Drone strikes are becoming an increasingly important aspect of Britain’s military capabilities. But if we are to make the most of this technology’s potential benefits, then we need to face some difficult truths.
The starting point is that the growing importance of drones to our military is only set to increase. As General Stanley McChrystal stated last week, drones offer an ‘unparalleled operational potential’. They give our troops an ‘all seeing eye’ permanently on call, able to give reliable, real-time intelligence that other sources, such as planes and satellites, don’t currently offer. And they grant the ability for apparently riskless, pin-point accurate strike capability. McChrystal, possibly the greatest special forces commander of his generation, suggested this capability was a main reason for his success against Al-Qaeda in Iraq.
So proliferation will happen. However, there are real hurdles that need to be overcome to make the most of this potential.
First, there is a concern that the threshold for armed conflict is lowered by the use of drones. This is for two reasons. For a start, drones remove the risk to your own personnel when attacking the enemy, and through that the greatest emotional burden of being at war: the condolence letter. Without risk of friendly casualties, leaders are more likely to risk conflict.
The other factor lowering the conflict threshold is that use of force against drones is more likely than against manned aircraft. Had Turkey shot down one of Russia’s drones, rather a SU-24 with two Russian pilots on board, then the situation would be very different. But at the same time, Turkey would likely have responded with force far sooner to Russia’s violations of its borders had those violations been committed by drones than manned aircraft; armed exchanges can quickly spiral out of control.
There are also serious concerns about the effects to drone pilots. The long hours, the violence of what they witness, and having to go home to their families each night without having the opportunity to decompress with their colleagues, are putting unique stresses on drone pilots. Brandon Bryant was a US former drone operator (on whom the new film Good Kill is loosely based). When he retired in 2011 his squadron had amassed 1,626 kills, orders of magnitude more than any normal pilots.
Perhaps most important of all, drones also have a very damaging effect on the ‘hearts and minds’ of those populations in conflict zones. The impotence, the inability to strike back, and the fear of danger constantly overhead causes a very significant backlash within populations subjected to drone strikes. Studies in Pakistan suggest that America’s drone programme has militarised civilians and united militants. There is no doubt that drones can act as a recruiting sergeant for the enemy you are trying to defeat.
On top of these risks, we need far greater transparency surrounding the legality of drone strikes. Drones’ extra-territorial reach, the use of drones in countries with which the UK is not at war, and the UK and US Governments adoption of the pre-emptive self-defence doctrine, have an uncertain legal basis. Similarly, the use of drones for extra-judicial killings, such as the strike that killed Reyaad Khan earlier this year, and the operation of pre-authorised kill-lists may be morally justifiable, but could face legal challenge. It is vitally important that the Government puts clear legal guidelines in place to govern these activities.
All these obstacles need to be overcome if drones are to be a useful contributor to our military efforts. The Government needs to properly assess the risks involved in drone use and create a robust legal framework and oversight system that will minimise such risks, if we are to maximise drones’ operational potential.