The debate over military technology: in defence of drones

Non-governmental organisations have joined forces to stop the increasing use of drones in warfare - do governments need to develop guidelines for their use? EPA/Jim Lo Scalzo

The increasing use of drones, especially by the United States against the Taliban in Pakistan, has prompted wide anti-drone activism. Human Rights Watch has called for a “pre-emptive and comprehensive ban” on autonomous weapons and “killer robots”, while a new NGO launched in London has the less than subtle name of Campaign to Stop Killer Robots.

In his May 23 speech on counter-terrorism, US president Barack Obama announced a new framework to shift drone use away from the CIA, and back towards the military. During the speech he was interrupted by Medea Benjamin from anti-war group Code Pink, who yelled:

I love the rule of law! The drones are making us less safe!

Fear of new technology – especially military technology – is by no means a new phenomenon. British citizens during World War I were terrified of aerial bombardment by Zeppelins.

For the sci-fi obsessive today who foresees the rise of intelligent killing machines to the libertarian worried about their privacy to the moral campaigner who sees unmanned agents of death as a violation of human rights, drones are fast becoming a new symbol of fear.

Fear of drones is understandable to an extent, but it is facile and ultimately pointless to think that they can – or even should – be banned. This is not to say that there should be no effort to regulate them. According to the UN special rapporteur, Christof Heyns, drones represent one of the largest challenges to the system of international law since the World War Two.

But Obama’s announcement of a new framework was instructive for two reasons. It signalled clearly that the US was self-regulating the use of drones after only eight years of the “targeted killing” program. Although controversial, it had been remarkably successful in achieving its operational goal of incapacitating militants and deterring violence.

Washington’s shift in attitude was also much swifter than responses to many other pressing challenges in international law. It took 50 years, for instance, for states to grudgingly agree to the Rome Statute to establish the International Criminal Court (ICC), and even now many countries observe no legal obligation to it. Most of the major powers, like Russia, the US, China and India have been actively hostile to the ICC.

Here, human rights campaigners would exclaim that not only is the US so arrogant that it refuses to be bound by an international court, it increasingly uses drones to violate Pakistani sovereignty and kill innocent people.

This is a peculiar logic, because it is criticising the US for first upholding the principle of state sovereignty, and then for not upholding it. It is also curious that human rights campaigners, which include most anti-drone activists, are frequently – for reasons best known to themselves – much more critical of relatively law-abiding democracies than countries with rather weaker human rights records.

The clearest argument in favour of drones, though, is that they actually don’t kill large numbers of people at all. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has estimated that CIA drone strikes in Pakistan have killed between 2,500 and 3,000 people since 2004.

That’s roughly 250-300 people who have been killed per year. But only 411 of those deaths were civilian, and progressive improvements in accuracy have meant that “non-militant” deaths accounted for less than 2% of all drone-inflicted casualties in 2012. This stands in direct contrast to the military occupation in Afghanistan, where an estimated 19,000 civilians – and that figure is on the low side – have been killed over the past decade.

A US MQ-9 Reaper drone, the first hunting drone designed for long-endurance, high-altitude surveillance. Official US Air Force

Claims that drones are “cowardly” are similarly problematic. This is the idea that the greater the physical distance from the point of conflict, the more cowardly the soldier: in this case, the drone operator. Yet similar claims were made of aircraft in World War I (that they made war “unsporting”), and the world has known ballistic missiles for over half a century.

The attendant notion that drones make war “sterile” is just as fallacious as believing that “surgical strikes” somehow makes war cleaner. War has always been a messy and bloody business because it involves violence, and the development of drones is simply a new manifestation of this.

Drones are therefore becoming a fact of warfare, and the US is not alone in integrating unmanned systems into its defence forces. China has an active drone program and recently considered using them in Myanmar to counter drug-trafficking. Indonesia’s drone program, underway since 2004, includes the “Wulung” drone that is primarily used for surveillance. But weaponising them is a relatively simple process.

For its part, Australia is actively embracing drones as vital tools on the modern battlefield. The recently released Defence White Paper tacitly calls for further integration of unmanned equipment into the force. Currently, the ADF uses leased Israeli Heron drones in Afghanistan, but lags behind many global and regional competitors. At the same time, Australia is likely to becoming increasingly linked to (and reliant on) the core US systems.

The answer, then, is not to fear drones irrationally. They are a reality, and will become more widespread in militaries worldwide. In fact, drones bring many benefits to the Australian Defence Force. They are cheap, for one thing: a Predator drone costs only A$4 million compared to A$67 million for an F/A-18 Super Hornet. They ameliorate many of the costs associated with maintaining large standing armies, or a large border protection service. They enable better integration with US forces, and the technology used to develop them often has highly marketable civilian applications.

Killer robots? Yes, at times. But the decision to kill is not made by the drone. That, alas, remains an altogether human trait.

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