The politics of drone wars

I’m in the UK this week for – amongst other things – a seminar with Pete Adey, Sara Fregonese and some of the Geopolitics and Security students at Royal Holloway on my bombing project, Killing space; a workshop at Open Democracy for a new series on Cities in Conflict to be curated by Tom Cowan; and a lecture at Nottingham organised by Steve Legg: another outing for “Deadly Embrace”.

At the RHUL meeting the conversation frequently turned to drones; Pete made an audio recording of it, and I think at least part of what we discussed will appear on the Theory, culture & society website in the near future.  But I’d like to try to set out some of my own puzzlements and positions about the politics of drones here.

There are many ways in which individuals can take a stand against war, and there is a long and principled tradition of conscientious objection that includes pacifists in two World Wars through young Americans who resisted the draft in the 1960s and 70s to high school students in Israel who refuse to serve in the army of occupation.  In recent times most popular mobilisations against war have been against particular wars – I’m thinking of the demonstrations against the wars in S.E. Asia in the 60s and 70s, for example, or the millions of people who took to the streets to express their opposition to the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 – or against particular objects of violence: campaigns to ban land mines or cluster munitions, for example.  To me, the most effective political response to the use of Predators, Reapers and other UAVs in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere is to move between the two: to use the drone to draw publics into an apprehension of the wider fields of military violence in which they are deployed.

Global Hawk imagery of aftermath of Haiti earthquakeI think it is a mistake to focus on the object itself because, like all objects, a drone is highly unstable: it’s not a fixed, determinate ‘thing’ but its capacities and dispositions depend on the network or assemblage in which it is embedded. To see what I mean, begin by stripping the bombs and the missiles from these platforms: at present most drones are used for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), and these capabilities extend far beyond the domain of offensive operations and even beyond those of the military.  In 2010 US Southern Command used a Global Hawk to provide detailed imagery of the damage caused by the Haiti earthquake (above) and the following year another Global Hawk was deployed to assess the damage to the Fukishima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan; other, smaller and far less sophisticated drones have been used to monitor wildfires in California and to track and disrupt Japanese whaling fleets, while a series of other, broadly ecological-humanitarian projects have been proposed with varying degrees of plausibility.  I don’t rehearse these other possibilities to minimise the military and paramilitary uses of the technology – and we surely know, not least from Nick Turse‘s account in The Complex, that the military and the civilian have become ever more hopelessly entangled with one another – and neither am I indifferent to the blurring of military power and NGO relief operations in the humanitarian present,  but we need to acknowledge, to paraphrase Clive Barnett, that not all ISR operations are sinister: ‘presumptively illegitimate, undemocratic or suspect‘.

Dwell Detect Destroy drone ad

Hellfire missile launch (USAF)This is why Drone Wars UK focuses on ‘armed drones’ and Drones Watch on ‘killer drones’.  It’s clear that militarised ISR is part of a continued ‘rush to the intimate’ that is profoundly invasive and, on many occasions, extraordinarily violent. In Afghanistan the US military embeds its UAVs in a networked kill-chain in which their near real-time, high-resolution, full-motion video feeds are routinely used to call in attacks from conventional strike aircraft.  So let’s now put the bombs and missiles back on these platforms, since the Predators and Reapers are usually armed and their manufacturers boast about their capacity to compress the kill-chain: to ‘dwell, detect [and] destroy’. But it then makes no sense to object to the strikes carried out directly from them and to exempt those carried out by conventional means across the network: what is the difference between a Hellfire missile launched from a Reaper and one fired from an Apache helicopter gunship?  (To put this in perspective, according to the most recent airpower summary, USAF Predators and Reapers directly accounted for just 5-6 per cent of its ‘weapons releases’ in Afghanistan in 2009, 2010, and 2011, though the proportion climbed to 9.25 per cent in the first ten months of 2012).

Medea BENJAMIN Drone WarfareTo answer that question critics usually cite the horror of death at a distance.  This is death from thousands of miles away, conducted by operators in the continental United States: ‘killing by remote control’.  And yet there are countless other ways in which militaries have been killing from ever increasing distances ever since the invention of the slingshot and the longbow. If you insist that it is wrong to kill somebody from 7,500 miles away, then over what distance do you think it is acceptable?  If you are determined to absolutize distance in this way, then don’t you need to consider all the other ways in which advanced militaries are able to kill their adversaries (and civilians) without ever seeing them? Again, I don’t raise the spectre of Cruise missiles launched from ships hundreds of miles from their targets, the US ‘Prompt Global Strike’ capability and its Advanced Hypersonic Weapon which is ultimately  intended to hit a target anywhere on the planet in under an hour, or the prospect of ‘frictionless’ cyberwarfare, to minimise the deaths caused by drones.  I simply want our politics to apprehend the larger field of military violence in which they are deployed.

And there is something different about those deaths that draws us back into the killing fields.  I should say at once that I don’t think this is simply war reduced to a video-game – and in any case there are many other military technologies that also depend on hand-eye co-ordination, multi-tasking and spatial acuity, all skill-sets valorized by video-games – but I also think it a mistake to assume that the screen effectively insulates the viewer from the victim.  In this sense there is a parallel between the platforms, because video-games are profoundly immersive, and those who call in or carry out these strikes insist that they are not 7,500 miles from their targets at all (and Launch & Recovery crews are much closer than that) but ‘eighteen inches away’: the distance from eye to screen.  It’s a highly selective process of compression; as I’ve shown in detail in Lines of descent (DOWNLOADS tab), those involved in the remote kill-chain typically feel remarkably close to their own troops on the ground and remain distant from the life-worlds of the population at large (which in part accounts for the civilian casualties when drones are used to provide close air support).  But unlike most other forms of distant death and destruction, the pilots, sensor operators and others who are networked into these kill-chains can see their targets up close – even if their ‘seeing’ is techno-culturally conditioned and often predisposes them to treat innocent actions as hostile intentions – and they typically remain on station to carry out a ‘bomb damage assessment’ and so see for themselves, often in hideous detail, what they have done.

Flying an MQ-9 Reaper over Kandahar, Afghanistan

The most consequential change is that these new modes of air power deal not in the area bombing of cities like Cologne, Hamburg or Dresden, or the blind bombing of target boxes over the rainforests of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, but – in addition to close air support – in the calculated assassination of individuals or groups: so-called ‘targeted killing‘ or what the USAF calls putting ‘warheads on foreheads‘.  This does not mean that the firebombing of cities in the Second World War should become the moral standard against which we judge contemporary military violence. On the contrary, targeted killing raises its own grave legal and ethical questions – and, not incidentally, those video feeds have given military lawyers a pivotal role in these newly networked strikes – that in turn activate two other no less serious concerns about the emergent geographies of fields of military violence.

First is the fear that the use of remote platforms lowers the threshold at which military violence will be launched.  Predators and Reapers are much cheaper than conventional strike aircraft, and if there are no troops on the ground, there are no body bags to come home.  In short, drone war threatens to become risk-transfer war hypostatised; the risk is transferred wholly to the adversary population.  But at present these platforms have high failure rates – they are vulnerable to weather conditions (and I don’t mean hurricanes and monsoons, I mean clouds), they crash all too frequently and they are so slow and noisy that they can easily be shot down so they can only be used in uncontested airspace.  These limitations mean that, at present at any rate, they are less likely to incite conventional state-on-state war – though there is certainly a global arms race to acquire and develop far more advanced drone technologies.

Second and closely connected is the fear that they make it much easier to engage in war by stealth.  If one of the primary foreign policy challenges of the last Bush administration was ‘conducting war in countries we are not at war with‘, Obama’s version is the determination to wage what Martin Libicki calls ‘non-obvious warfare’: hence the Obama administration’s preference for remote operations, Special Forces and cyber-attacks.  To be sure, there are degrees of obviousness: the drone attacks in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere are hardly covert – since they are hidden in plain sight – but they are, within limits, more deniable than the deployment of thousands of ground troops and so inherently less accountable to the various publics involved in them.  And in all these cases Predators and Reapers dramatically heighten the asymmetry involved in military and paramilitary operations against non-state actors, where they have made a policy of ‘kill’ rather than ‘capture’ a much more tempting (and much more pernicious) US counter-terrorism strategy.

More to come.

4 thoughts on “The politics of drone wars

  1. Pingback: The case for and against drones | Open Geography

  2. Pingback: A geography of geographical imaginations « geographical imaginations

  3. Pingback: Drones and civilian casualties in Afghanistan | geographical imaginations

  4. Pingback: Theory of the drone 12: ‘Killing well’? | geographical imaginations

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