More drones, more war

The notion that deploying drones will enable militaries to conduct war with greater precision and less civilian harm is neither new, nor accurate argues the IRW team in an op-ed for the NRC.

The following is the English version of the NRC op-ed. The Dutch language article is available here:

Gould, L & Zoetbrood, I. (2020, 28 December). Meer Drones, meer oorlog. NRC

A recent investigation by the NRC And NOS set out in grim detail the circumstances leading up to the now-infamous 2015 Dutch airstrike on the Iraqi town of Hawija, conducted as part of the international coalition against Daesh. According to the NRC article, the airstrike, which left more than seventy civilians dead, was the product of “inadequate information” stemming from a “drone scarcity” at the time of the attack. The implicit conclusion of this analysis is that more drones would lead to better intelligence, less reliance on the local partners, and ultimately fewer civilian casualties. This reasoning is, in our opinion, misguided. 

The NRC and NOS are to be commended for shining a light on this shadowy way of warfare. Dutch responsibility for the Hawija airstrike was only attributed four years after it took place, in large part due to the work of investigative journalists. Without their efforts, the Dutch public may never have been made aware of the civilian harm resulting from a strike carried out in their name. The ensuing parliamentary debate led to some difficult questions for Defense Minister Bijleveld, forcing her and her ministry to reassess issues regarding transparency and responsibility. By contrast, the more recent analysis of the NRC, that more and better technology is the solution, will sit much more comfortably with Defensie and parliamentarians who support the purchase of four MQ-9 Reaper drones. Expected over the next two years at Leeuwarden Airbase, these drones will be the first in Airforce’s own drone arsenal. This analysis is already enriching the rhetoric of Dutch drone enthusiasts, such as Oud-luchtmachtofficier Peter Wijninga, in persuading sceptics of the urgency and importance of military drone technology.

The notion that the improved intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities of drones will enable militaries to conduct war with greater precision and less civilian harm is not a new one. The USA pioneered this way of war under Bush, accelerated it under Obama and today, the US Department of Defense is “drowning in data” as a result. Its vast network of surveillance drones now collect more video in a day than its analysts can view in a lifetime. Precisely because of the promise and proliferation of drones, however, we must question exactly what problem they intend to solve.

Calls to adopt more and better intelligence technology on the battlefield today should be treated with caution for two main reasons. The first concerns the limited information provided by drones, and the second concerns how that information is then wielded. 

First, technology alone cannot resolve the fundamentally political nature of conflicts. Despite the popular notion of an omniscient “eye in the sky” providing round-the-clock surveillance, the gaze of a drone is only a partial account. In some footage, analysts struggle to tell if a “combatant” is holding a gun or a shovel. The potential use of Artificial Intelligence to automate drone footage analysis in the future, deciding who lives and who dies on the basis of an algorithm, will exacerbate this. A NATO official was therefore quoted by Airwars as saying, “you cannot determine from the air alone the effect on civilians on the ground.” From the sky, drones can therefore see everything and understand nothing. Even if perfect visual awareness of a battlefield provides us the illusion of control, it does nothing to address the underlying, structural causes of why that battlefield exists in the first place. 

Second, the adoption of drones may lead us down a slippery slope towards more war and more civilian harm, not less. Surveillance drones undergird the narrative of ‘precision’, which makes contemporary warfare politically viable and socially acceptable. But the perceived accuracy of contemporary aerial warfare is, just as in the Hawija-case, subverted by the empirical reality. Despite an abundance of intelligence, the US track record in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia shows that civilian harm is still staggeringly common. Investigations by Human Rights organisation Reprieve revealed that between 2002-2014, the US killed 1147 people while targeting just 41 terrorists. In one case, a horrifying 128 civilians were killed in six strikes aimed at just one target. 

In conclusion, we encourage public and policymakers alike to think carefully and critically on this issue. Acquiring more drones may indeed resolve a perceived “drone scarcity,” but the illusion that the constant gaze of a drone will allow us to better understand and respond to complex political realities on the ground is false. Deploying Dutch MQ Reaper drones, and the predicted arming of them, will therefore more likely repeat than resolve the mistakes made in Hawija. Subjecting local publics to the spectre of drones loitering overhead – and the accompanying fear and psychological trauma – without questioning the underlying logic of these methods of warfare is strategically and morally wrong. Technology alone will not win this war, but it may lead us into the next. 

English version of the op-ed was co-written by Jack Davies and Neil Wilson.