The Drone Paradigm: Surgical Precision or Intelligence Mishaps

Marina Petrova

MQ-9 Reaper Drone. Photo source: Charles McCain,  via Creative Commons.

The debate on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) – also commonly referred to as drones – has left a paucity of conclusive remarks in relation to their effects, utility, and the role drones will play in modern warfare over the coming decades. The only certain aspect is that the proliferation and use of drones is an increasing part of twenty-first century warfare, and drones are indeed ‘here to stay’.

Among the strategic advantages of UAVs are their alleged higher attack precision rates, which are said to minimise potential civilian casualties, and the ability to fly for longer hours deployed from different platforms. However, there are certain apprehensions in relation to the US drone programme stemming from considerations of the balance between strategic advantages and the proportionality of the US counter-terrorism efforts. Complications arise due to the fact that the nature of the drone strikes conducted is covert, and death toll statistics is inconclusive and prone to bias. Furthermore, it is highly debatable whether drones are indeed high precision weapons since their operation depends on invariably imperfect intelligence information.

To Kill with Precision

Drone warfare ultimately is contingent on reliable intelligence, but this prerequisite isn’t devoid of problems. US drone operators rely primarily on collected Signal Intelligence (SIGINT) from aircraft, and less so on Human Intelligence (HUMINT) due to the fact that it is difficult to implant agents in hostile territories where usually drone programmes operate. As early as 1983 Richard Betts in the seminal article “Analysis, War and Decision: Why Intelligence Failures Are Inevitable”, pointed out that the possession of cutting-edge intelligence gathering technology doesn’t necessarily mean that those who read the information are free from the risk of misinterpreting. He stated that the difficulty is ‘to extract certainty from uncertainty and to facilitate coherent decision in an incoherent environment’. Therefore, it can be argued that intelligence is almost always imperfect. The fact that the operation of the US drone programme depends on imperfect intelligence for the execution of targeted killings makes such a programme prone to mistakes, and – in turn – to unfavourable consequences which compromise the goals of the programme itself.

Drone strikes are exerted on the rationale that a certain individual or a group of people who carry the characteristics of terrorists, or engage in suspicious activities need to be taken down. However, the confirmation of the identity of a potential target is extremely difficult without HUMINT. Hence, a drone strike is supposed to be executing discriminate violence, but the fact that the target is identified only by particular characteristics associated with violence implies less certainty that the target is really an aggressor – thus crossing into the domain of indiscriminate violence.

Through its use of UAV strikes, the US faces the possibility of causing collateral damage, which is a major unintended consequence that triggers anti-American sentiment. The lack of accountability and transparency in these covert operations further antagonises populations who suffer these attacks. As a result, people are prone to alienation from the community and the state as a precursor of the social contract with its citizens, which in turn endangers their identity and security.

Drones & the Paradigm of War

Despite the fact that UAVs aren’t such a recent invention, drones today are set to change profoundly the paradigm of war. The crux of this argument is that they shift the nature of warfare from overt to covert; moreover, armed drones utilised in the past decade are controlled remotely, often thousands of miles away form the theatre of engagement, but the damage inflicted upon is in real time without any physical contact between the parties. Thus, the effects that drones produce to the population on the ground should be classified as unique in comparison to the effects of other weapon systems. This is so due to the highly asymmetrical nature of this form of warfare, i.e. the combatants and civilians on the ground don’t have a direct encounter with their ‘enemy’.

Strategically, drones don’t focus on establishing control over territory as in most military campaigns; their primary purpose is to annihilate threats based on certain characteristics. Consequently, people who have certain characteristics associated with can become a target owing solely to idiosyncratic behaviour. The widely cited blowback to US drone activity in Yemen was stoked by a UAV strike on a wedding, where civilians taking part in the wedding procession were killed in a drone strike because they were armed with rifles – common sight in a country where weapons signify manhood and are used for skyward gunshots marking in celebrations.

Drone warfare invokes deep human emotions in conflict, the fact that the ontology of war has an affect not solely on physical, but also on emotional aspects of human life. Apart from the shock and grief that spectators have to bear, the psychological effects of drones are extremely severe. It is common that people suffer from atypical behaviour associated with increased level of fear, uncommon distress and even extreme PTSD. Personal stories of eyewitnesses and relatives of victims of drone strikes all share the common features of anxiety after a drone strike, and – as a second-order effect – hostility towards the US. These negative sentiments are sometimes expressed in peaceful manners, as in the case of popular art or protests to raise attention, but it is beyond doubt that the rising level of antagonism can be voiced in violent ways.

Overall, if drones are in fact ‘here to stay’, there should be more careful consideration about their first- and second-order effects together with re-examination of the supposition that they are indeed high precision weapon systems. This would be a prerequisite to avoid creating new challenges; exacerbating pre-existing security threats and social maladies; and leaving politically, social, and economically distressed states even further adrift from stability.

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