If there is one theatre of war tactic that remains controversial – aside from the inevitable divisions of futuristic killer robots I keep reading about – it is the use of drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles as the military prefers to call them. Relentless, tireless, brimming with state of the art gadgetry, these flying platforms have become an indispensable tool for today’s armies. Their versatility and relatively low cost are attractive, as is the fact that they can do jobs humans can’t (or shouldn’t) and play into the modern aversion to putting our soldiers in harm’s way if we can at all avoid it. Which I think we all agree is a good thing.
The controversy comes in when we are talking about drones that carry missiles. The US government has on many occasions instructed these aircraft to fire lethal payloads at targets deemed to be terrorists. While numbers are hard to come by, given the shroud of secrecy surrounding the programme, it is likely that thousands of alleged terrorists have been killed over the past few years. The outstanding question, however, and one to which there is no good answer, is what is the rate of “collateral damage” (Orwellian language for civilian deaths)? Governments, unsurprisingly, say it is minimal: activists claim that it is not insignificant. As usual, the truth lies somewhere between “we don’t know but we think it is small” and “we’re pretty sure it is high, but our sources are unreliable”.
It is important to note that the use of lethal force is not taken lightly, at least according to the US government. Decisions to unleash Hellfire missiles are taken only after hours, days and weeks of unceasing surveillance, absolute (or near absolute) certainty of who the target is and launch action can be aborted at the last instant to avoid civilian deaths. A New York Times op-ed by former CIA and NSA head General Michael Hayden supports this version.
It is one thing for the “good guys” to use these aircraft, but many have argued that the technology behind drones will eventually find its way into the hands of less scrupulous actors, such as the Russians and terrorists. In truth, that is already happening and there is really no way to put this genie back into the bottle. We live in a world where drones exist and every indication is that they will proliferate. Even their non-military cousins have become part and parcel of modern living (I read that the hottest gift under the Christmas tree last year was, in fact, a small drone kit). Amazon wants to deliver books to your doorway by drone and there have been too many hair-raising near misses between these tiny flying machines and passenger aircraft.
And now the Canadian military is considering acquiring armed drones (it apparently has been using the unarmed variety for some time). Chief of Defence Staff Jonathan Vance is quoted saying “In my view there’s little point to having a UAV that can see a danger but can’t strike it if it needs to.” In other words, locating a terrorist but not being able to take him out is a problem.
So, is the acquisition of armed drones a good thing or a bad thing for Canada and its military? As I have written many, many times before, I am not a military expert and defer to those who are. But there are good reasons to give this decision careful consideration before going out and buying this equipment.
I will leave aside the argument that we should not embrace this technology since civilians have died and will likely to continually do so, not because I am callous but simply because that case has been made. I will focus, therefore on a more practical question: do drones work? Or, more accurately, do drones create more problems than they solve?
It is unquestionable that some very nasty people have been killed by drones, people that would have continued to plan acts of terrorism had they been alive. Anwar al Awlaki, killed in a strike in Yemen in September 2011, is a case in point. But many analysts have pointed out that there is much to drone attacks that is counterproductive. Their constant presence leads to massive disruption of normal local life. People are afraid to go out and do everyday things like shop and farm for fear of a missile searing through the air near them. There are reports of psychological harm to those exposed to the constant whirr of drone engines. The impersonal and cold nature of their killing leads to anger and frustration. If we are trying to win hearts and minds in Afghanistan and Yemen, among other hotspots, it is fairly certain that drones are not the best way to do so.
There is also evidence that the use of drones is causing locals to steel their resolve against what we are trying to achieve: i.e. reduce terrorism. People who are terrorised on a regular basis are less likely to understand and buy into our aims. And it could be even worse. To answer the rhetorical question of ex US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, drones may in fact be creating more terrorists than they are killing. By killing terrorists – and the odd civilian – using drones, we could be leading others to go down the path to violent extremism. That, to me, is the definition of counterproductive.
I am all in favour of using UAVs for gathering intelligence. These machines can do things, and do them better, than humans ever could. As an old intelligence hand, more data is better than less. Nevertheless, if we want to ensure that our actions in theatres of war do not work against us, we should think carefully before deploying armed drones. The “war on terror” is not going well as it is – let’s not make it worse.