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.