The proliferation of drones, otherwise known as unmanned aerial vehicles, is one of the most alarming developments in modern warfare since the invention of the atom bomb.
There are two types, the surveillance and armed drones. Surveillance drones are used to discover what an enemy force are doing, while the armed drones rain death from on high.
This form of warfare has been presented as clinical and accurate in its conduct. It also makes conflict more likely because the combatant in possession of the drones can launch attacks without fear of reprisal in terms of taking casualties.
Critics have referred to the “playstation mentality” that develops among operators who sit in military headquarters in the UK or US manouvering these lethal weapons in far away countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen.
One particularly gruesome approach to this form of killing comes with secondary attacks. These see a drone attack kill a number of people on the ground, only to then hover above until others come around to investigate and then fire again on the new arrivals.
The US and Israel have been major developers of this new killing technology, though Britain is not far behind. Israel has tested the technology in the occupied territories.
In 2001, the Pentagon had 50 weaponised drones, today it has more than 10,000. They cost around US$12 million each, compared to US$60 million for a fully armed aircraft.
There has been a particular growth in the use of armed drones under the presidency of Barak Obama. Once seen as a man of peace, it was revealed recently how the President has a weekly meeting with officials when a “kill list” is put together.
Many of these drone attacks are overseen by the civilian CIA and are occurring in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia – countries that the US is not at war with. This has raised the question as to whether these are not just extrajudicial killings. The legality of such conduct under international law has yet to be tested in the courts. UN special rapporteur on extra-judicial killings Christof Heyns has said that the secondary strikes by drones amount to war crimes
The other US users of drone technology are the military who deploy them in conflict zones like Afghanistan and Iraq – this though seems a somewhat different scenario to the attacks being made in countries where there is no conflict involving the US.
The UK has five drones, with Prime Minister David Cameron committing to increase the fleet to 10 over the next few years. The RAF operated Reaper drones being used in Afghanistan are controlled from the Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, via satellite. There is though also to be control from RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire soon.
In 2005 the British government placed an £800 million order for Watchkeeper drones to be used for surveillance, reconnaissance and targeting for the army’s artillery regiment. The Watchkeeper is based on the Israeli Hermes 450 drone and is being built by U-Tacs Limited, a joint venture company owned by Israeli company Elbit Systems and Thales UK.
Late last year, the UK boasted its 200th drone strike in Afghanistan. The British forces are less forthcoming with detail of the lives lost as a result of these attacks.
One of the big pluses from the point of view of those using the drones is that they can attack in foreign countires without putting their own military personnel at risk. But as Dr Peter Lee, senior air power lecturer from Kings College London and the Royal Air Force College at Cranwell, warned drone technologies can lead to a more rapid escalation to military means as a way to settle disagreements.
“The last 100 years is a lesson in the invention of aerial technology that has killed ever more people,” said Dr Lee, who also told how President Obama had launched six times as many drone air strikes as President Bush.
There must be real concerns about the humanity and legality of using armed drones in this way. It is a sanitisation of the killing process. So a military operative can be sitting at his desk directing a drone 1000s of miles away in Afghanistan or Pakistan. Deaths may result. That officer will then return home to his wife and children. It is not possible to live in a moral vacuum. We all have to take responsibility for our actions. This must also include making government’s accountable for what they are doing with this destructive new form of killing technology.