The Case for Humanitarian Drones: Response

The politics of drone wars
by Derek Gregory

Political campaigns against the military use of drones are gathering momentum, even as there are signs of a concerted counter-campaign to rehabilitate them for both military and non-military purposes.  There are many ways in which individuals can take a stand against war and military violence.  There is a long and principled tradition of conscientious objection that includes pacifists in two world wars, young Americans who resisted the draft in the 1960s and ’70s, and high-school students in Israel who refuse to serve in the army of occupation.  In recent times, most popular mobilizations against war have either been against particular wars (I’m thinking of the demonstrations against the wars in Southeast Asia in the ’60s and ’70s, for example, or the millions of people who took to the streets to express their opposition to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003) or against particular objects of violence (campaigns to ban land mines or cluster munitions, for example).  To me, the most effective political response to the use of Predators, Reapers, and other UAVs in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and elsewhere is to move between the two: to use the drone to draw publics into an apprehension of the wider fields of military violence in which they are deployed.

One caution is necessary before I explain myself.  UAVs are not standalone platforms.  A Predator or Reaper may be “unmanned,” but its operation entails an extended network that includes pilots, sensor operators, technicians, launch and recovery crews, mission commanders, military lawyers, and video analysts.  Still more to the point, the key elements that are mobilized through this network – the platform, the close-in visual analysis, and the sensor-shooter system – have a history that reaches from the Second World War through the air wars in Indochina to today’s remote operations over Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and beyond.  This means that while I focus, here, on the present and near-future horizon of drone warfare, this is a system in motion and transformation, and many of the most disturbing features of remote operations depend on innovations – I hesitate to say advances – in automation, robotics, and artificial intelligence that are beyond the immediate horizon.

Still, I think it is a mistake to focus on the object itself, because, like all objects, a drone is highly unstable: It’s not a fixed, determinate “thing” – rather, its capacities and dispositions depend on the network or assemblage in which it is embedded. To see what I mean, begin by stripping the bombs and the missiles from these platforms: At present, most drones are used for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), and these capabilities extend far beyond the domain of offensive operations, and even beyond those of the military.  In 2010, U.S. Southern Command used a Global Hawk to provide detailed imagery of the damage caused by the Haiti earthquake. The following year, another Global Hawk was deployed to assess the damage to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan. Other, smaller and far less sophisticated, drones have been used to monitor wildfires in California, and to track and disrupt Japanese whaling fleets, while a series of other, broadly ecological-humanitarian projects, have been proposed with varying degrees of plausibility.

I don’t rehearse these other possibilities to minimize the military and paramilitary uses of the technology (and we surely know, not least from Nick Turse’s account in The Complex, that the military and the civilian have become ever more hopelessly entangled with one another). Neither am I indifferent to the blurring of military power and NGO relief operations in the humanitarian present. But we need to acknowledge, to paraphrase Clive Barnett, that not all ISR operations are sinister, or “presumptively illegitimate, undemocratic or suspect.”

This is why Drone Wars UK focuses on “armed drones,” and Drones Watch on “killer drones.”  It’s clear that militarized ISR is part of a continued “rush to the intimate” that is profoundly invasive and, on many occasions, extraordinarily violent. In Afghanistan, the U.S. military embeds its UAVs in a networked kill-chain in which their near-real-time, high-resolution, full-motion video feeds are routinely used to call in attacks from conventional strike aircraft. So, let’s now put the bombs and missiles back on these platforms, since the Predators and Reapers are usually armed and their manufacturers boast about their capacity to compress the kill-chain – to “dwell, detect [and] destroy.” But it then makes no sense to object to the strikes carried out directly from them, and to exempt those carried out by conventional means across the network: What is the difference between a Hellfire missile launched from a Reaper and one fired from an Apache helicopter gunship?  (To put this in perspective, according to the most recent airpower summary, Predators and Reapers directly accounted for just five to six per cent of the U.S. Air Force’s “weapons releases” in Afghanistan in 2009, 2010, and 2011, though the proportion climbed to 9.25 per cent in the first 10 months of 2012).

To answer that question, critics usually cite the horror of death at a distance.  This is death from thousands of miles away, conducted by operators in the continental United States: “killing by remote control.”  And yet, there are countless other ways in which militaries have been killing from ever-increasing distances ever since the invention of the slingshot and the longbow. If you insist that it is wrong to kill somebody from 7,500 miles away, then over what distance do you think it is acceptable?  If you are determined to absolutize distance in this way, then don’t you need to consider all the other ways in which advanced militaries are able to kill their adversaries (and civilians) without ever seeing them?

Again, I don’t raise the spectre of cruise missiles launched from ships hundreds of miles from their targets, the U.S. “Prompt Global Strike” capability and its Advanced Hypersonic Weapon, which is ultimately intended to hit a target anywhere on the planet in less than an hour, or the prospect of “frictionless” cyber warfare, to minimize the deaths caused by drones.  I simply want our politics to apprehend the larger field of military violence in which they are deployed.

And there is something different about those deaths that draws us back into the killing fields.  I should say at once that I don’t think this is simply war reduced to a video game – and, in any case, there are many other military technologies that also depend on hand-eye co-ordination, multi-tasking, and spatial acuity, all skill sets valorized by video games – but I also think it a mistake to assume that the screen effectively insulates the viewer from the victim.  In this sense, there is a parallel between the platforms, because video games are profoundly immersive, and those who call in or carry out these strikes insist that they are not 7,500 miles from their targets at all (and launch and recovery crews are much closer than that), but are, in fact, “18 inches away”: the distance from eye to screen.

It’s a highly selective process of compression. As I’ve shown in detail elsewhere, those involved in the remote kill-chain typically feel remarkably close to their own troops on the ground and remain distant from the lifeworlds of the population at large (which in part accounts for the civilian casualties when drones are used to provide close air support).  But unlike most other forms of distant death and destruction, the pilots, sensor operators, and others who are networked into these kill-chains can see their targets up close – even if their “seeing” is techno-culturally conditioned and often predisposes them to treat innocent actions as hostile intentions – and they typically remain on station to carry out a “bomb damage assessment,” and so see for themselves, often in hideous detail, what they have done.

The most consequential change is that these new modes of air power deal not in the area bombing of cities like Cologne, Hamburg, or Dresden, or the blind bombing of target boxes over the rainforests of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, but rather (in addition to close air support) in the calculated assassination of individuals or groups – so-called “targeted killing” or what the U.S. Air Force calls putting “warheads on foreheads.”  This does not mean that the firebombing of cities in the Second World War should become the moral standard against which we judge contemporary military violence. On the contrary, targeted killing raises its own grave legal and ethical questions – and, not incidentally, those video feeds have given military lawyers a pivotal role in these newly networked strikes. Such questions, in turn, activate two other, no less serious concerns about the emergent geographies of fields of military violence.

First is the fear that the use of remote platforms lowers the threshold at which military violence will be launched. Predators and Reapers are much cheaper than conventional strike aircraft, and if there are no troops on the ground, there are no body bags to come home.  In short, drone war threatens to become risk-transfer war hypostatized – the risk is transferred wholly to the adversary population.  But, at present, these platforms have high failure rates – they are vulnerable to weather conditions (and I don’t mean hurricanes and monsoons, I mean clouds), they crash all too frequently, and they are so slow and noisy that they can easily be shot down, so they can only be used in uncontested airspace.  These limitations mean that, at least at present, they are less likely to incite conventional state-on-state war – though there is certainly a global arms race to acquire and develop far more advanced drone technologies.

Second, and closely connected, is the fear that they make it much easier to engage in war by stealth.  If one of the primary foreign policy challenges of the last Bush administration was “conducting war in countries we are not at war with,” Obama’s version is the determination to wage what Martin Libicki calls “non-obvious warfare” – hence, the Obama administration’s preference for remote operations, Special Forces, and cyber-attacks.  To be sure, there are degrees of obviousness: The drone attacks in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and elsewhere are hardly covert – since they are hidden in plain sight – but they are, within limits, more deniable than the deployment of thousands of ground troops, and so are inherently less accountable to the various publics involved in them.  And, in all these cases, Predators and Reapers dramatically heighten the asymmetry involved in military and paramilitary operations against non-state actors, where they have made a policy of “kill” rather than “capture” a much more tempting (and much more pernicious) U.S. counter-terrorism strategy.

Derek Gregory is Peter Wall Distinguished Professor at the University of British Columbia.  He is completing a new book, The Everywhere War, and his current research project, Killing Space, is a history/geography of bombing from the First World War to the present. His blog can be found at

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