In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, governments and militaries around the world faced a hideous enemy who could morph and blend into the landscape after carrying out asymmetric kamikaze and shoot-and-scoot attacks. The difficulty in identifying, tracking down and taking out a terrorist required the development of a new and unconventional form of warfare, one which combined search and reconnaissance capabilities as well as the ability to shoot down and eliminate the threat with minimal risk of collateral damage and with few military casualties.
Inevitably, the solution came from cutting-edge technology, particularly the revolutionary innovations taking place in Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), popularly known as drones. This technology proved highly beneficial for militaries, as the large-scale, conventional wars in Afghanistan and Iraq proved inadequate and very costly (both in terms of lives and money) in eradicating the threat of terrorism.
In contrast, drone warfare provided a more effective, less violent and highly cost-efficient alternative to conventional warfare and so it became the preferred option for the Obama administration in conducting the ongoing war against terrorism. In fact, the technology has now become so ‘convenient’ that it is being frequently used in missions that are considered “too dull, dirty or dangerous” for manned aircraft. However, few would have realized that the tendency to overuse drones in such operations would raise a new set of legal and ethical issues for the technology.
But before addressing some of the legal aspects, it would be important to gain a better understanding of drone technology and its rapid advancement. A drone can be defined as an aircraft which has no human pilot on board. Its flight is controlled either autonomously by computers or through remote control by a pilot situated in a distant location on land or in another vehicle.
Drones have become so popular and pervasive today that according to the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, published in February 2012, at least 76 countries already have military unmanned aerial systems. The GAO report adds that the number of countries with drones has ‘nearly doubled’ in the span of seven years.
In fact some drones, particularly Unmanned Combat Air Vehicles (UCAVs), have now achieved worldwide fame that arguably matches the star status of some of the most advanced fighter jets and bombers of our times. The names of Predator (armed with Hellfire missiles), the Reaper and the surveillance aircraft, Global Hawk now bask in international limelight. However, militaries also use UAVs for a variety of other purposes and applications too such as reconnaissance, search and rescue, logistics, research and development applications, etc.
According to some military aviation experts, UAVs today even have the potential to eliminate the use of piloted aircraft in the not-so-distant future. More important, a new swarm of small and insect-like drones are joining the military fleet, adding a surprising twist to a rapidly unfolding hi-tech tale. For years, the US military (particularly its Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency or DARPA) has been working on developing ‘micro-air vehicles,’ i.e. ultra-small flying robots capable of performing surveillance in ‘dangerous’ territory.
According to DARPA, these drone bugs have a wide variety of uses. For example, when fitted with chemical sensors, these insect drones can detect traces of explosives in suspected buildings and caves. Again, these insect-like drones can be equipped with small video cameras that could show whether a building is occupied and whether those inside are civilians or combatants. They could also be equipped with microphones to record sounds and conversations.
For example, the DelFly Micro, is “the smallest flying ornithopter carrying a camera in the world” and measures less than 10cms from one wingtip to another. Then there are the small kamikaze drones that can destroy enemy targets by crashing into them. The drone named ‘Switchblade’, developed by the US technology company AeroVironment, carries a video feed and can locate a hidden enemy like a sniper and kill him. A similar kamikaze drone, called the ‘Devil Killer,’ has been developed by South Korea. But the US military is taking a step further by using neuroscience technology to hack into insects’ bodies, whose movements are then controlled by micro-machines placed on them.
Another promising breakthrough is the control and coordination of a fleet of drones from one computer. It is claimed that a computer software called Ballista, built by the company DreamHammer’s, could enable a single operator to control many drones simultaneously by using an intuitive computer interface. Thus, the movement of several drones being controlled by this software and all of them do not have to be aerial vehicles, as some may be UAVs, while others could be unmanned wheeled rovers, watercraft or even submarines. Thus, one person at the controls could launch a full-scale offensive of drones through air, land and sea.
Again, drones of all shapes and sizes are not only revolutionizing military technology, they are also about to change civilian lives. Their non-military applications are growing by the day, and they are already used in oil-gas-mineral exploration, search and rescue operations, detection and dousing of forest-fires, agricultural surveillance, commercial aerial surveillance, remote sensing, transportation of various kinds of payloads, etc. Even household drones will soon be available for cleaning and dusting the floor.
Last year, the US Congress passed a bill which requires the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to issue regulations on integrating drones into commercial airspace by September 2015. Thus, we are fast approaching the time when anyone, at least in the US, can buy a drone over the counter with a few hundred dollars. In the words of Peter W. Singer, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, the opening up of the US national airspace to commercial drones would do “what the Internet did to desktop computers.”
However, the commercialization of drone technology is currently facing three important impediments: safety, privacy and insurance. There are concerns that despite legal provisions mid-air collisions between manned aviation (airplanes and helicopters) and unmanned vehicles or even among UAVs could occur frequently. In addition, increased use of private drones (particularly small drones) could intrude upon individual space and violate privacy as drones could pry into homes or offices and transmit images and sounds in real time to their operators stationed far away. Again, insurance companies are reluctant to provide coverage for aerial drone accidents as these unmanned flying objects could fall and cause incalculable damage to people or properties below them.
However, it is the military uses of drone technology which has really stirred a hornet’s nest for its advocates. One of the pet peeves of peace activists and human rights campaigners that oppose the use of drones by the military stems from the very benefits the technology provides. It is said that because drones are cheap, highly effective, seemingly risk-free for their operators and are adept at minimizing civilian casualties, it is tempting governments and militaries to employ them more often. Many human rights activists charge that it is this convenience that has allowed US military to carry out hundreds of drone strikes on hapless human targets in Afghanistan, Northwest Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia and other regions of the world.
According to estimates by the New America Foundation, there have been 355 drone strikes in Pakistan and 66 in Yemen till date. In February of this year, US Senator Lindsey Graham estimated that about 4,700 people have been killed in America’s drone war, many of whom were innocent civilians. Again in February of this year, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism published its estimates of deaths caused by drone strike in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, which, it said, ranged between 3,072 and 4,756.
Again, many legal experts around the world are alarmed by the impunity with which drones allegedly breach international law, violate the sovereignty of nations and carry out extrajudicial killings. Concerns have also been expressed over the lack of transparency, oversight and regulation in these campaigns. Many civil rights advocates were outraged when the Obama administration publicly acknowledged for the first time that four US citizens have been killed in drone strikes since 2009 in Pakistan and Yemen.
US President Barack Obama recently addressed most of these concerns by signing a new “presidential policy guidance” on when the US can use drone strikes. On May 23, 2013, he made a groundbreaking speech and declared that he is now going to restrict the use of drone strikes.
He proposed the institution of special courts to decide on targeted assassination of terrorism suspects under new legal regulations to prevent any possible violations. He also said that drone attacks will now be carried out primarily by the US military rather than the CIA, and only after a new test has been passed to ensure that all other alternatives to avoid such strikes have been exhausted.
Human rights campaigners greeted this announcement but continued to have reservations. Many called on the US President to publish the new legal tests that have to be cleared before a drone strike is carried out, as the details of these tests have only been read by the US Congress.
Despite the various legal and ethical challenges attached to the use of drones, it is clear that this technology has now become so popular and widespread around the world that it would be difficult to stop its spread and growth. Therefore, the big test ahead lies for governments, militaries, legal institutions and human rights organizations to properly regulate the uses of this technology for the good of mankind. Like it or not, drones are here to stay or as Peter Singer puts it: “This is a powerful technology. No amount of hand-wringing is going to stop it.”