Attack of the drones: phantom menace or new hope of western warfare?

The number of US drone strikes has increased under President Obama. Is this the future of aerial warfare and what would this future look like?

Drones and the Western way of war

Drone strikes are seen as the future of aerial warfare. Most importantly, they abide with the western way of war. Air power reduces risks to Western combat forces while acting as a force multiplier. Western forces reduce the so called ‘body bag’ effect; the use of dead servicemen to sway public opinion.

Air power has been the dominant factor in recent conflicts. The 1991 Gulf War was characterised by an extensive aerial bombardment which softened up, or destroyed, Iraqi armour before ground troops went in. The same occurred in Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq. Libya was an interesting case as it followed a model of warfare which Western, particularity US and UK, forces have been developing; that of air forces assisting local troops supported by special forces.

The rise of the drone is important both militarily and domestically (sometimes the two are related).

The number of drone strikes are increasing. There were 52 strikes under George W Bush’s presidency. This number increased to 252 over the last three years. Drone strikes are now a frequent occurrence in the remote tribal regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan.  One drone can accomplish a mission instead of deploying a task force or requiring a logistically and diplomatically challenging mission involving special forces.

A decade ago, less than five per cent of aircraft in the US military were unmanned. That number now stands at 40 percent. The F-22 Raptor and the F-35 JSF may be the last manned fighter aircraft to see service in Western forces.

Analysts are predicting a rise of drone use in civilian markets. Police forces, councils, engineers, farmers and search and rescue teams can all benefit from drones. A drone can stay in the air far longer than humans can endure and can reach areas where human lives will not be put at risk. They are cheaper and less conspicuous than helicopters allowing law enforcement agencies to conduct surveillance operations with a greater degree of discretion.

Most Western economies rely on high-tech manufacturing and provide jobs to thousands of people. The industry is there and so is the imagination.

Drones may have a role in journalism. War correspondents can take footage in conflict zones and beam it directly back to the studio. This can lead to greater accountability but raises problems with press ethics in other areas.

Drones and the rest

There are problems with drones however.

The US claims drone strikes have helped to disrupt terrorist cells by targeting al Qaeda leadership in Pakistan. Pakistan views US drone strikes as a breach of sovereignty which further fuels anti-American sentiments, creating a cycle of warfare that generates new combatants for US drones to strike. The main issue is that most strikes occur in the autonomous, lawless, tribal regions of Pakistan. Is this really an invasion of sovereignty? Maybe not; but to the families of civilians it is much more.

This leads to the next criticism of drone strikes, ethics and morality.

Over the past eight years there have been 343 drone strikes in Pakistan. The number of civilian casualties ranges from 474 – 881. Most of these were avoidable, such as targeting weddings and funerals. The issue is that of follow-up strikes. A follow-up strike started as a tactic of terrorists. The initial blast would detonate; then when emergency services and civilians turned up to aid the wounded, a second device would detonate claiming more lives. These tactics are now being used with drones.

Counter-insurgency is commonly referred to as a grey area in warfare. Critics would argue that the American response to other nation states using these tactics would be damning. The fact is warfare changes. The main security issues facing the West since the end of the Cold War has shrunk from nuclear and great power conflict to terrorism.

Issues about the morality of drone strikes will depend on opinion. There is always contention in military affairs and drones are no different. I’ll pose this question to raise an issue for us to think about: Is a terrorist that boards a bus with the intention to kill civilians to achieve a desired goal any different from a US drone strike on what intelligence sources say is a militant compound?

The argument is that Western forces seek to avoid civilian casualties wherever possible but a reliance on technology to keep its personnel out of harms way redirects this danger to civilians. The danger is this leads to accidental civilian deaths becoming a ‘norm’ that is unavoidable.

Drones pose problems in the civilian realm as well. The most obvious issues being breach of privacy and state surveillance. Journalists, councils and the public could use drones for ‘snooping’, you can buy a drone from £30 to £275 on Amazon, and as digital photography gets smaller and more reliable, laws will have to created or amended to deal with civil drone use.

Future battles

The hardest thing to predict is the future. Whatever it is drones will most likely have a large part to play in the future of society; both militarily and domestically.

In 1908 H.G. Wells published the War in the Air in which he envisioned German ‘aerial navies’ bombing Britain and New York with mankind being reduced to barbarism. Similarly Alexander de Seversky, a Russian engineer who immigrated to America, argued in his book Victory through Airpower that the United States would be exposed to air attack and that it should preparefor an inter-hemispheric war across nations.

While this works were theory and science fiction, their main prophecies came true. The issue of drones is a real one and should be discussed more by open societies.


Questions to Kim Sengupta

Yesterday Kim Sengupta, defence correspondent for The Independent, recently returned from Aleppo, answered questions from the online community. Unfortunately, I couldn’t stay to view the whole discourse but my question was answered:

Q. What reaction was there from fighters regarding Kofi Annan’s resignation, the role played by the UN and the £5 million in British non-lethal aid? – John, Brighton

A.The fighters regarded the Annan plan as dead in the water a long time ago. They do not appear to have much faith on the UN and, increasingly, any peace plan; the feeling is that the military option is the only one left unless President Assad and his circle leave Syria. There was some curiosity about the British aid with questions about how exactly the money would be disseminated and spent.

This was followed by a good question from Wael.

Do you think providing the opposition with more developed weapons can help end this crisis faster? How do you evaluate the public support of the SFA inside Syria? Can you see any prospect for a solution? – Wael

A. It is undoubtedly the case that the rebels need heavier weapons facing what they do from the regime. In particular they are in need of anti-aircraft missiles and anti-tank weapons. Part of the problem about arming them, I gather from people who are supplying the arms, is that the rebels have, so far, failed to form cohesive bodies through whom distribution can take place, Instead individual khatibas (battalions) send their own shopping lists. Any solution must start with a proper cease-fire which can be monitored. I am afraid that on the ground the chances of that seem further away than ever.

It’s all well and good sending non-lethal aid. But against a regime with heavy weaponry, including tanks, gunships and fighter jets, this aid may soon end up in the hands of Assad’s supporters. What the Free Syrian Army (FSA) really needs is weaponry. This view was expressed by a Syrian doctor – a doctor of all people – in an article by Kim Sengupta.

“We need weapons, anti-tank, anti-aircraft, anything we can get hold of.”

Fears of escalating the conflict are well founded but from which angle? Iran and Russia will lose an ally in the region if Assad is overthrown while groups like Hezbollah can only gain from the turmoil. Meanwhile the West speaks of the appalling atrocities of the Assad regime but fails to act decisively.  Whatever the outcome Syria, and the Middle-East, will remain unstable.

The situation in Syria has spread to neighbouring countries. From the kidnapping  of Iranian ‘pilgrims’ and differing sects from Lebanon, to refugees fleeing to Turkey and Jordan. Yet today the UN will meet to discuss whether to establish a new civilian office to end the conflict.

As Mr Sengupta said, the fighters viewed the peace plan dead a long time ago. Both sides believe they can win militarily yet one is under equipped to remain in the struggle for much longer.

Where there is a will there is a way. But a lack of political will means the conflict can only end one way; further violence and the uncertainty that follows.

Annan resigns over UN failure to intervene while Jihadists act

Kofi Annan’s resignation proves the United Nations cannot resolve the Syrian crisis diplomatically and its role must change.

Kofi Annan had a tough job. Trying to enforce a peace plan with a lack of observers against a regime hell-bent on cracking down on its opposition. And all this against the backdrop of indecision within his own organisation.

In an article in the Financial Times Annan said: “The international community has seemed strikingly powerless in its attempts to influence the brutal course of events – but this is by no means inevitable.”

The truth is the International Community has begun to act. But this isn’t a reference to Barrack Obama signing a supposedly ‘covert’ order authorising US agencies to support the Free Syrian Army (FSA) or Saudi Arabia providing cash. It’s relation is to al-Qaeda and other Jihadists taking action.

Al-Qaeda and other groups have not been dormant since bin Laden’s death.  A new foothold has been established in northern Mali. Historic buildings have been desecrated and an unmarried couple have been stoned to death for committing adultery.

Both the FSA and the Jihadists want Assad to be removed; but both seek a different future for Syria. This clash of ideologies will determine the future of the region- even if the proxy war develops.

There are arguments that the violence brought by a UN intervention would lead to an unstable transitional period followed by sectarian violence. It is more than likely this will occur anyway, the issue is who will combat it?

The Assad regime is witnessing it’s final days – if the word of analysts is to be believed. Even if the regime remains intact, the violence will continue. It will have to suppress any dissidents as well as a new wave of Jihadists. If the FSA take control further clashes will result except the remnants of the army and an exhausted FSA may have to combat a new insurgency.

In his FT article, Annan closes with: “Is ours an international community that will act in defence of the most vulnerable of our world, and make the necessary sacrifices to help?”

The UN was created to prevent great power conflict. Much like national militaries must assess the changing strategic landscape, the UN must adapt to civil wars and popular uprisings.

As the battle for Aleppo, and the future of Syria and the Middle East as a whole rages on, the UN must realise its failure to decisively intervene will lead to clashes it cannot hope to control.