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Home > English > Alternatives International Journal > 2015 > November 2015 > Drone Warfare: Who Are We Protecting?

Drone Warfare: Who Are We Protecting?

Thursday 5 November 2015, by Katrina Gibbs

Since their inception, drones have been a controversial weapon of war. Drone warfare has not only continued to advance technologically, but also the frequency of their use has steadily increased over the years. There have been three major phases in the development of drones: the drone as target, the drone as sensor, and, now, the drone as weapon. The use of drones as a tool in the policy of assassination, employed by the United States government, invokes a sense that we have entered into an era in which our reality resembles dystopic science-fiction novels more and more. One of the most well-known drones is the MQ-1 Predator, which, according the U.S. Air Force, was designed in response to a Department of Defense requirement to provide persistent intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance information combined with a capability to kill. The name Predator is an accurately daunting description for the U.S. drone project, which has been the weapon of choice for the Obama administration.

In what has been called “The Second Snowden”, the Intercept, an online publication, has received a collection of documents from an anonymous whistleblower. The Intercept has decided to maintain the anonymity of the whistleblower, in light of the aggressive prosecution of whistleblowers that the United States has been known to engage in. The documents known as “The Drone Papers” reveal key information in the evolution of military operations between 2011 and 2013. In light of the disclosure of this information, we are forced to asked, should the U.S. government have this ability to use drones in order to assassinate suspected terrorists based on fallible information, and does the public have a right to know about it?

Although it has been argued that drone strikes are more accurate and result in less loss of life, the release of these documents has proven that this is not the case. The Obama administration actively hides the number of civilians killed in drone strikes by categorizing casualties as “enemies”, regardless of whether or not those killed were intended targets. This tactic is eerily reminiscent of the term ’collateral damage’, through which military terminology seeks to subtract the human aspect of casualties of war. The leakage of this information also seems highly important for public knowledge, following the recent airstrike on the hospital in Kundaz, Afghanistan. This horrific incident carried out by the U.S. military resulted in the deaths of doctors and civilians, as well as the destruction of a major hospital. The most eerie aspect of this story, in connection with the presently leaked collection of documents on "Obama’s drone wars", is that the pilots of the airstrike questioned whether or not the strike was legal before shooting. Drones, despite their sensing capabilities, do not have this capacity to wonder whether or not what their actions should or should not be carried. They are simply carried out through a chain of command. The way that these decisions are made is through a multi-layered network of information that is subject to several levels of human error. The President makes the decision to assassinate someone based on how much he trusts the information, rather than how much he really knows about the subject. According to this newly leaked information, 90% of U.S. drone killings in the past five months did not hit the intended target. When it comes to the argument for the use of drone warfare, is human error really out of the equation?

These drone strikes are not only destructive with regard to civilian casualties, but they are also limiting the ability to acquire information. Specifically pertaining to military operations in Yemen and Somalia, the release of these documents has revealed details about the Obama administration taking a kill rather than capture policy with regard to suspected terrorists. This tactic was also disclosed as being advised against by the Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance Task Force. The ISR recommended capturing and interrogating more suspected terrorists rather than simply killing them in drone strikes. Despite the government’s ability to maintain surveillance on these individuals and to locate them for interrogation, the commands, more often than not, demand assassination of suspects with drone warfare. Suspected terrorists are added to watch lists, and practically given their own "baseball cards", and through this multi-layered network of information, the chain of command decides whether or not to assassinate suspects. It seems that the increased frequency in the use of drone war tactics has replaced special operations forces, and has, in a sense, sacrificed the power to acquire intelligence for the power to assassinate suspects. In this way, the release of "The Drone Papers" has revealed not only the great loss of life that has been swept under the rug by the Obama administration, but also the inadequacy of this destructive tactic in terms of foreign policy. To kill low level terrorist suspects is to get no closer to solving the problem in terms of the big picture.

The leaking of these documents has revealed the lack of transparency that actually exists between citizen and government, even in the United States that heralds itself for its freedom. The American government continues to cover up its operations and keep the American public in the dark about the reality of foreign military tactics. Simultaneously, the government aggressively prosecutes those who expose important information to the public. Are American lives at risk if they are made aware of the fact that the government actively waters down the actual number of civilian casualties caused by drone strikes? The anonymous source that leaked these documents noted that the military could develop more tactful operations, in order to combat the bigger problem of terrorism. Yet rather than dig to the root of the issue, the government is pulling at leaves and cutting down branches in the process. If the American government continually chooses to take lives based on potentially flawed information, the American people at least deserve to know how much imprecision is actually involved in drone warfare and how many innocent people lose their lives at the hands of a fallible flying robot.