The MoD released a statement documenting the scale of Britain’s favour for unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) last month. The underreported statement was made in response to a freedom of information request submitted earlier this year. It tells us that we live in a time when Reaper UCAVs are firing more weapons in Syria than the UK’s very own, dedicated Tornado bombers. Britain is operating hundreds of missions each month within Iraq and Syria alone. As conflicts become increasingly asymmetric, we must better understand the weapons being used in our name.

The dawn of drones

UCAVs were first adopted en masse by the Israeli military engineer Abraham Karem, who used them, to great success, as a means of confusing Arab air defenses during the Yom Kippur War. Given the technological development of highly efficient engines, advanced sensors, and greater payload capacity (to rival that of conventional bombers), they have since become the military tool of choice. In the past five years alone the number of countries actively using armed drones has quadrupled. The biggest exporting manufacturers are located in the US, UK, Israel, and China. The likes of Lancaster-based BAE Systems are among the key players in the industry. For those new to the technology, there are just two drones you need to know; General Atomics’ Predator and Reaper. The latter is the most prevalent with coalition forces operating in, but not limited to, Iraq and Syria. The most commonly deployed munition in the Reaper payload is the AGM-114 Hellfire air-to-surface missile. The importance of this will become apparent in due course.

Why the appeal?

There are a number of factors to consider here. First and foremost, combatant immunity is granted to the drone pilots. The unmanned technology, often controlled as far away from the theatre of war as Arizona, means that the operator is never under any physical threat; argued by proponents to be conducive of greater composure and cool-headedness in the heat of combat. The real gem of combatant immunity lies in the following results: no human casualties, therefore, no grieving families, therefore, reduced public involvement in the conflict and considerably less opposition. Secondly, the drone is able to hover over targets for hours conducting “pattern of life” analysis before execution. This offers a distinct advantage over the conventional manned aircraft; proponents posit that these extended surveillance periods increase certainty in execution and all but guarantee results. Thirdly, and most importantly, there is a wealth of legal ambiguity provided by these weapons. How do ambiguity and uncertainty benefit the perpetrating party? The answer is very straightforward: limited accountability reinforced by a complete lack of transparency. There exists scarce publicly available information about the strike’s targets, timing, casualties, and whereabouts. That information which is published or acquired through freedom of information requests only raises more questions than it answers.  This lack of transparency, supplemented by legal ambiguity thereafter, serves to make the perpetrating party judge, jury and executioner.

Problems to consider

Whilst the technology offers advantages for governments seeking to achieve certain strategic objectives, it comes not without its criticisms. The vast majority of these are, of course, ethical, and rightly so. As an electorate, we must be conscious to unethical practices. The AGM-114 was first developed for anti-armor use, this should give an indication of its behavior on impact and blast radius. Anything within an 8-meter radius of the point of impact will be destroyed and invariably written off as collateral damage. Herein lies the ethical dilemma; choosing between executing the target, and executing only the target. As a result, these strikes are seldom without civilian casualties. Civilian casualties make headlines and can deliver irrevocable damage to military campaigns abroad. This is where the ‘judge, jury, and executioner’ powers are misused and become problematic for some.

International law relies on the universal existence and acceptance of a shared lexicon, without it we are unable to police such recent developments as the Global War on Terror and its use of UCAVs. If there is no universal consensus on the matter, let alone a super-national or third-party arbiter, power is left unconstrained and actions only justified post factum. The absence of a strict set of shared rules leads to the following justifications, as revealed by a 2011 US Department of Justice White Paper, “[prevention of terrorism necessitates pre-emptive strikes…] prevention does not require clear evidence… critical members of al-Qaida are continually plotting attacks… the US government may not be aware of all al-Qaeda plots as they are developing and thus cannot be confident that none is about to occur”. In other words, every single individual deemed to be affiliated with al-Qaeda could carry out the next September 11 attacks and is, therefore, a legitimate target of an AGM-114 Hellfire missile (as is anyone within that blast radius). In this way, necessity and proportionality of strikes are being justified by purely hypothetical worst-case-scenarios. To further complicate things, the militant-civilian line is extremely blurred; all males of fighting age within the blast radius are considered combatants, and any civilians can only be identified posthumously. How you can identify anyone posthumously when you do not control the situation on ground- hence why you took to the skies in the first place, raises a host of further questions and debates.

The bottom line is that any individual unlucky enough to be around when the missile hits is considered guilty until proven innocent. This manifests itself as the antithesis of the presumption of innocence, an intrinsic legal right written into the United Nationals Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is up to us as individuals to decide if we are morally content with such judicial procedures being applied by the technology. After all, if the tables were turned and we were left on the receiving end of such a process we might have something to say.