Over the past decade armed British Reaper drones, remotely controlled by RAF pilots at RAF Waddington or Creech Air Force Base, have launched hundreds of air strikes in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria and have supported and enabled hundreds more US strikes. The UK has moved from acquiring a handful of these systems for temporary use in Afghanistan to insisting they are a now an essential military capability with plans to field a fleet of 26 while investing hundreds of millions of pounds in developing much more lethal and autonomous drones.
And, of course, it is not just the UK. Over the past few years, we have seen the number of States using these armed drones rise from the initial three – US, Israel and the UK – to more than two dozen, with clear signs that many more countries will acquire them over the next few years. In short, the use of armed drones is fast becoming normalized and that’s why it’s vital that we work to ban them now.
In response to concerns about the public’s aversion to military casualties (often dubbed ‘war weariness’), as well as military fears about the impact of multiculturalism, the British Ministry of Defence (MoD) set out in an internal 2012 study a plan for moving away from ‘boots on the ground’ operations towards the increasing use of drones, special forces and proxy armies as a means to dispel domestic opposition to military intervention overseas. After Iraq and Afghanistan, it was argued, to gain domestic support for military interventions they must be seen as being as risk-free as possible.
Linked to this idea of ‘risk-free war’ is a concerted effort to persuade the public that modern war is much less devastating that it was in the past – humane even. Weapons today are so precise, we are told, they virtually eliminate civilian casualties. The Rules of Engagement are so tight, it is insisted, weapons are only ever launched if there is an expectation of zero civilian casualties.
Behind the veneer, the reality is that this new way of waging war is even more dangerous to civilians and to global peace and security. Despite claims of pinpoint accurate strikes, NGOs and casualty recorders continue to detail large numbers of civilian casualties from air war. These arise particularly in urban areas which would not perhaps previously have seen large-scale bombing but are now targeted as we have drones and precision weapons.
But perhaps the most dangerous aspect of the rise of remote drone warfare is the two-fold way that it is ushering in a state of permanent war. Firstly, with no (or very few) troops deployed on the ground, when drone operators can engage in warfare from their local base and commute home at the end of the day, there is little public pressure to bring interventions to an end.
We are perhaps seeing this reflected in the UK campaign to support Iraqi forces fighting ISIS. Both Iraq and Syria declared military victory over ISIS almost 2 years ago following the fall of Raqqa. The US and the UK, however, are continuing to launch strikes.
Secondly, the way that drones are lowering the threshold for the use of force and in the way that certain states are attempting to change international law norms in relation to pre-emptive strikes means that military intervention has become more likely, moving away from being the option of last resort. The US (and UK) use of armed drones to launch so-called targeted killings outside the context of an armed conflict has opened Pandora’s Box. Seemingly, slowly but surely, decades old international legal rules limiting military intervention are being eroded. This simply makes the world a much more dangerous place.
And finally, drones enable more secret and unaccountable warfare. The UK is now using its armed drones on operations that it will not publicly discuss or provide details in order for parliament to conduct its democratic oversight role. Without proper oversight and accountability, secret deployments such as this potentially draw us down the rabbit hole of unaccountable military action which could quickly spiral out of control.
Some argue that more than a decade-and-a-half after their introduction there is little now that can be done to prevent the growing use of armed drones. In contrast, we believe that as these systems spread, we have to redouble our efforts to prevent their harm to global peace and security.
Chris Cole is director of Drone Wars UK