Spy in the sky: the secret life of drones

By Neil Andrews

Drones are becoming faster, deadlier, and more sophisticated, and they are being deployed at a dizzying rate.  Since 2001, over 11,000 Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV’s), as they are technically known, have been dispatched by the US Air Force and the CIA.  Some are used purely for surveillance, such as the “Watchkeeper”, but other models, like the “Predator” and “Reaper” drones, are armed with state-of-the-art missiles and used to eliminate terrorist suspects at the touch of a button.

Since the Balkans conflict, drones have served a functional military purpose.  Only since 9/11, however, have they taken on a more potent guise.  Free to roam the airspaces of Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, the miniature aircraft (typically around 10 metres in length) have found renewed utility in America’s global “war on terror”.  Their operation is simple in practice.  A team of three control a drone from a trailer in Nevada’s remote desert: one flies, another swivels the cameras, and a third relays information back and forth with ground troops.  Designated targets are then tracked and killed in a calculated and clinical manner.  It is this, the instantaneous nature of the drone strike, which has alarmed many human rights activists.

So far, drones in Pakistan alone have killed a reported 3,000 people.  The Pentagon argues that they offer a precise way of eliminating targets and are inexpensive compared to modern fighter jets.  UAV’s are also seen as a welcome addition to America’s waning war chest, and are perceived to be a necessary component of the fight against al-Qaeda.  Indeed, American lawyers argue that, under Article 51 of the UN Charter, a nation is well within their rights to use military force to prevent an “imminent threat”.  But how is ‘imminent’ defined?  Someone may be a ‘suspected’ terrorist, but how can those barking orders from Washington judge whether or not a person poses an immediate threat?  Needless to say, this is a grey area.

The UK is not an innocent party, either.  Theresa May, the Home Secretary, has come under increasing scrutiny over claims that the government is stripping British people of their citizenship, moments before sanctioning their death via drone strike.  Indeed, the passports of no less than 16 Britons have been rescinded in the past three years for this very purpose.  Since a 2002 Act was passed allowing the government to remove the citizenship of anyone suspected of being a “serious prejudicial” threat to the UK, the Home Secretary has shown little restraint over implementing such powers.  The case of Bilal al-Berjawi, a British-Lebanese man who was killed by a UAV in Somalia last year, bears testimony to this.  Yet, the government is quick to distance itself from any involvement in these aerial assassinations.

There is much to be talked about regarding the use and abuse of drones.  They can be a source for good – some are used to aid police forces, fight crime, or even to collect data from volcanoes or map archaeological sites.  The American government has even commissioned scientists to design surveillance drones that mimic the behaviour and flight of hummingbirds and insects.

There are pitfalls too.  Those controlling the drones circling Pakistan run the risk of becoming desensitised to death and detached from their actions, watching someone die on a small monitor is not the same as looking a man in the eye with a loaded gun.  Drone warfare has the potential to become something akin to a video game.  Yet the precision and accuracy of drones, though not perfect, may actually be a harbinger of human rights, it offers a way of combating military threats without the need to put boots on the ground, and with fewer casualties.

Still, this does not explain away the civilian deaths linked to UAV strikes, of which there have been many, nor does it make us feel any better about the moral and ethical minefields surrounding their use.  Unmanned aircraft may have been designed with good intentions, but it is important that those operating them are held rigorously to account.  If they are not, the world’s skies will soon be dotted with countless random killing machines.


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