Rise of the Drones

Jun 11, 2012 by

Rise of the Drones

A few years ago, everybody would have associated them with some kind of science-fiction horror movie. In 2012, they make headlines on a daily basis, and people seem to have accepted their growing impact without too many questions. They hunt their prey across Pakistan, Yemen and countless other countries, before raining down destruction in a short, deadly burst of violence. ‘10 killed in drone strike on compound in North Waziristan’. One takes a fleeting glimpse at the headline before moving onto the next one. There were 4 headlines like that already this week – it’s become far too normal to be interesting anymore.

The United States is using unmanned aerial vehicle or drone technology, primarily to strike terrorist targets in Pakistan without putting its pilots in danger. That’s the interesting and perhaps disturbing thing about the drone concept. An American pilot can head to the office in Nevada, take control of the drone, destroy a terrorist installation and go home for dinner with his/her family that very evening. On the ground in Pakistan, a low buzzing sound reverberates across the sun-baked landscape of goat herders, dirt tracks and mud huts, decades behind 21st century technology. A distant thud confirms the drone has found its target. The cutting-edge killing machine has made its mark on the medieval population below. They don’t pay too much attention. It’s becoming normal for them too.

The drone war initiated by President Bush has been continued by President Obama, at a much higher tempo. Since 2009, drones have struck in Pakistan at least 250 times. The political sensitivity of using drones over Pakistan coupled with the CIA’s intense involvement ensures that the US government tries to stay silent on the drone front. The White House did comment officially on the death of Yahya al-Libi, Al-Qaeda’s second in command, killed in a drone strike last week. This is not unusual – officials have been keen to emphasise the success of the offensive, commenting on the death of multiple high-level Al-Qaeda officials as well as the destruction of countless training camps. For the most part however, the drone war is conducted in absolute silence. There are no official records of who has been killed, questions are left unanswered and criticism is ignored – it has become a classic clandestine conflict.

After the death of Yahya al-Libi, Pakistan officially reprimanded a top US diplomat, stating that such attacks were a violation of its sovereignty. The strikes have proved deeply unpopular in Pakistan, which has constantly voiced its opposition, backed up with claims of civilian casualties. Murmurs of discontent are also increasing in the US, with some questioning the legality of the use of drones. A report entitled ‘Drone Attacks, International Law, and the Recording of Civilian Casualties of Armed Conflict’, was published last year by a team of international lawyers, chiefly stating that there is a need to identify, record and bury the dead. Time Magazine recently revealed that the Associated Press carried out an investigation this year, revealing that the drone strikes were killing far fewer civilians than many Pakistanis believed and most of the dead were combatants.

Despite international questions and objections, the use of drones has continued unabated, expanding into Yemen. Some have claimed the strikes constitute murder but the secrecy and denials keep transparent moral conclusions out of reach. However, people are indeed starting to ask the obvious question: does the United States now have ‘a license to kill?’ This sophisticated weapons system has been placed under the control of the CIA – they have the power to strike who they want, where they want and when they want, without restraint. The New York Times published a story on May 29, providing an overview of Obama’s highly aggressive counterterrorism policy, whereby Obama himself would oversee a list of individuals to be targeted. If the target’s family was in the area, the President would make the final attack decision. Such facts may seem disturbing, but the American government claims this is an absolute necessity to defend the country. Reaction to the New York Times article was mixed, indeed some media sources labelled Obama ‘America’s Executioner in Chief’.

Two types of drone stalk the Pakistani tribal regions – the Predator, which entered service in 1994 and the newer Reaper. The CIA were keen to arm the Predator in the late 1990s and Osama Bin Laden was even spotted on a drone’s video feed in 2000. After 9/11, the potential of armed drones was explored and today, the Reaper can carry hellfire missiles and 500lb bombs, a similar payload to an F16 fighter aircraft – at a fraction of the cost. The newest American fighter plane, the F22, costs a staggering $350 million. The Reaper on the other hand comes in at around $10 million and is much cheaper to operate.

The human cost is also important in warfare and with regard to drone usage, that’s zero for the Americans. The pilot visits an air-conditioned cabin/building in the Nevada desert and views the engagement on a monitor, filmed through the drone’s high-definition surveillance equipment. It is a comfortable way to fight, something the Pakistani tribesmen of North Waziristan do not understand. They accuse the Americans of cowardice, claiming they are afraid of casualties, afraid of a real fight. The possible political ramifications of captured American pilots in Pakistan or Yemen seem to provide enough justification for pushing forward with drones. The risks – financial, material, personal and political are much lower.

After a decade of warfare with thousands of lives lost, this seems to be the future for the Americans. Fighting from afar, without casualties. Some might call it cowardice, but it is highly effective. The drone offensive has plunged the Al-Qaeda leadership into chaos, with nowhere to hide from the soaring killing machines high above. Drone warfare is still evolving and the US Navy are testing a new device called the multi-mode sensor seeker which will be attached to a Firescout robotic helicopter. It is hoped this technology will assist in the fight against pirates off the Somali coast. The Firescout would autonomously seek out pirate targets using high definition cameras and infra-red sensors, comparing them to a target database in its computer system.

Is it natural evolution or some kind of frightening maturation of technology? Unmanned aircraft pinpointing terrorist leaders and killing them one by one with hellfire missiles. A President who has a kill list to determine who lives and dies. A robotic helicopter hunting pirates in the Indian Ocean. These things really should be associated with science-fiction horror films, but they have become reality in the early 21st century. Drones are now in great demand, with new production lines opening up in China, Israel, Russia and the UK. They hunt the Pakistani tribal regions day and night using infra-red cameras and advanced sensors, powerful enough to identify somebody’s facial expressions from 30,000 feet. They are a psychologically devastating weapon. Johnny Depp will run for his life if they decide to include a robotic helicopter in the next Pirates of the Caribbean movie.

imagenote: US Airforce/wikimedia/cc


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