Drone Wars: Prospects, Proliferation and Emerging Challenges

As noted in our post The Iran Deal: Diplomacy Update, Islamabad’s nuclear weapons programme may be outpacing New Delhi’s. Toby Dalton and Michael Krepon’s study, A Normal Nuclear Pakistan, argues that our country has been producing 20 nuclear warheads annually in comparison to India’s five. (Presently, Islamabad has 120 warheads in comparison to New Delhi’s 100.) They estimate that at this rate Pakistan will, within a decade, join the ranks of Russia and the US in the league table of states possessing the largest nuclear arsenals. We also touched upon the copious use of drone strikes, by American and British forces, in Future Trends in Syria’s War and this post sheds further light on this important issue – one which chronically affects Pakistan. Emerging research suggests that apart from the US, Britain, Israel, China, and Iran – which have developed drones for military use – numerous Asian and European countries are pursuing drone programmes to reap the rewards of this unique class of weapon.

This post looks into the proliferation of drones and examines new trends emerging in this field. It has been reported that there have been 15 US strikes in Pakistan this year and only last week (6 September 2015) the Pakistan army confirmed that it killed three high profile militants in a first ever indigenous drone attack (by a UAV named “Burraq”) in the Shawal valley of the Waziristan tribal region near the Afghan border. Such successes aside, one thing is for sure. The ethical, legal and tactical dilemmas thrown up by drone warfare will only intensify as their use becomes more and more widespread. Technically known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), drones have become the weapon of choice for carrying out clinical target killings such as the ones recently witnessed in the cases of British jihadis Reyaad Khan and Ruhul Amin. Strikes have increased exponentially and the Obama administration has conducted more than 500 drone attacks compared to George W Bush’s 50, a tenfold increase.

Although Pakistan’s requests to procure drone technology were rejected by Washington, Islamabad – which wishes to develop a programme matching its needs to combat the Taliban across the Durand Line – resolved not only produce them locally but also with Chinese expertise. The sophistication of the strike in the Shawal valley surprised many Western experts who speculated that the precision involved pointed towards China as the source of the technology utilised. It has been reported that “before ‘Burraq’ was publicly showcased it had been tested in live combat against militants in the Tirah Valley.”

The Obama administration thinks that resort to drone strikes does not violate international law. But in 2013 the Peshawar High Court held that such attacks violate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948 and amount to a war crime. After all, nearly 200 children have been killed in these chilling attacks. Many of those killed were entirely unarmed and had never been belligerent with the US. The fact that hundreds of innocent Pakistanis have been murdered in cold blood – what the US euphemistically terms as “collateral damage” – cannot be erased by the Obama administration’s spin that the strikes are a precise, effective and proportionate method of making war. Indeed, Obama’s image as an international human rights grandee and America’s reputation for upholding democracy and the rule of law are hugely tarnished as a result of the drone war.

Our own prime minister, Mohammed Nawaz Sharif, quite rightly thinks that the attacks are an able recruiting sergeant for terror groups. He is of the view that liability for the attacks cannot be offset, or condoned, by the misperception that exists in relation to the clinical nature of the strikes. As he said in 2013 while addressing a gathering at the US Institute of Peace in Washington:

The use of drones is not only a continual violation of our territorial integrity but also detrimental to our resolve and efforts at eliminating terrorism from our country.

Writing about the Attack of the Drones in yesterday’s Sunday Times (13 September 2015), Max Hastings explained that the UAV era began three decades ago in California when Abraham Karem, an Israeli aeronautical engineer, conceived (in his garage) a next generation vehicle for aerial surveillance. Hastings reports that since 2002 more than 3,500 people have died in US drone attacks. (He also posits that there were 102 British drone strikes in Iraq from September 2014 to March 2015 and 510 in Afghanistan during the period 2008-2014.) Apparently Pakistan has been interested in UAVs since Karem’s early prototypes were tested in 1986. Karem’s company went under in 1990 and he was later employed by General Atomics, the secretive company contracted by the Pentagon and the CIA which created the Predator drone which was field tested for glitches in the war in Yugoslavia. Hastings states that the Predator drone was budgeted at $1.2 billion and the newer Reaper model is budgeted at $12 billion. Other well-known drones include Israel’s Hermes 900 which is manufactured by Elbit and has a medium-altitude long endurance. It was first used over Gaza in Operation Protective Edge. The Chinese Wing Loong is manufactured by Chengdu Aircraft Design and Research Institute whose programme began in 2005 but industry experts see it as being a variant of the Predator. Notably, the Reaper has been developed into the Avenger.

“The virtues of a drone are first, its endurance – a capability to loiter over the battlefield at low speeds for up to 24 hours,” Hastings informs us. He inclines to the view that hellfire missiles fired from drones cause far less collateral damage than conventional bombing by air force planes. Hastings conjures up an attractive argument. He invites us to follow his logic that 500 civilian deaths caused by 250 tons of explosives (used in drone attacks in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia) are much more palatable than the 100,000 civilian deaths that occurred when the Americans bombed Cambodia and Laos in 1973 using 4.7 million tons of bombs. The results are also superior militarily because the 2002-2014 drone campaign in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia has caused “devastating attrition” to al-Qaeda (and now ISIS).

Despite the efficiency and utility offered by UAVs, concerns nevertheless remain as regards the legality of drones strikes and the proliferation of drone technology. Huge challenges remain. Indeed, if they fall into the wrong hands, these efficacious counter-terrorism weapons run a high risk of being used to deliver biological and chemical weapons on civilian populations by terrorists.

For example, in the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hizbollah – the Iranian backed militant group in the Lebanon – the latter admitted to using an Iranian made drone. “A sophisticated reconnaissance aircraft was sent from Lebanese territory… and travelled hundreds of kilometres over the sea before crossing enemy lines and into occupied Palestine,” said Hizbollah’s leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah in 2012. (Israeli warplanes shot the UAV down 35 miles inland after ground defence systems detected it.) With reference to the 2006 war between Israel and Hizbollah, he also explained that:

It’s not the first time and it will not be the last. We can reach all the zones [of Israel].

Against that, examining the dilemmas surrounding drone warfare, in their study Limiting Armed Drone Proliferation, Micah Zenko and Sarah Kreps argue “that it is essential to begin working now to expand and establish such rules and norms, while the number of states with armed drones remains relatively small.” They are strong proponents of a strategy that lays down clear limits on the sale and use of armed drones in order to reduce the prospects of the proliferation of these weapons and to prevent their use becoming widespread.

Another, more recent, study from June 2015 by the Center for a New American Security entitled A World of Proliferated Drones (which also looks at non-military uses of drones) noted that 90 countries are now operating drones of one type or another. The study said that at least 30 militaries were either operating or trying to acquire or develop armed UAVs.

Kreps and Zenko’s report also underlines several other policy proposals for the White House such as:

  • Tasking the intelligence community to publish an unclassified survey of the current and future trends of unmanned military technologies –including ground, sea, and autonomous systems – as they do for ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction.
  • Commissioning an unclassified study by a federally funded research institution to assess how unmanned aerial systems have been employed in destabilising settings and identify the most likely potential future missions of drones that run counter to US interests.
  • Directing administration officials to testify – for the first time – before Senate and House Foreign Relations Committees hearings on the principles and criteria that should guide armed and unarmed drone exports.
  • Appointing a high-level panel of outside experts to review US government policies on targeting decisions and their transparency and potential effect on emerging proliferators, and propose reforms based on the President’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communication Technologies.

Kreps and Zenko’s report provides the following round up in future developments in drone warfare:

  • India reports that it will soon equip its drones with precision-guided munitions and hopes to mass-produce combat drones to conduct targeted strikes in cross-border attacks on suspected terrorists.
  • Turkey has about 24 types of drones in use or development, four of which have been identified as combat drones.
  • Switzerland, France, Italy, Spain, Greece, and Sweden are collaborating on the Neuron, a stealth armed drone that made its first demonstration flight in December 2012.

Other key points in the report stress that:

  • Several reasons exist why armed drones are unique in their ability to destabilise relations and intensify conflict. Unmanned aircraft reduce the threshold for authorising military action by eliminating pilot casualty, potentially increasing the frequency of force deployment.
  • Because there is no onboard pilot, drones are less responsive to warnings that could defuse or prevent a clash. Furthermore, countries may fire on a manned fighter plane, mistaking it for an armed drone, which could increase the likelihood of conflict.
  • Moreover, the proliferation of unmanned aircraft carries an increased risk of lethality because “drones are, in many ways, the perfect vehicle for delivering biological and chemical agents”.
  • The Obama administration faces two broad policy decisions: first, to determine the criteria and principles that would guide exports of drones; and second, to cultivate a set of norms and practices to govern their use.
  • As the lead user of drones, the United States has the unique opportunity to determine which countries acquire these systems and hold them accountable for how they use those drones.

Kreps and Zenko conclude that in order to meet the challenges posed by drone warfare, America’s drone exports should require commitment to the following principles:

  • Peacefully resolving all outstanding border or maritime disputes; peacefully brokering domestic political disputes; protecting civilians from harm caused by other weapons platforms; and protecting human rights.
  • A set of norms to govern the use of drones would require increased transparency on US drone strike practices and targeting decisions.
  • A guiding principle for how the US describes and clarifies its drone operations should be based on type and specificity of information it wants to see used by other armed drone states.

In yesterday’s Sunday Times (13 September 2015, Attack of the Drones), Max Hastings also notes that Israel “ruthlessly” uses drone strikes and blatantly disregards civil casualties in attacks against unarmed Palestinians. Hastings quotes Eitan Ben Elihayu, a former commander of the Israeli Air Force, as saying:

If you confront the terrorist while he is executing his mission, this is too late. The idea is to stop the terrorist operation from even starting. And these things cannot be done by jet aeroplanes and even helicopters.

Research from King’s College, London suggests that over the last three years fifty Britons have been killed fighting for Islamist militants in Syria and Iraq. But the number of Britons killed in drone strikes is reported to be 10.

Posted by Editor.

2 Comments

Filed under Criminal Justice, Discussion, Drones, India, Iran, ISIS, Pakistan, Palestine, Politics, Syria, Taliban, The Middle East, United States

2 responses to “Drone Wars: Prospects, Proliferation and Emerging Challenges

  1. Pingback: Drone Wars: Two Reports | PIIA Library Blog

  2. Pingback: The Middle East in Turmoil: A Talk by Ambassador Karamatullah Ghori | Pakistan Horizon

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