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Attack of the drones


May 20, 2012 - Drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), have become the centrepiece of the allied military strategy in the "war on terror." In 2011 they were deployed in Libya, Somalia, Afghanistan, Yemen, Pakistan, Iraq, Palestine and Turkey. According to the Economist, drone strikes have increased by 1,200 per cent since 2005. This is equivalent to one strike every four days. Modern warfare is transforming and could lead to the deployment of military robots that make attack decisions independently....


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Attack of the drones

by Chizom Ekeh

May 20, 2012

Drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), have become the centrepiece of the allied military strategy in the "war on terror."

In 2011 they were deployed in Libya, Somalia, Afghanistan, Yemen, Pakistan, Iraq, Palestine and Turkey.

According to the Economist, drone strikes have increased by 1,200 per cent since 2005. This is equivalent to one strike every four days.

Modern warfare is transforming and could lead to the deployment of military robots that make attack decisions independently.

Termed as "automatic deletion," human operators would be taken out of the loop and preprogrammed robots would carry out missions guided by artificial intelligence.

According to Teal Group, a US aerospace and defence analysis firm, investment in the industry is projected to rise to $89 billion over the next 10 years.

Author of the study and director of Teal's corporate analysis Philip Finnegan predicted that "the UAV market will continue to be strong despite cuts in defence spending.

"UAVs have proved their value in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan and will continue to be a high priority for militaries in the US and worldwide."

Israel is the leading global exporter of UAVs, while other key players in the industry include Canada, France, Italy and South Africa. There are currently 40 companies selling and manufacturing drones, and 50 countries have acquired the technology.

In recent years Britain has been using Israeli drones in Afghanistan which it has rented on a pay by the hour basis from the company Elbit Systems.

British soldiers have also received training in Israel on how to operate the weapons.

Proponents of drone warfare claim that UAVs bring down the costs of war. They argue that civilian casualties are reduced due to higher-precision strikes.

Furthermore, they highlight that robots could make war more ethical, as they cannot act out of malice or hatred which can lead to war crimes or other abuses of human rights.

While the Economist asserts that "claims that drones are constantly blowing up Afghan weddings is wrong," the fact remains that civilian casualties are rising and protests against their use are intensifying worldwide. In response, savvy industry leaders have mobilised to discuss "how to stop the public hysteria surrounding UAV operations in the 21st century?" and the MoD has committed to implementing a communications strategy to counter negative publicity.

The Bureau for Investigative Journalism has reported that between 2004 and August 2011, 2,347 people were killed by US drones. Between 392 and 781 were civilians, and of these 175 were children.

Other sources state that at least one of these victims was disabled and confined to a wheelchair.

Additionally, six of these victims were British nationals, but the British government has not investigated their deaths.

Meanwhile, of the two US citizens killed in strikes, one was alleged by the CIA to have been al-Qaida's leader in the Arabian Peninsula.

In September 2011 Anwar al-Awlaki was assassinated in Yemen by a US drone.

Two weeks later, in a separate attack, his 16-year-old son was one of nine people killed.

Concerns have been raised by lawyers about the legality of Awlaki's assassination as a US citizen with no criminal charge.

Against this background the American Civil Liberties Union said: "If the constitution means anything, it surely means that the president does not have the unreviewable authority to summarily execute any citizen who it concludes is an enemy of the state."

In November 2011, 16-year-old Tariq Aziz and his 12-year-old cousin Waheed Khan were both killed by US drone strikes in Northern Waziristan. Just days before his death, Tariq had attended a meeting organised by the British charity Reprieve.

Tariq had agreed to assist the organisation by taking pictures of the aftermath of Allied strikes.

Mounting civilian casualties and the lack of accountability for these deaths is fuelling anger globally. In November 2011, 2,000 people staged an anti-drone demonstration outside the parliament building in Islamabad, and for the first time Yemeni citizens came together to voice their outrage in Sana'a.

Human rights lawyer Shazad Akbar is suing the CIA for the killing of Pakistani civilians.

Furthermore, legal action taken by human rights groups against Foreign Secretary William Hague could lead to his prosecution for war crimes. He is accused of providing intelligence that assisted CIA-targeted killings in Pakistan.

In April last year a civil disobedience action was staged at Hancock Air National Guard Base in the US. Thirty-eight anti-drone protesters were arrested and some have been put on trial.

Meanwhile at RMT University in Melbourne, protesters disrupted a meeting organised by UAV manufacturers. They urged attendees to reject technological innovations which enable killing from great distance and condemned the use of the weapons as immoral.

Drone Wars UK has demanded the classification of drones as "too cruel to use like cluster munitions and landmines." This has been backed by critics who warn that the use of robots to achieve military objectives could amount to a disproportionate use of force.

In future, drones could be developed that achieve superhuman levels of accuracy, reaching a 100 per cent rate of effectiveness. However such capability would break rules of proportionality under international humanitarian law (IHL).

Overseen by the International Red Cross, IHL bans weapons that cause more than 25 per cent mortality on the battlefield and 5 per cent mortality in hospitals.

The question of the legality of targeted killing remains unanswered. The US and British governments either refuse to disclose information about when this policy is applied or deny outright that it is happening. Lawyers state that targeted killings contravene the rule of law and argue that this amounts to state-sanctioned assassination.

Criticising the EU's silence on targeted killing in Pakistan, analyst Nathalie Van Raemdonck contends that drone warfare could be illegal, and that the EU's failure to put pressure on the US to explain the legal basis of its policy is due to a lack of consensus caused by vested interests among member states.

She warns: "Even though the analysis of the US's targeted killing makes it clear that it is a legally and morally controversial practice, it is possible that the EU finds advantages of avoiding the subject to be greater than those of living up to its moral obligation of urging the US to comply with international law."

Agreeing with Van Raemdonk's warnings against a backlash, critics argue that robotic warfare could destabilise global security and deepen hostility towards British and US peacekeeping or military interventions overseas.

Robots, they say, would make war easier to wage, as the safety of remote operators thousands of miles away from their targets would make them less concerned about killing.

An adviser to the CIA and expert on robots has emphasised the need for continued human diplomacy to avoid fuelling resentment.

Highlighting Iraq, he said: "Sending in robot patrols into Baghdad to keep the peace would send the wrong message about our willingness to connect with residents. We still need human diplomacy for that. In war this could backfire against us, as our enemies mark us as dishonourable and cowardly for not willing to engage them man to man. This serves to make them more resolute in fighting us and leads to a new crop of determined terrorists."

As has occurred with all war technologies in the past, the risk of UAV proliferation is high.

Noting this danger, UN Special Rapporteur on Extra Judicial Killing Christof Heyns warned: "The use of such methods by some states to eliminate opponents around the world raises the question why other states should not engage in the same practices.

"The danger is one of global war without borders, in which no one is safe."


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:: Article nr. 88216 sent on 21-may-2012 16:18 ECT

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