Drone Wars: The Long-Term Implications


BMI View: Recent years have seen a sharp increase in the use of drones by the US in its war against Islamist militants. This practice is becoming mo re controversial, but the biggest consequence could be the ' robot-isation ' of wars, as more countries acquire drones. The advent of 'drone wars' also raises serious ethical questions.

Recent years have seen a sharp increase in the use of drones - unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) - principally by the United States in its war against Islamist militants . The drones are piloted remotely , sometimes from a distance of many thousands of kilometres /miles , and are used either to survey the militants or to attack them directly. The US has mostly used these drones in Pakistan and Afghanistan , but also at various times in Iraq, Libya, Somalia and Yemen. Although most of the victims of drone strikes have been militants or suspected terrorists, at least several hundred civilians are believed to have been killed by drones since the early 2000s. The London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates that the CIA has used UAVs to carry out 362 strikes in Pakistan since 2004, 310 of which were ordered by President Barack Obama. Their estimates of casualties in Pakistan are as many as 3,491 deaths, including up to 891 civilians.

Why Is The US Using Drones?

There are t hree main reasons why the US is favouring drones. The first is to put its pilots out of harm ' s way, thus reducing the risk of American casualties. If manned fighter jets are shot down and their pilots are killed or captured and shown on television , this would incur political costs in the US. Secondly, drones allow the US to pursue a relatively low-key air campaign against its enemies abroad. The hitherto lack of oversight by the US Congress or judiciary has allowed the Obama administration to quietly attack its enemies at will. Missions by remote-controlled aircraft simply do not attract as much attention as those carried about by manned fighter jets. Thirdly, drones are much cheaper than manned combat aircraft.

The Negative Consequences Of Using Drones

Despite the seemingly low risk s for countries such as the US using drones to strike their enemies, the consequences of this policy are in fact already quite high , and could prove far-reaching for the future of warfare .

More casual wars: Precisely because using drones is perceived as a low-risk option, their use could make politicians more casual about launching strikes on targets abroad. In other words, in future the US or any other country with large numbers of drones could go to war more easily, perhaps without giving adequate consideration as to whether th e war is prudent. There is also a risk that a conflict that begins with the use of drones quickly escalates to a level where human soldiers are required to enter the fray. Wars are almost never won by the use of airpower alone. For example, China and Japan could deploy drones in the skies above the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku islands over the next few years , and subsequently find themselves having to back up the ir UAVs with naval vessels that could be drawn into any skirmishes initiated by drones .

Civilian casualties: Rising civilian casualties could make drone strikes more controversial. In particular, the United States ' use of drones will be seen as cowardly by the countries of the victims, because no American soldiers are put in harm ' s way, and yet their airstrikes may kill dozens of people. This perception is already true of the use of high-flying manned aircraft, whose pilots are relatively safe from ground-fire, but will increase if the strike aircra ft have no pilot s . The discrepancy between zero risks for drone pilots and high risks for civilians on the ground could further inflame anti-American sentiment. Pakistan's ambassador to the US warned in early February 2013 that US drone attacks generate deep resentment in her country and radicalise some of the population .

Legality issues: The use of drone strikes has raised a number of legal issues, mainly pertaining to their oversight. Much of the debate in the US has focused not so much on civilian casualties, but rather the secrecy surrounding the programme, and whether the US government is allowed to target its own citizens abroad, if they are known to be working for terrorist groups. In September 2011, a US drone strike in Yemen killed Anwar al-Awlaki, an American -born cleric who had become leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Critics wondered whether the US president had the right to eliminate Americans in such a manner. The drone programme was a key focus of the US Senate Intelligence Committee, when it questioned President Obama's nominee for CIA director, John Brennan, in early February 2013. The use of drones also further blurs the line between war and peace.

Foreign policy strains: American drone strikes also strain relatio ns with its allies, because the attacks are seen as violations of sovereignty and cause casualties. For example, Pakistan and Afghanistan are both US Major Non-NATO Allies, but the US has struck targets within their territories repeatedly. This has increased anti-Americanism and soured ties between Washington, Islamabad, and Kabul.

Rising mistrust on the ground: According to a report in the New York Times of December 29, 2012, Islamists in the tribal regions of Pakistan have carried out reprisals against local communities for drone strikes. The reason is that the militants often fear that the Americans have provided selected locals with tracking devices used to target them. When militants kill real or imagined informers, this exacerbates mistrust within local communities , and increases the risks of local conflicts .

Drone strikes don ' t stabilise countries : Although the assassinations by drone strikes of key al-Qaed a militants can be considered ' success es ' from the Americans ' point of view, some operations, such as that which killed Osama bin Laden in 2011, still require risky missions with special forces on the ground. In any case, Islamist militancy is now so diffuse that the killing of one top militant leader is insufficient to curb the global threat. In addition, Islamist militants do not appear to have any trouble replenishing their ranks. Repeated drone strikes have not helped restore stability in countries such as Afghanistan, Somalia, and Yemen.

Transformation of military culture: Although drone pilots are far from harm's way, anecdotal reports mention psychological stresses caused to them by the dichotomy of going to war remotely as a day job and returning home to a normal domestic life in the evening. A report in Der Spiegel magazine in December 2012 interviewed several US drone pilots, discussing symptoms such as their feelings of disconnection from humanity and post-traumatic stress disorder. Meanwhile, a 2009 book, Wired For War , which we reviewed on our riskwatchdog.com blog on March 9, 2010, raises the possibility of new schisms emerging between remote warriors and those that fight on the ground, i.e., soldiers who fight from a great distance and those who risk their lives fighting on the battlefield .

The Long-Term Implications Of The Drone Wars

All of the above points are likely to become more salient as the use of drones increases. Beyond near-term considerations, there are several longer-term implications which are emerging:

Drone arms race: Although the US has the largest number of drones and has been the most transparent about its arsenal , at least 10 other countries are known to have drones of various kinds , namely China, France, Germany, India, Iran, Israel, Italy, Russia, Turkey, and the United Kingdom. In addition, many more nations are likely to purchase them. Going forward, as the use of drones becomes increasingly common, existing fleets are likely to be expanded. The key risk is that more drones, combined with a relatively casual attitude towards their use, will lead to more ' drone wars ' that quickly escalate into conflicts that will require human soldiers. Eventually, even non-state actors such as rebel groups or terrorists could acquire drones for the purposes of carrying out attacks. Furthermore, although much of the publicity surrounding drones has focused on UAVs, we expect to see more unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) and unmanned s ea (or submarine) vehicles (USVs) put to use . Eventually, countries may have to negotiate arm s control treaties to limit their arsenals of drones.

Domestic use of drones: Although publicity surrounding drone strikes has focused on US attacks overseas, UAVs are likely to find a growing domestic market. According to the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), there could be 10,000 civilian drones in use in the United States within the next five years. Some of the ir uses may be relatively benign , such as the monitoring of traffic and forest fires , disaster relief, and border surveillance, but they could increasingly be used for spying purposes, heightening public concerns about a 'big brother' state. Certainly, authoritarian states are likely to have few restraints on the use of drones at home.

Cyber warfare and drones: As drones become more commonly used, and cyber warfare becomes more frequent , countries operating drones will need to become more vigilant about computer security, lest their enemies hack into their drone fleets either to neutralise them or turn them against their owners. A few years ago, Iraqi insurgents reportedly tapped into the video feed of a US drone using cheap software, and in late 2011 Iran claimed to have hacked into an American drone in order to capture it. Even if Tehran exaggerated its claims, the incident raised the spectre of drone operators losing control of their vehicles to foreign enemies.

' Man versus machines ' negative publicity: As drones become more commonly used, the ethics of using them is bound to stir more debate, and we would expect to see a backlash . News footage broadcast around the world of unmanned tanks or other armoured vehicles suppressing crowds of humans would be very negative for the reputation of the country operating the drones, and the protestors w ould surely seek to promote the ' man versus machines ' narrative to boost their support . These fears could be exacerbated if the human element in decision-making on drone strikes is removed and given to computers . The Washington Post of September 20, 2011 referred to this possibility, noting that scientific advances could allow UAVs to identify human targets by facial-recognition software and attack them accordingly. Although this prospect seems far-fetched at present, as computer s become more sophisticated we can envisage drones being given more ' autonomy ' over the ir actions in the coming decades. The advent of autonomous machines would raise further legal questions about responsibility of action, sin ce machines cannot be punished, and make many people uncomfortable.

This article is tagged to:
Sector: Country Risk
Geography: Somalia, Global, Japan, China, Japan, Pakistan, Somalia, United States, Yemen, Global, Global

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