Feeling better about ‘drones’ shouldn’t make us feel easy about war

Last month the Birmingham Policy Commission published ‘The Security Impact of Drones: Challenges and Opportunities for the UK’; available online here. It is recommended reading for anyone interested in the topic of ‘drones’, or remotely piloted aircraft/remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPA/RPAS) as they are more meaningfully described. In particular, the report usefully highlights the fundamental distinction between RPAS and hypothetical ‘killer robots’ – or, less emotively, ‘lethal autonomous weapons systems’ (LAWS) – pointing out that the specific legal and ethical issues surrounding the concept of autonomy do not apply to a weapons system where a human is ultimately in control, albeit remote from the action. It also discusses the possible consequences of the international proliferation of RPAS, and the privacy and other implications as they become more widely used in a domestic context.

Nevertheless the report only partially addresses some important ethical, legal, and political issues relating to the use of this new technology. These are especially pertinent at a time of year when as a nation we ask ourselves difficult questions about the place that war occupies in our national consciousness – whether, for example, our acts of remembrance serve to remind us of the horrors of war or contribute to its glorification.  The debate about ‘drones’ is important not least because it prompts us to ask whether our foreign policy is unduly influenced by our possession of a technological capability that allows us too readily to deploy overwhelming force and thereby encourages us to seek military solutions to political problems – and this in a world where principles of global solidarity are increasingly vulnerable to simplistic notions of ‘good’ and ‘evil’.

While the remit of the Commission was ‘to explore the issues that confront the UK government in the development, regulation, and use of RPA as well as in reacting to the proliferation of this technology on a global scale’ (p6), the report acknowledges that ‘it is US use of armed RPA outside conventional conflicts for the purposes of targeted killing which has grabbed the headlines and become the focus of criticism’ (p 82). The UK is in a dilemma here: it says it does not use RPAS in the way the US does, but it declines to take a stand on the US position. At the same time the UK claims that ‘existing international law sufficiently covers the use of RPA’ although Ben Emmerson, the UN’s Special Rapporteur, disagrees, pointing out that there are divergences of international views on the legal position and arguing that there is ‘an urgent and imperative need to reach a consensus between States’ (p51). Be that as it may, the logic of the UK position is that it believes the US is breaking international law, but is not willing to say so. The report urges the UK government to show more courage in this regard (p83), but it is evident that looking exclusively at the UK’s use of RPAS tells only a small part of the story.

The report also complains that ‘the critics of RPA have not appreciated the benefits of these advanced weapons systems, both in reducing the exposure to harm of UK military personnel, and in reducing civilian casualties, given the precision capabilities of RPA’. But this overlooks the above point, that there is a world of difference between using RPAS to provide close air support in an ongoing battle (which is how the MoD claims they are used by the UK – although critics, supported by the report, call for much greater transparency if this is to be believed) and using them to deliver lethal force – away from the combat zone – against suspected ‘terrorists’. It is the latter use of the platform that makes people uneasy, not least – as some of us have argued – because of the high probability of targeting errors. In other words, collateral damage to civilians is one important issue, but so is what many would regard as the extrajudicial use of lethal force. ‘Precision’ in this sense is no guarantee of justness.

The report states further: ‘It is a central conclusion of this Commission that, while they are of undeniable technological novelty, RPA under the control of a pilot on the ground do not fundamentally alter the ethical or legal challenges confronting British governments over the accumulation, deployment, and use of aerospace capability’ (p56). This may be true, but allowing ourselves a collective sigh of relief that drones are, after all, acceptable as long as they are used properly must not deflect us from considering a much bigger issue: the ethics of killing in war. While killing in war is justified, it is still fundamentally ‘unjust’ in the sense that human life is sacred and not ours to take. Although the laws of the conduct of war (International Humanitarian Law, or IHL) are designed to limit the human consequences of war they do not make killing acceptable in any fundamental moral sense. The report demonstrates that there is no reason why RPAS cannot be IHL compliant. And while some criticise IHL on the grounds that it only limits the worst excesses of war, rather than helping to stop it, most would think it worth trying to ensure the worst excesses of war are avoided. Nevertheless, the fact that RPAS do not fundamentally change anything ethically and legally does not mean we should contemplate their use lightly.

On the other side of the debate, one of the more lurid arguments against RPAS is that they encourage a ‘play station mentality’. The report is robust in dismissing this idea, supported by a powerful quote from an RAF Reaper operator which concludes ‘I believe that if you cannot face the reality of what you do in killing a human being, then you should not be part of that process’ (p60). It is less convincing in dismissing the argument that the possession of RPAS lowers the threshold for the use of force, merely stating ‘we are not persuaded by this position’ (p59). Indeed, there is a disturbing reference in the report to the ‘Options for the RAF Reaper fleet after Afghanistan’, which suggests that because the Reapers have not yet satisfied the normal airworthiness tests for use in UK airspace they may have to continue to be based outside of the UK, and, as the then Defence Secretary, Philip Hammond, put it, new bases might have to be found ‘closer to areas of crisis’ (p27). This obviously raises a concern about supply driven intervention: the danger that because we have a hammer we see every problem as a nut.

Indeed, at this point we should remind ourselves that this report talks not only of ‘Challenges’ but also of ‘Opportunities’ for the UK. There is a whole chapter on ‘Futures’, i.e. the strategic – but also commercial – advantages to be gained by the UK in staying at the forefront of the development and exploitation of RPAS. Many people will feel uncomfortable at the suggestion that the UK should seek to profit from the successful exploitation of a lethal weapon – although to be fair, in this respect RPAS are no different from any other weapons system. However, while much effort – including by the authors of this report – is devoted to justifying the use of a particular technologically enabled capability, there is less evidence of fundamental questions being asked about our willingness to go to war in support of a foreign policy whose claims that it is helping to make the world a safer place are increasingly open to question. Is a national propensity to take up arms part of the problem? It is a shame that this question was not included in the report as one of the ‘Challenges’ facing the UK.

Precision Strike Warfare and International Intervention: Strategic, Ethico-Legal, and Decisonal Implications, edited by Mike Aaronson, Wali Aslam, Tom Dyson, and Regina Rauxloh, is published by Routledge.