Droning on… and on?

By Phil Leech*

President Obama’s much publicised Drone Surge in Afghanistan has had me thinking about a few questions like:

To what extent does the increasing role of robots as weapons change the nature of war?; If drones make it easier to kill troublesome people does this mean that it is likely to become the preferred tactical option in dealing with governments’ enemies?; If drones make surveillance easier and as a result improves states’ capacity to prevent terrorism are we likely to see a proliferation in the use of drones? What are the consequences for the West’s use of soft power?

If all these questions were answered with my worst fears then it could probably be summarised in the hypothetical variant of Clausewitz’s axiom: as military robots develop and become more prevalent it is likely that they will enable the greater use of violence as a viable and useful extension of politics by other means.   

However, in order to test this hypothesis accurately we need to consider two other aspects of the question. First, there have always been advances in military technology from the trireme to the smart bomb. So what is it about the contemporary political/military environment that is significant? Second, what makes drones themselves different from other military technology?   

A fluid environment

The most prominent robotic matériel of the US and its allies’ recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are the Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). These have also been deployed in various sites across North Africa, the Middle East and Asia where the US is involved in armed conflict that apparently does not officially constitute war (these include Somalia and Libya to Yemen and Pakistan).

Of course the extension of American and allied power in this way is not necessarily unusual. After all the US remains the world’s only Hyperpower and according to most sensible (and some less than sensible) analyses its capacity to project military power on a global scale will remain unrivalled for the foreseeable future. Yet, if nothing else, the events of the last six months should have taught policy makers and academics alike to take nothing for granted in international relations.

As Joseph Nye argues, power is becoming more diffuse. Among other reasons he identifies the economic growth of the so called BRICs and the fact that people have access to new technologies of both warfare and communication. As a result, it is possible for groups to become better organised whether they are minded to advance their cause through soft, hard or even smart power.

In the last year both of these factors have already impacted on the status, and inevitably the worldview, of Western elites. The economic crisis demonstrates the critical and basic vulnerabilities at the heart of neo-liberal capitalism and peaceful popular uprisings in North African and the Middle East demonstrated that even when generously supplied with aid, equipment and support it is beyond the power of some police states to maintain control over their populations.

In this context I contend that those who occupy the powerful positions in the global system are preoccupied with anxiety regarding the nature of the global system. They are conscious of the fact that the structure of hierarchy upon which they rest, looks much less secure than it did just a year or two ago.  I suggest that as a result of this there is a consensus among western policy makers that it is now, more than ever, the time to invest in the kind of matériel that ensures their capacity to maintain a qualitative military advantage in an uncertain world. In many ways drones are the ideal solution.

What do drones do anyway?

In comparison to even the most advanced manned airpower UAVs offers two major advantages: (a) no matter what happens to a drone there is zero chance of the capture or death of a pilot and (b) with no susceptibility to fatigue UAVs can stay in the air many times longer than any manned mission – potentially, if mid-air refuelling is utilized, indefinitely. This means that their utility can extend beyond the scope of traditional air force into, for instance, the monitoring of national borders or a permanent security presence above otherwise civilian events that are considered to be vulnerable to terrorism or other nefarious activity.

Yet, it’s important not to get too excited about this. Not all drones are the same and it’s unlikely that the predator or reaper drones that patrol the skies of faraway lands are going to be coming to London for the 2012 games. Indeed there is a wide range of robotic matériel  that is already employed by various militaries for a wide range of purposes. Some of which has already doubtless saved the lives of service personnel and most future deployments are likely to be a means of reinforcing the UK’s national security and strategic interests (or even study wildlife!).

But it is significant that this might make the British public feel a little bit more comfortable (and probably make populations of other western liberal democracies feel better too). This is because, apart from the (admittedly exorbitant – by any sensible definition) financial cost, using robotic matériel means a virtually painless experience of warfare for a public is at present growing weary of the slight connection it has with current conflicts. 

But as P. W. Singer, the author of Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century, explains, the use of robotic hardware instead of soldiers means we have to think about two things. First, is a greater level of disconnectedness between the public in drone-using countries from the experiences of people in countries they are deployed (no coffins, no war bonds, etc. means no real, tangible sacrifice). Second, robots record everything that they do and because of this there will be more of a chance for ordinary people to see inside war, although only from one particular perspective.

Singer argues that this could either be something good, or bad. Arguably if Americans or British publics get to see enough footage of innocent people being killed in their name it could potentially lead to resistance against their governments’ military activities abroad.  However, a cursory glance at youtube reveals that something murkier is actually happening with this footage. In essence what one finds are short video clips, usually set to heavy metal music that depict the destruction and death of enemy combatants.  Thus far from humanising the cost of war it is clear that this kind of use of footage only serves to glorify it and make it appear more like a video game. Some people call it war porn, Singer calls says it an “ESPN sport-centre version of war”.  In other words, while robots will on the one hand push war further away, at the same time they also bring it closer to home.


There is no reference in Singer’s book to Jean Baudrillard. However, it seems apt to note that to some extent Baudrillard predicted this kind of shift when, two decades ago, he argued that that the Gulf war did not take place. Of course his three controversial essays were not meant as a factual denial that the US and coalition forces engaged and overwhelmed Iraq’s army, driving them out of Kuwait. Rather, he argued that from the perspective of the Western audience the war simply wasn’t a war in any sense we would normally understand the term. Instead, the experience was disconnected and reshaped through the sensationalism of the media.

Further, according to Baudrillard, the military commanders understood this. One of the objectives of the war was to demonstrate in the wake of the cold war that the US was ready and willing to extend its hegemony now that the main obstacle, the USSR, had collapsed.

Of course there are myriad criticisms that can be levelled at Baudrillard’s argument, not least of which is (perhaps typically of a post-structuralist) his own detachment from reality. For example, he does not take note of the vulnerability of oil fields and airstrips in northern Saudi Arabia and the potential consequences for the global market had these fallen into the hands of Saddam.   But this is not to say that he was not on to something. When compared with the two preceding conflicts endured by each side (Vietnam for the US and eight years of attrition against Iran for Saddam’s forces) this was hardly the same kind of war. As Noam Chomsky puts it, “if the concept ‘war’ involves two sides in combat, say, shooting at each other. That didn’t happen in the Gulf.” Instead, events like the so called turkey shoot north on the road to Basra demonstrated how one sided events had been.

How drones kill who they kill

The link to how drones are used is clear. Like the US mission that lead to the turkey shoot, their utility is in the fact drones kill, but they don’t get killed. In that sense they aren’t a weapon of war but a means of assassination. That they can hover over targets for days, or track them down quasi-autonomously, means that they are very effective assassins too. Given the shadowy world of the ‘war on terror’ don’t we just have to accept that assassinations, like detention without trial or the use of mercenaries, are legitimate if only because it is an effective tactic. If they keep the streets of western capitals free from terror shouldn’t we just hold our noses and accept the sacrifice of a little liberty for greater security?

But this is where the story falls apart. It turns out that drone assassinations aren’t necessarily effective; at least not in the sense that they do take out enemy leaders in order to cripple their dangerous terror networks.  In fact qualitative research shows that for the most part decapitation tactics are ineffective counter terrorism tactics and in fact are more likely to be counterproductive when applied against “older, larger, religious or separatist organisations.”

But even if this data is disputed, it is hard to reconcile the argument that drone assassinations are an essential means to bring down the top level of terrorist networks with the facts. Indeed while the majority killed by of US drone strikes in Pakistan have not been Al- Qaeda or Taliban leaders, but have been “low-level fighters, together with a small number of civilians… Not a single drone strike had targeted Osama bin Laden before he was killed by U.S. Navy SEALs on May 2. Meanwhile, al Qaeda’s second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has not been targeted by a drone since 2006.” In order for find more meaning in the use of drones beyond their tactical deployment we must return to where much of their early development was undertaken.


The Israeli military industrial complex pioneered the development of drones using them primarily for military surveillance but also for civilian uses where necessary. They used them alongside a blimp, to provide intelligence and tactical support to Israeli ground troops as they swarmed through Palestinian urban areas during the reinvasion of the West Bank in 2002.

However, their use has found new levels high above the Gaza Strip. In what he calls “thanto-tactics” Eyal Weizman describes how the occupation has been shifted, vertically, from the checkpoints on the streets of Gaza to the skies above. “While previously the IDF would cordon off an area with fences and earth dikes and place checkpoints on the approach roads, the airborne occupation of Gaza enforce as its closures by leafleting villages and refugee camps around the area to be shut off, declaring it off-limits and then targeting whoever tried to enter.”

It’s easy to draw from this a far darker conclusion about the future of drone warfare. In effect they don’t have really have political utility because they operate in the grey area between peace and war. Yet they go further and deeper than traditional airpower because they cut the human element out virtually in its entirety.

Baudrillard’s variant of Clausewitz for the new world order is even more fitting today than it was in 1991, it is that “non-war is the absence of politics pursued by other means … it no longer proceeds from a political will to dominate or from a vial impulsion or an antagonistic violence but from the will to impose a general consensus by deterrence”

There is no room for discussion, agency, regret, reformation, or forgiveness in a drone strike. They can wait for weeks, or seconds while the value of the target is being assessed and calculated. Or return later while the human beings below remain entirely unaware that they have been locked into a version of Bentham’s panopticon on a massive scale.

 * Phil Leech is a doctoral candidate in the Institute for Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter


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