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Droning on

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This post is part of the Remote-control warfare debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

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5 May 2010 11:06


This post is part of the Remote-control warfare debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

James Brown has worked as an Australian Defence Force officer and completed his Masters in Strategic Studies in 2009. These are his personal views.

The recent posts on the use of predator drones draw out three key issues. Firstly, are they legal or ethical? Secondly, are they effective? Finally, and quite bizarrely, is fighting with drones manly, courageous, or honourable?

Let me consider the last point first. Christina Enemark mentioned that 'the use of drones potentially challenges traditional notions of honour, courage and masculinity'. In the considerable time I’ve spent talking to drone jockeys and targeteers none of those concepts have been important factors in how they do their job. Those operators are happy to leave pontificating on masculinity to poets, philosophers, and singer-songwriters. Drone pilots derive the same professional satisfaction from making tough decisions under demanding circumstances as any other professional. They don’t drive home through the Nevada desert feeling that they haven’t done their bit in the war.

The legality of drone strikes is a more intriguing question. Enemark quotes The UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions who states that 'Predators are being operated in a framework which may well violate international humanitarian law and international human rights law' — a conclusion Philip Alston came to after a total of 11 days on the ground in Afghanistan in 2008. Alston’s report draws heavily from this ICRC report, which itself is based on outdated international humanitarian law framed with a WW2-like battlefield in mind.

The test of whether someone is a targetable combatant is whether they are directly participating in hostilities. State Department legal expert Harold Koh mentions here the robust processes which determine who will be targeted for drone strikes. Coalition targeting approval processes in Afghanistan are extremely rigid, with multiple levels of internal military and external civilian oversight —including now the Afghan government. The problem in understanding these processes is that Jack Bauer and other TV heroes have conditioned us to expect that drone strikes occur instantaneously and easily. This is far from the truth. Like all other aspects of war, drone operations require plenty of detailed planning, patience, and a degree of good luck.

Philip Alston’s problem with drone operations seems to be less that the US doesn’t have robust targeting processes, and more that he doesn’t have access to them. Nor should he. Professor Alston is an expert in many things but sensitive intelligence source handling is not one of them. If Alston wants to understand how drone targets are selected, he should join the military or run for political office.

Enemark notes arguments that suggest drone strikes are ineffective because they create a siege mentality amongst Pakistani citizens, lack a concurrent information campaign, and ultimately only temporarily reduce insurgent leadership capacity. I wholeheartedly agree on the second point. I’d argue though that the siege mentality in Pakistan comes more from constant insurgent attacks in Pakistan’s towns and cities than from drone strikes in sparsely populated and inaccessible areas in the North West provinces. The suggestion that drone strikes provide little disruption to enemy operations is misguided. Drone strikes and surveillance place constant pressure on insurgent networks — forcing them into extremely complex procedures to carry out their everyday business. When drone strikes decapitate terrorist and insurgent leadership figures, the disruption to enemy networks buys space and time for conventional military operations inside Afghanistan.

Decisions on the use of drone strikes don’t occur in a vacuum. They are made by professionals acutely sensitive to the issue of civilian casualties. They are also made with an excruciatingly aware consideration of the military alternatives. Ethical and legal debates over the use of remotely piloted drones are important, but shouldn’t neglect a consideration of the practical alternative military courses of action. Nor should they fail to consider the consequences if the military didn’t act at all.

Photo by Flickr user dragsterhund, used under a Creative Commons licence.