reported Colonel James Gear, director of the Air Force’s unmanned aircraft task force, as saying that ‘unmanned aircraft should be almost entirely automated so the humans can be productively engaged in tasks the machines aren’t good at’. We have reported before that research work is being undertaken in anticipation of this and a short report this week shows that researchers from the USAF and Wright-Patterson University in Ohio are developing systems to allow a single human operator to oversee multiple UAV’s at once often seen and the next stage towards autonomy. The ‘never ending’ and ‘sky rocketing’ demand for drones is also pushing the need for more satellite bandwidth to cope with the communications and intelligence from UAVs. According to Boeing’s Jim Simpson, vice president of business development for the space and intelligence systems sector “UAVs are standing down because there is not enough communications to utilize them.”


The push to autonomy is nicely satirised in this spoof presentation of ‘The Ethical Governor’, a fictional key component in autonomous drones, by animator John Butler.   You can read more about it here.

Defending the Drones

The latest issue of Chatham House magazine The World Today,  has a defence of the use of armed drones entitled ‘Drone Attacks: The ‘Secret’ Matrix’ by Amitai Etzioni, Professor of International Relations at The George Washington University.   Etzionoi  graciously acknowledges that there is criticism of the use of drones  but feels that these critics “pay little attention to the fact that the use of drones is subject to close oversight.”     This oversight includes a scoring system – the secret matrix of the title – which is used to determine whether a drone attack should take place.  Thus: 

A scoring system is used to evaluate potential targets. Low scores are given to high-value targets. High scores are allotted to civilians known not to be involved in acts of terror or insurgency, say a spouse. Also the number of civilians present affects the score. The higher the total score, the less likely the hit will be approved.   The way this scoring system works is illustrated by one strike that was aborted and one that was authorised. When a predator drone detected three militants planting an improvised explosive device in a road in Afghanistan on February 17, the strike was aborted after the drone’s cameras revealed children in the area. However, Baitullah Mehsud, head of the Taliban in Pakistan, was considered an asset of such high value that the presence of his wife and father-in-law were not enough to abort a strike that killed all three on August 5 last year.

What Etzioni doesn’t acknowledge is that the trouble with a ‘scoring system’ like this is that there is no referee or judge to adjudicate the score – one side decides in secret what the score is. 

Another part of the oversight that Etzioni hails is the fact that the US “often”  (shoudn’t that be ‘always’?) seeks the approval of the sovereign nations in which the drone attack is taking place.     However as Philip Alston writes in his recent report to the UN Human Rights Council:

The proposition that a State may consent to the use of force on its territory by another State is not legally controversial.  But while consent may permit the use of force, it does not absolve either of the concerned States from their obligations to abide by human rights law and IHL with respect to the use of lethal force against a specific person. The consenting State’s responsibility to protect those on its territory from arbitrary deprivation of the right to life applies at all times.  A consenting State may only lawfully authorize a killing by the targeting State to the extent that the killing is carried out in accordance with applicable IHL or human rights law.

Finally, in relation to oversight, the author suggests that as the US was attacked om September the 11th, they are ‘justified’ under Article 51 of the UN Charter in targeted assassinations as “the US is in an armed conflict with Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and associated forces”.

In his final paragraphs, Amitai Etzioni, dismisses in a rather peremptory way, the responsibility for killing civilians arguing that “the main fault lies with militants.”

If this is a representative summary of arguments in support of continuing drone strikes, they are shockingly shallow and ill-thought through.  The sooner drone strikes are consigned to history along with mustard gas and anti-personnel mines the better.