8 August 2015 – Trento Italy
by Scott Nicholas Romaniuk
The use of militarized drones is constantly under fire by critics for their disregard for the human component in warfare, and for becoming the defining feature of robotic warfare in the 21st century. Drones are almost never spoken of in terms of the intricate yet critical role that they have played (not just in the past 15 years) in symbolizing the operating state’s (government and people) cultural principles and desire to improve the conditions of warfare. Aside from the United States, Israel and the United Kingdom use armed drones in combat. Pakistan can also be added to this list. These countries operate in what Robert Farley refers to as the “Golden Age of Drones,” the leading pack of drone technology countries and users will continue to grow. But the US, Israel, and the UK stand out, and will likely hold a unique position in drone technology development, drone militarization, and drone usage for some time.
Drone usage by these countries today reflect the slow but steady shift that has taken place over time in, particularly in US military practice and warfighting, to move inexorably toward high-precision combat (i.e., “surgical strikes”) – the greatest possible neutralization of enemy forces with the few casualties possible and limited enemy deaths. The latter weapons laid the groundwork for the modern cruise missile. The Regulus guided missile, Tomahawk cruise missile, and Hellfire air-to-ground missile form the continual development of precision weaponry. The two major world wars of the 20th century, Korea, Vietnam, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria is part of a US pursuit of “precision” in war that can hit military targets in urban centers and reduce the potential for civilian casualties. The notion of sanitizing war through clean, surgical strikes through the use of precision guided munitions (PGMs) in a constant state of development. UAVs can loiter discreetly for weeks before firing at a potential target.
Weaknesses in the practical aspects of precision weapons can easily attract criticism. Precision bombing used in densely populated areas (such as Baghdad) prior to and during the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, and the destruction of buildings (the contents of which usually remain unknown), and an inability to distinguish between civilians and insurgents, whether in civilian-rich areas or not, can quickly and easily erode an actor’s precision morality and levels his moral high ground. Automated weapons systems now form part of a US societal preference for short, low intensity, and discreet military operations in US combat missions around the world. The US government, observing this preference but still working with military branches more resistant to such approaches, can make the concept of war and combat more attractive.
Farley recently explained that, “[e]very US service employs thousands of UAVs, conducting missions that range from strike to ISR [intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance] to communications relay. The drone campaigns over Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia have captured imaginations, and not always in a good way. Not since the use of B-52s over North Vietnam has an air campaign earned quite so much international criticism. However, these campaigns barely scratch the surface of UAV contributions to US military operations.
As drone warfare is defined as a “remote control” practice and part of a disquieting “Playstation mentality,” John Kaag and Sarah Kreps endorse the claim (through the idea of drone pilot “leisure”) that there is a “‘disassociation’ between these soldiers and their violent acts.” The argument helps to reinforce the idea that the use of drones can only harm the nature warfare as it is conducted in an age increasingly defined by electronics and technological development. What has come to be viewed as the problem of “disassociation,” challenges the bedrock logic on which detractors of drones and militarized drone usage frequently rely on. Rather, in equally potent, but oft-dismissed (if even rarely acknowledged) weakness (or perhaps strength) of weaponized drone usage is over-association. Drones are actually the opposite of “unmanned.”
There is an even greater level of personal immersion in warfare through the use of drones; they are, says US Air Force Col. Hernando Ortega, “not unmanned at all … They’re manned to the hilt”. Drone crews shift between home and work on a continuous basis. They usually work 12-hour shifts. They are highly susceptible to fatigue and through what comes across as indirect involvement, drone crews feel the strains of war as any other military personal directly engaged on the battlefield. “Physically they may be thousands of miles from Iraq or Afghanistan,” writes David Zucchino, “Psychologically, they’re on the ground with troops … The Disconnect, and sense of helplessness, take a toll.” Over 40% of all done pilots were highly stressed and 20% reported emotional exhaustion or burnout.
Drones and militarized drone usage are not responsible for building a newer and more casualty conscience form of warfare or warfighting. Rather, the proliferation and application of automated weapons systems and the pursuit of precision-guided weapons that can lead to clean, surgical strikes is part of the panorama of military development that will always bring either unforeseen or unintended consequences. Militarized drone usage might be in an advanced stage compared to the types of systems used in previous wars only a few years or decades ago, but they represent a misleading, but promising, relationship with the history and future course of military technological development and society. Drones are part of a long history, representing deep moralities, as well as innovative and determined pursuits to fix some of the most nefarious aspects of warfare.
Feature Photo – UK MQ-9 Reaper taking off, MoD Imagery, 2015
Inset Photo – US Navy Predator being prepped for mission, Wikimedia Commons, 2015
Inset Photo – Control manned at for MQ-1 Predator– Wikimedia Commons, 2015
DefenceReport’s weekly recap is a multi-format blog that features opinions and insights from DefRep editorial staff and writers. The opinions expressed here are the author’s own and are separate from DefRep reports, which are based on independent and objective reporting.
Scott is a Staff Analyst for DefenceReport and a PhD Candidate at the School of International Studies, University of Trento (Italy). His research focuses on asymmetric warfare, terrorism and counterterrorism, international security, and the use of force.