Capable of long endurance and being refueled during the flight, they are almost invisible and extremely precise. There is nothing more that you can expect from a weapon. Drones, which are not only aircraft, became the most controversial weapon in the new way of conducting wars. Especially from the beginning of the war against terrorism that legitimates the use of asymmetric technology, in order to contrast an asymmetric threat. The term “asymmetric” is incorrect, but for convenience we will continue to use it.
Drones have been largely deployed in the conduct of secret military operations even in restricted air zones, outside the official war zones, with the purpose of eliminating individuals. Targeted killing missions, directed from thousands miles away with the use of local intel, conducted by firing rockets from unmanned aircraft in order to hit specific parties directly or indirectly connected with terrorist cells. The United States government doesn’t talk about the use of drones in specific missions in Iraq or Afghanistan, although it is believed that drones have been used in Pakistan as well for a long time. On one hand there no precise data or numbers exist. On the other hand, the terrorist organizations or the authorities that deal out the attacks have the tendency to exaggerate numbers and statistics. The biggest mistake made is probably that insufficient attention has been paid to the consequences of these campaigns on the victims and societies involved. Victims are not only those directly involved or wounded in the attacks but the entire community, which perceives those operations and the way they are conducted illegitimate and unfair. Zhao Jinglun affirms that, according to President Obama’s point of view, these policies are somehow themselves legitimate.
The Guardian defines the fear caused by those operations as “civil terror”. President Obama is just following the path of his predecessor George W. Bush with this policy, and it is believed that drone operations are also conducted in the horn of Africa, not just in Yemen or Pakistan or on any of the traditional battlefields. Drones: myths and reality in Pakistan (2013) reports the following: “CIA Director Leon Panetta was particularly forceful about trying to get Pakistani officials to allow armed drones to fly over even wider areas in the northwest tribal regions” and, regarding the reactions of the Pakistani administration, “It is thus amply clear that the military does not oppose drones, but seeks control over their use, or at least to leverage the debate to obtain more say over target selection”. But there is still the reality of the numbers in the field. According to the Bureau of investigative journalism more than 2000 deaths have been reported since 2006, with the highest percentage registered in 2010. Hundreds of civilians are involved, and hundreds have not yet been identified.
Retired Gen. Stanley Mc Crystal states the following: “The resentment created by American use of unmanned strikes … is much greater than the average American appreciates. They are hated on a visceral level, even by people who’ve never seen one or seen the effects of one”.
On the ground we have learned what the use of this weapon can be, its new possibilities, the political decisions that lay behind the deployment of such technology, States should build and shared a new and comprehensive risk assessment framework. But what kind of elements need to be considered? Certainly the introduction of such weapon brings new outcomes, in some cases revolutionizing policies and military strategies.
What are the facts emerging?
- The deployment of military and the managing of related tactics in ground operations are largely effected by the use of drones. Either equipped or with a standard profile, this instrument is able to offer a wide grid of chances that in the past were available only with high financial costs – for example using drones and replacing helicopters, saving human lives, etc. Some of them can be carried on ships, can be flown and land as planes or helicopters. Versatile and able to operate in any kind of weather condition, drones represent an exceptional weapon. They can guarantee enhancement of air superiority, extending the power in the air and consequently on the ground (or views) and therefore improving the so-called soft power also in peace or no conflict situations. Air reconnaissance can be carried out and implemented during terrestrial reconnaissance, before, throughout and after military operations, supporting troops and providing essential information.
- It would be desirable that policy makers could discuss the use and consequences of this weapon, hopefully under the guarantee of some kind of international agreement. Certainly this is unlikely to happen given the present situation, especially since lots of operations are still covered and classified. The absence of public debate is a concern, and the possibility that this happens because governments conduct secret operation, is probable and likely to be the reality of the facts.
- Negative effects are serious, clear and numerous. Not only are we unaware of the effective number of the attacks that have been conducted, but we also are ignorant of the exact number of fatalities. A report released by the NY University reveals how the attacks impede the aid from humanitarian organizations arriving in the impacted zones. Therefore, the local population involved in the attacks is forced to abandon places without being able to return and recover their lives. The terror that these kinds of operations are causing is widespread and generic, what I have previously described as “the fighter syndrome”.
- Drones are largely known as weapons with different capabilities. One of the biggest threats that has to be considered, and is not so remote, is the possibility that this technology will one day be used by non-governmental parties. This is already so, and with the rising of the ISIS threat is likely to become another possible reason of concern.
Therefore, it would be desirable to create intergovernmental commissions that, together with panels of experts and international observers, could investigate the causes and effects of these policies.
Some of the actions that should be undertaken are:
- Making policies regarding the use of drones more transparent, both in the national and international debates.
- Establish a common legal framework so as to be able to establish common policies and best practices. Work closely to extend the jurisdiction of the International Courts and international law regarding the new profiles that are emerging.
- Enhancing international law application and accountability that, respecting national sovereignty and therefore creating a safe framework for all those non-governmental organizations that cannot presently operate and provide support in distressed areas.
- Open a confrontation on important issues on drone policies, such as rules for reconnaissance, quality of the targets, procedures for engagement and reliability of the information that are the basis of the decision-making process.
- Create a support system able to intervene promptly at a local level and capable of absorbing the negative effects that arise from targeted operations. These operations can be carried out with the use of volunteer non-governmental organizations and military, diplomatic and political efforts. Peace keeping and peace enforcing operations could also help, as would more efforts to guarantee humanitarian corridors. Considering that it is almost impossible to eliminate the margin of error, responsibilities and accountabilities should always exist.