London Progressive Journal readers may be aware of growing concerns about the use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), or drones. Drones are a new weapon of war, used in the wars in Afghanistan (by the American and British militaries) and previously used by the Israeli military in Gaza, for the purpose of surveying and killing those deemed ‘terrorists’. Drones allow the operator the ‘opportunity’ to assassinate a target anywhere anytime with little personal risk, thus leading to a further asymmetry in warfare.
Considering the actions of these states, and their poor records in respecting human rights globally, can they be trusted with a weapon that gives them the power to take out any individual deemed a ‘terrorist’?
Concerns raised about the increasing use of armed drones in war include ‘accidental’ deaths and disputed claims of accuracy, as well as the physical distance between drone operators and the people they target. It is feared that this distance could lead to a sense of detachment from the damage they cause.
There are also complicated legal issues surrounding the use of drones, including the controversial assassination of ‘high value targets’, which led Christof Heyns, UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, to voice concern in October 2011. He said:
‘International standards provide adequate room for states to pursue their legitimate security interests, both at home and abroad. Abusing them to meet short-term needs, especially in counter-terrorism operations, could do long-term damage to the protection of human rights.’
The American Civil Liberties Union and the US Centre for Constitutional Rights have recently challenged the CIA on their use of drones as a means of assassination.
Armed drones open up a new front in aerial warfare which began with aerial bombing in 1911, when the Italian Army Air Corps bombed a Turkish camp at Ain Zara, in Libya. The use of unmanned aircraft can be traced back to the V1 and V2 rockets – or unguided flying bombs – used in the Second World War.
Technology has advanced at an alarming rate, and the distance between operator and target is now more than 7,000 miles, with an almost total absence of risk to the operator. This has dramatically widened the ‘asymmetrical warfare gap’ seen in many of today’s conflicts, increasing force protection and reducing armed forces’ mortality for a country possessing drone technology.
A document released by the MOD last year (The UK Approach to Unmanned Aircraft) further states ‘the ill-considered use of armed unmanned aircraft offers an adversary a potent propaganda weapon'[enabling] the insurgent to cast himself in the role of the underdog and the West as a cowardly bully – that is unwilling to risk his own troops, but is happy to kill remotely.‘
The ability of drones to observe the target area in detail and for long periods is the latest stage of a development that started with the use of kites to gain military intelligence in ancient China. Claims of the accuracy of armed drones are based on their ability to see detail on the ground and to hover unseen for long periods over target areas. However this observation is based on intelligence which may be far from accurate; it may be obtained in ways that encourage inaccuracy (under duress), or provide intentional inaccuracies by one side in the conflict.
Investment in increasingly sophisticated new technology represents a new arms race. In 2011, drones strikes took place in six countries (Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Libya and Palestine). The proliferation of ‘drone technology’ is a worrying phenomenon. The UK is seeking to double its fleet of Reaper drones made by US-based General Atomics, and is in the process of developing its own – Taranis and Mantis. UK Reaper drones are presently operated from the US. However from the middle of 2012, they will be based on UK soil, and the RAF-controlled drone squadron presently based at Creech USAF base in Nevada will move to RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire. Around 50 other countries are said to be seeking to buy or develop drones.
The UAV poses a risk of mechanical failure to a new level of complexity. Who exactly is accountable when something goes wrong? If the intelligence turns out to be inaccurate, are the intelligence services to blame? If a malfunction occurs, is it the responsibility of the software designers or the mechanical engineers? Or did the operator fail to see signs of family life in the house that was hit? None of these issues are new, but they are getting more complex as those controlling the weapons of war become increasingly removed from the risks of the battlefield.
Categorised in: Editorial
This post was written by Tomasz Pierscionek