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Dangers of Drone Warfare

Section 2 – Weaponized Drones

Unprecedented power to kill and traumatize with minimal or no consequence to the perpetrator. 2.A. Assassination and Pre-emptive killing

The nature of weaponized drones themselves, based on their surveillance capability, their ability to stay in the air over a target zone for hours on end, and their ability to kill without risking the life of a human assassin, makes them an instrument of assassination of hitherto unknown power.

Drones are remarkable tools of assassination because, pilotless and with drones relieving each other on station, they can follow individuals and groups for days, waiting for the “right” moment to kill.

At this point in the evolution of drone assassination, it appears that most of these killings are accomplished by relative large drones, like the U.S. MQ-9 Reaper, using powerful munitions like the Reaper’s Hellfire missile, designed for destroying buildings and vehicles. These, of course, usually kill and maim many more than the one or two individuals who might be targeted.

Photo credit: Khaled Abdullah/Reuters and New Jersey (U.S.) Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness.

The photo on the left, published in the Wall Street Journal, shows on the left a car struck by a U.S. drone in Yemen in 2012, and the car in which alleged al Qaeda leader Abu Khayr al-Masri was killed by a U.S. drone in Syria in 2017. Photo credit: Khaled Abdullah/Reuters and New Jersey (U.S.) Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness.

However, drone weapons are being developed that assassinate more selectively.  For example, the U.S. has used a so-called “Ninja Bomb”, about the same size as a five-foot long Hellfire missile, but rather than exploding, the Jerusalem Post reports, “it deploys six blades moments before striking the target (editor’s note: a person), virtually shredding through everything in its path.”

Citing a report in the Wall Street Journal, the Post: said “To the target person, it is as if a speeding anvil fell from the sky.”  The Journal said the weapon has been used by the U.S. since 2011 in Libya, Syria, Iraq, Somalia and Yemen.  And, the Post said: “Israel may take a look” at the “Ninja Bomb”.

Drone assassinations as carried out by the United States, using “kill lists” of named suspects, to be hunted and killed based on secret intelligence, are extrajudicial executions that violate the right of due process of their victims.

So too are the so-called “signature” strikes that target unknown victims based on their demographics and patterns of behavior. They are rarely “taken out” in the heat of battle or while engaged in hostile actions and are more likely to be killed (with anyone in their vicinity) at a wedding, at a funeral, at work, hoeing in the garden, driving down the highway or enjoying a meal with family and friends.

These killings are murders, despite the official insistence of the U.S. government that “the condition that an operational leader presents an ‘imminent’ threat of violent attack against the United States does not require the United States to have clear evidence that a specific attack on U.S. persons will take place in the immediate future.”

The remains of a vehicle in the convoy in which Iranian General Qasem Soleimani was assassinated by a U.S. MQ-9 Reaper drone near the Baghdad, Iraq airport in January 2020. Credit: Government of Iraq/Associated Press

Assassination is illegal against civilians, non-combatants, and military personnel who are not involved in combat.  For example, General Quassem Soleimani of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, who was assassinated in January, 2020 by a drone attack after he arrived at the civilian airport in Baghdad, illustrates the distinction. As a member of Iran’s armed forces, Soleimani was not a civilian. On the other hand, he was not on a battlefield and was not engaged in any belligerent activity (He may, in fact, have been on a diplomatic mission).  Therefore, he had the protection as a noncombatant under the law, and his assassination was a murder.

The U.S. government has argued that drone killing is somehow more humane because drones kill “precisely” as distinct from more generalized attacks, such as carpet bombing.  There is evidence of great lack of precision in drone attacks, and that the precision argument is a bogus selling point intended to placate those concerned about killing “innocent” people in the midst of a program of killing that is itself illegal and immoral.  As will be discussed below, drone killing is anything but “precise” when it comes to the trauma generated by drone attacks and presence.

The growing use by some nations of drones on the field of combat, as opposed to the extra-judicial execution by drone by the U.S., further obscures the lines defining the areas of combat and threaten to make the whole world a battlefield.

Despite the opinion in 2012 by then U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder that “the Constitution guarantees due process, not judicial process” and that the due process requirement even to kill can be met when an intelligence or military official determines that an unknown person presents a threat, these executions are clearly violations of due process. Along with the “double tap” practice of a second drone attack on first responders to the victims of a first one, under U.S. and international law these killings are already crimes.

Indeed, the German Ministry of Defense said in a July, 2020 report: “The use of drones for extra-legal killing (assassination) and actions in violation of international law in general contradicts everything that the Bundeswehr (the armed forces) stands for since its founding, and is entirely out of the question.”

 The German Federal Ministry of Defense report to the German Parliament, dated July 3, 2020, appears in full as Appendix A to this section.

Protecting the Troops

The United States has attempted to shift public attention away from its drone assassination policy by saying that it uses drones to protect its troops on the ground.

The German Ministry of Defense said, in the just mentioned July, 2020 report, that it wants to weaponize the Heron TP drones that it is leasing from Israel to “increase the safety and reaction capabilities of our own forces and those of our partners in a mission…

The report says also that weaponized drones will not only protect German troops but also make it more possible to distinguish between civilians and combatants, thereby offering greater protection to civilians.

German troops will need protection, the report says: “Especially in complex situations and/or in urban areas, such as are already the reality of deployment for our soldiers today” in Afghanistan and Mali.

The words “complex situations” describe situations in which it may be extremely difficult for drone operators to discern whether individuals and groups are simply near an armed conflict or whether they are joining in.

Over the last 20 years of drone warfare, as documented elsewhere on this website, drone attacks have consistently led to the killing of non-combatants because of misidentification or based on suspicion of threat, sometimes called preemptive killing. Far from protecting civilians/non-combatants, the vast gaze of drones has proven to mean greater jeopardy for them.

A larger point that must be considered is that aerial warfare historically leads to the deaths of far more civilians than combatants, and that one of the main reasons for aerial bombing is to kill and demoralize the civilian base of support for militaries.  In this regard, drone killing is like other aerial bombing, a practice that must be banned.

We need a ban on weaponized drones to stop the executions of civilians and non-combatants (these are already illegal) and also to declare that the killing of combatants by drone is a crime.

2.B. Terrorization and traumatization of individuals and communities and destruction of civil society

Perpetrators of drone killing make much of the so-called “precision” of drone attacks, which is historically insupportable, but is intended to portray the perpetrators as caring human beings, killing as few people as possible and to protect themselves against the charge that they are violating international law by not protecting civilians to the maximum degree possible.

But the perpetrators say nothing about the extensive, credible evidence of the widespread trauma generated by drone attacks, whether against person or a group, trauma that spreads uncontrollably and unpredictably, like poison gas, permanently harming individuals, families and communities to varying degrees.

For example, a major portion of “Living Under Drones”, based on interviews of people who had been attacked by drones, is devoted to documenting the ways in which the attacks had traumatized people and devastated normal life.

“Community members, mental health professionals, and journalists interviewed for this report described how the constant presence of U.S. drones overhead leads to substantial levels of fear and stress in the civilian communities below.  One man described the reaction to the sound of the drones as ‘a wave of terror’ coming over the community. ‘Children, grown-up people, women, they are terrified…They scream in terror’”.

The report continues:

“In addition to feeling fear, those who live under drones – and particularly interviewees who survived or witnessed strikes – described common symptoms of anticipatory anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. Interviewees described emotional breakdowns, running indoors or hiding when drones appear above, fainting, nightmares and other intrusive thoughts, hyper startled reactions to loud noises, outbursts of anger and irritability, and loss of appetite and other physical symptoms.  Interviewees also reported suffering from insomnia and other sleep disturbances…”

Drone attacks and drone presence in the sky, the report finds, undermine education, business, social life and cultural and religious practices, including funerals.

Drone Attacks Help Sustain Polio In Afghanistan and Pakistan

The border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan is one of the last places on earth where polio continues to infect children, paralyzing their limbs and sometimes killing them,” note Svea Closser and Noah Coburn in “War and Health”, published in 2019 by NYU Press, and “The U.S. military’s strategy of relying on drone strikes, particularly on the Pakistan side of the border, has not just led to civilian casualties, but has dragged the program aiming to end polio into the current conflict.”

U.S. drone attacks surged on the Pakistan/Afghanistan border during the Obama Administration, according to New America, reaching a peak in 2010 and then tapering down until Obama left office, rising slightly when Donald Trump became president; within two years of which reporting of attacks stopped.

Closser and Coburn’s report finds that the U.S. drone campaign “attempts to target and eliminate individuals and small groups of fighters without adequately protecting civilians and understanding the wider implications for the surviving local population.”  The attacks, they continue, mean that “Simple choices, such as whether to gather as a group for a funeral or whether to use a government hospital when ill, may suddenly have deadly consequences.”

The researchers note, however, that government-run public health facilities are “neglected”, particularly along the border, and that the intensive polio vaccination program heavily funded by international donors, “may represent the only health services a family gets.”

But, the drone attacks reinforced skepticism about the vaccination campaign and resistance to it.  Moreover, the Pakistani Taliban, the researcher report, issued a fatwa in 2012 that said vaccinations would not be allowed in the area until drone attacks stopped in order to “gain concessions from the Pakistani state or international actors.”

The fatwa, the New York Times reported “is a blow to polio vaccination efforts in Pakistan, one of just three countries where the disease is still endemic, accounting for 198 new cases last year — the highest rate in the world, followed by Afghanistan and Nigeria.” “

Polio infects one child in a million,” the fatwa said, “but hundreds of Waziri women, children and elders have been killed in these strikes”, and: “Each day the list of psychological patients increases in Waziristan, which is worse than polio.”

The fatwa also said the vaccination campaign might be a way for the U.S. to spy, an idea reinforced by the C.I.A.’s creation of a phony hepatitis B vaccination campaign in order to confirm the location of Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan.

Polio vaccine being administered in Lahore, Pakistan. K.M. Chaudary/Associated Press, Published in the New York Times.

Because the vaccination program “is an obvious priority” to international actors and the Pakistani government, Closser and Coburn report, “insurgents” increased pressure by murdering vaccination workers.  Beginning in December, 2013, and over three years, at least 30 and possibly up to 80 polio workers were killed.  “Because polio eradication is such a high-profile project,” killing these low-wage – mostly women – highly vulnerable workers, presented “an easy way to attract international attention.”

These “resulting civilian deaths.” Closser and Coburn observe, “are in addition to the contested counts of those people directly killed in drone strikes.  They include, among many others, a young female Pakistani worker, murdered as she vaccinated children in an Afghan refugee camp on March 16, 2015, and a seven-month-old boy in North Waziristan, paralyzed by polio on May 6, 2015.  The legacy of distrust and the imbalance in healthcare efforts that contributed to these civilian deaths is likely to remain long after drone strikes end.”

Researchers of the Yemeni human rights organization Mwatana, also found trauma  resulting from U.S. attacks in Yemen, reporting in “Death Falling From the Sky”:

“U.S. operations take a psychological toll on survivors and on impacted communities.[18] A survivor told Mwatana that, while he had recovered physically, he continued to feel helpless and depressed a year and a half after a US strike injured him and killed his younger cousin.[19] A mother explained how children have continuing anxiety after US attacks, and can be afraid to be alone: “My six-year-old son wanted to go to the bathroom but then returned without going. When I asked him the reason, he said, ‘I don’t want you all to die without me if the drone hits.’”[20] Others drew links between family members’ trauma and the deterioration of their physical health.[21]

In addition, AlKarama, a human rights organization based in Switzerland, reported in   “Traumatizing Skies” that its survey team studying the impact of U.S. drone attacks in Yemen found:

“After screening more than 100 individuals, men and women, boys and girls, we found strong common patterns of anxiety, stress, paranoia, insomnia and other trauma symptoms across gender and age.  The specificity of the study is that it incorporates both individuals who have lost a direct family member to a drone attack and individuals who have not but still live under drones…We concluded that the simple fact of living under drones has psychological consequences that derive from the constant fear of being killed or having a relative being killed.”

Al Karama concludes its study by saying:

“This constant fear of being targeted so easily and so arbitrary has crippled the daily lives of the people interviewed. It is important to relate the very nature of drone technology to these aspects as well; in particular, because the fear of the constant presence of drones in the skies that can kill any moment is sustained by a technology that is politically and financially cheap for the U.S., is unregulated, has been sucked into a legal black hole and creates an equation of power where the vulnerable are nothing but dots on screen.”

In the video interview below, Faisal Bin Ali Jaber describes the devastating impact that U.S. drone attacks have had on a community in Yemen. (Interview begins at 16:15)

Drone Operators Sacrificed

Safety of stateside bases that will not be shot down with their planes, be taken prisoner or even have to miss a meal, and can often go home to their families at the end of their shift, the fact that they are not subject to the usual privations of war does not protect them from post-traumatic stress or the stress from conscience, described by the common clinical term “moral injury”.

To the contrary, killing someone who is far away and who poses no immediate danger can have a deep effect on a person, especially as they are often required to stalk their prey for days, kill them, and then watch them die, suddenly, or slowly.

It is an experience unique to drone killing.  It is an experience in which the full weight of national war policy and the vast machinery of war are brought with pin-point force into the consciousness of often relatively young people who come to their drone control consoles with little or no idea of the destructive power they will unleash and the horrible consequences for their fellow human beings that they will witness.

It went against everything that I had ever learned about honor and justice and training. It was terrifying how dismissive people were about the whole affair. We were safe in the U.S. and those over there were not. We win. But that’s not how it goes,” 

said veteran drone operator Brandon Bryant.  Other drone whistle-blowers have similar experiences, as documented in the poignant, revealing film “National Bird”.

Recognizing the concern among the German public about the emotional health of drone crews, the German Ministry of Defense said in a July, 2020 statement, in which it argued for arming German drones, that drone crews “must be informed comprehensively on the topic of psychological stresses such as PTSD, “moral injury”, depression, etc…after operations involving the use of weapons, it is important to regularly offer conversations with peers and military psychologists, and to make a psychoanalytic therapeutic early intervention possible if necessary.”

The statement concluded: “The MoD and the Bundeswehr (armed forces) are aware of the responsibility for the drone pilots, and will take the necessary measures.” The U.S., on the other hand, has from the beginning sought to conceal the extent of PTSD and moral injury suffered by its drone operators.  However, important insight has been provided in reports of the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), which continues to find that the U.S. Air Force has not been able to retain drone operators and to otherwise fill the U.S. Air Forces’ steadily growing need for drone operators.  Among the challenges to drone operators, a 2020 GAO report said:

“Participants in 10 or our 14 focus groups we conducted said that some crew members – either themselves or others – did not initially understand what the job entails, such as killing.  One focus group participant noted ‘the first time you know what you’re getting into emotionally is the first day of training at Holloman (Air Force Base), which is too late because you already have wings.”

Participants in 13 or 14 focus groups we conducted,” the report continues,

“stated that witnessing or causing violence has a negative psychological impact, but two-thirds of our survey respondents (66 0f 105) said that the Air Force has not assessed their level of stress and fatigue related to their role as an RPA (drone) drone pilot or sensor operators…One focus group participant commented: ‘F-16s drop [bombs] and then go.

For RPA aircrews, we get in and we are there for 20 hours.  We watch who employ weapons on, then get the battle damage assessment, including seeing body parts…on the ground.”

It appears that U.S. operators of weaponized drones, and perhaps their counterparts in other nations, are unique in their relentless exposure to atrocities generated by their own hand, and that, although their military and civilian superiors must be well-aware of the emotional damage of drone killing to their forces, they remain determined to sacrifice the drone operators, regardless.

2.C. Perpetuation of wars and increasing the possibilities of armed conflict and war

Drone technology enables governments to undertake intensive surveillance, assassinations and attacks without putting any of their forces at personal risk in direct combat. Political and military leaders, therefore, are encouraged by weaponized drone technology to assassinate, launch wars, continue wars and to use killing to meddle in other nation’s politics, all actions that might be otherwise unacceptable to their political base were a nation’s military personnel put at risk on these missions. Commenting on this concept, that seems to be affirmed by the U.S.’ nearly 20 years occupation of Afghanistan, Chris Cole, Director of Drone Wars UK, says as part of his endorsement statement on this website:

“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.”

Drone Intervention in Libya

Weaponized drones have been key factors in the Libyan civil war, as outside nations send in drones and other military equipment hoping to get favorable access to Libya’s oil and strategic trading location. U.N. Special Representative to Libya Ghassan Salame said in 2019 that Libya was “possibly the largest drone theater of war in the world.”

The United Arab Emirate has carried out drone attacks using Chinese-made Wing Loong II drones on the side of General Khalifa Haftar, and Turkey has been using its Bayrakar TB 22 drone to support the Government of National Accord, which is also backed by the U.N.  The U.S. has used drones to attack al-Qaeda and ISIS in Libya; it is not known whether the U.S. is militarily involved in the civil war, as of early 2021.  New America says that: “At least seven foreign countries and three domestic Libyan factions are reported to have conducted air and drone strikes in Libya since 2012.”

The use of drones did not end the conflict, Defense One reported in June 2020.  When U.A.E. drone attacks in support of General Haftar seemed to be giving him an advantage: The use of drones did not end the conflict, Defense One reported in June 2020.  When U.A.E. drone attacks in support of General Haftar seemed to be giving him an advantage:

“Turkey began deploying more drones, advanced air defense systems, and thousands of Syrian mercenaries, swinging the balance of power back toward the Tripoli government. Turkey has since pounded Haftar’s forces with air strikes, destroying several Russian-made Pantsir S1 air defense systems and facilitating rapid advances by anti-Haftar forces. And just last month, Russia deployed fighter jets, likely piloted by mercenaries, to central Libya in a move to deter expanded Turkish air operations and stem the tide of Haftar’s reversals.”

Military Times reported in February, 2020 that “high tech precision strike weapons are flooding the battlefield” in Libya, where the war there “is providing Pentagon planners with an opportunity to better prepare for any future conflict with China or Russia.

Did US Drone Killing Help To Create The Conditions Leading to Yemen’s  Tragic War?

The war in Yemen, as of early 2021, is believed to have killed more than 200,000 people; 24 million people desperately need humanitarian assistance and protection, with COVID adding to the misery.  Two million children are reportedly acutely malnourished. It has become the most severe ongoing humanitarian crisis in the world.

License to Kill: Why the American Drone War on Yemen Violates International Law”, published in 2013 by Alkarama Foundation, offers unique, detailed documentation showing how, through a program of drone assassination that began in 2002, the U.S. played a key role, if not the dominant role, in destroying a functioning political system within Yemen, arguably leading to the current war.

The goal the U.S. drone campaign seemed to be to manipulate Yemen’s national politics, and, the Alkarama report says:

“A question worth asking is whether the actual objective of this ‘invisible’ war is to force an entire country into a state of shock, aiming to break down the very structures of society, weakening an already fragile state in order to better control it.  The case of Yemen seems…to provide strong evidence in this direction, including the targets chosen; the non-discrimination of strikes leading to the death of numerous civilians; the use of ‘double attacks’, where a strike is followed minutes later by another strike, obviously leading to a larger number of victims, and strikes on vehicles in urban areas.”
A funeral procession in Yemen in 2013 for 12 men killed by a U.S. drone attack on a wedding procession; 15 others were wounded. Credit: Democracy Now

The report finds that U.S. drones killed not only combatants but respected community leaders. “Of the 10 cases of strikes documented by Alkarama,” the report says, “at least four of those targeted were deeply rooted in local social and political life, enjoying a high status, with some of them playing an important role mediating conflicts.”

As a result of the drone attacks, the report continues:

“Local populations have less and less confidence in the state, which appears to bend to the will of the United States.  In a society dominated by tribal structures where the relationship with the state is defined as a contract between central authorities and the various tribes and regions – giving each obligations as well as privileges – the destruction of the structure seriously threatens societal peace.”

Alkarama repeatedly makes the point that drone attacks consistently resulted in high casualties among innocent civilians.

One must ask,” the report says, “ if the targeting of civilians is not inherent in the war the Americans are waging in Yemen…They appear to be pressuring the population to turn against the combatants by creating a permanent atmosphere of terror with drones, without being able to fight back.
Civilians bear the brunt of human and technical error which politicians and the American military are willing to accept in order to continue the drone program,” Alkarama says.  “Yemen, following on the heels of Pakistan, has become the laboratory for new methods of warfare, which represent a technological, political and legal revolution in combat methodology.”

Unarmed and Dangerous”, a report by the Center for the Study of the Drone, makes an observation that applies to weaponized drones as well as surveillance drones, that these drones can enable attacks “that may have been otherwise too dangerous, too strategically or politically risky, or even physically impossible by other means.”

When the U.S. began drone attacks in Yemen 2002, we must ask whether the U.S. people would have been willing to send enough soldiers to Yemen to kill the untold numbers of people that it killed with weaponized drones?

Unarmed” observes that unarmed drones, and, again, we would add armed drones as well, “may raise ethical, tactical, strategic and legal questions that have largely gone unaddressed.”

2.D. Acceleration in the development of robotized warfare.  

The current use of drone surveillance and weaponized drones is hastening the evolution of weapons systems that will be more and more controlled by artificial intelligence and will more and more approach being autonomous.

Daniela Kolbe, a German parliamentarian, a physicist and Chairwoman of the German Parliament’s Study Commission on Artificial Intelligence, who has opposed the arming of drones that Germany leases from Israel, wrote in an email:

I fear that weaponizing drones is only a first step in an escalating weapons race…I am mainly concerned about the internal logic of this arms buildup. In the understandable attempt to shield every soldier from harm, we would increasingly attempt to use ever more automated systems – including drones – for a rising number of different situations.  In the end, this would leave us with fully automated weapons systems.  That’s precisely the situation even the cautious drone supporters of my parliamentary group want to avoid.”

Civilian and military leaders will argue that weapons increasingly guided by artificial intelligence (AI) will ultimately continue to remain under human control, as suggested in a  2020 U.S. Department of Defense policy statement.  Nevertheless, more and more of the decision-making about target selection, choice of weapons and attack is being driven by data gathered and sorted by AI systems.

Lieutenant General Jack Shanahan, Director of the Joint AI Center (JAIC), said in 2019:

“What I don’t want to see is a future where our potential adversaries have a fully A.I.- enabled force and we do not…I don’t have the time luxury of hours or days to make decisions.  It may be seconds and microseconds where A.I. can be used.”

In effect, the general is saying that grave decisions, such as the use of nuclear bombs, will be more and more based on a series of mini-decisions being made by AI technology.  This can lead, if we are not there already, to a nightmare scenario in which largely self-directed weapons are launched based on largely AI conclusions, with human involvement amounting to agreeing or not agreeing to an AI plan.

And, there is also the problem of AI controlled weapons “learning” on their own to do something other than what is intended.

Indeed, the aforementioned U.S. Defense Department AI policy document warns that AI guided weapons must be equipped with a “kill switch”, which might, or might not, work:

“The department will design and engineer A.I. capabilities to fulfill their intended functions while possessing the ability to detect and avoid unintended consequences, and the ability to disengage or deactivate deployed systems that demonstrate unintended behavior.”