Forever Drone


After reading Phillp Hammond’s article in today’s Guardian: ; I thought I’d respond to a few of the claims he makes. I’ve entitled this article ‘Forever Drone’ mostly because I love the song of this name by band Josef K, and I think the Kafka reference in their name is particularly apt when talking about Drones. Philip Hammond. Secretary of State for Defence, claims “what highlights the value and dispels the myths about these systems [drones] most effectively are the fundamental facts”. Hammond has leapt to the defence of drones on the day a new ‘nerve centre’ opens at RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire, as he knows that it’s opening is highly controversial.  Well let’s play Hammond at his own game and briefly look at how Drones have came into use and for what purpose.

Drone Blame it on the Good Times, Drone It on the Boogie

The US Department of Defense defines a drone or an ‘unmanned aircraft’ as an “aircraft or balloon that does not carry a human operator and is capable of flight under remote control or autonomous programming”. Drones are, despite recent media interest and attention, not that relatively new in military use; the concept of a ‘drone’ goes back to the First World War and through most military conflict up until the Balkans conflict in the 1990s and the Gulf War. But throughout the 20th century they were mostly unarmed. It wasn’t until the war in Afghanistan in 2001, that drones became armed. The number of drones has accelerated in recent years- from only 167 in 2002, to more than 7,000 today.

Of the drones being used today, two are the most in use: the MQ-9 Reaper and the MQ-1B Predator; aptly named perhaps. The latter was first flown in 1994, its manufacturers priding itself on its ‘kill capability’- this capacity provided by the AGM-114 Hellfire missiles.  Again, aptly named. The Reaper is even more powerful and precise. These are not small, harmless surveillance devices. And their precision has been increasingly called into question, even the companies that have developed the targeting software. This is an issue of ‘latency’, i.e. the delay between the movement of the target and the video image arriving via satellite to the drone pilot. Thus you get senior operatives in Al Qaeda running round in circles when seeing a drone fly overheard. And the precision is hugely dubious- a hellfire missile blast can extend as much as 20 metres and shrapnel even further. This is not precision killing.

This ‘targeted killing’ began after 9/11, as the US and their allies, went after Al Qaeda. The first drone killing is reported to have happened in Afghanistan in February 2002, three men being killed near a former mujahedeen base. It was believed that one of these men may  be Bin Laden, but reports from the Pentagon afterwards suggest they had no real idea who the men were, and in fact they were civilians collecting scrap metal. The use of drones then spread to Yemen and Pakistan, in particular the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in Pakistan, where Al Qaida fighters had fled to after the invasion of Afghanistan. The FATA are inhabited mostly by Pashtuns, who also live in large parts of south and east Afghanistan. Pashtun social life is framed by the concept of Pashtunwali/Pukhtunwali (‘the way of the Pashtuns’) which is a code by which Pashtuns live their lives, and it emphasises geniroisity and hospitality, and the feeding and housing of those in need. Many Pashtun people often find themselves housing combatants and thus become targets for Predator drone strikes. Again this highlights the lack of precision in the drone strikes.

Under Obama, drone strikes have grown exponentially, compared to during the Bush era. This escalation has been part of a growing tension between the US and Pakistan. Obama’s administration has seen an expansion of what are called ‘signature strikes’. The Bush administration before had focused on ‘personality strikes’- i.e. targeting high-value targets, such as leaders of armed groups. But Obama had expanded the reach to begin targets based on ‘pattern of life’ analysis. This is the targeting of individuals who have defining characteristics of ‘terrorist’ activity. The Times newspaper reported that certain figures in the Obama administration joked that when the CIA sees “three guys doing jumping jacks”, they presume it’s a terrorist training camp.

Imperialism Keeps Droning On

So Hammond’s attempt to ‘defend drones’ seems quite bold. His claim that “The mystique is not of our making, but of those who seek to misrepresent the value of an exceptionally useful tool that protects and defends UK forces and civilian populations” seems very bold in light of the information I’ve recounted above. He speaks with condescension about ‘activists’ who protest against drones and their use and who have no real understanding of how drones are saving their lives. It’s the same old trick of portraying strategic foreign policy as protective domestic policy.

Hammond focuses far too narrowly on to what extent drone strikes are ‘doing their job’. This focus is interested in whether the majority of those killed by drone strikes are militants. What this ignores is what life is like for those living in the daily fear of drones and the constant threat of attack on their towns and their families. It also ignores the socio-economic impacts of drone strikes. The collateral damage of drone strikes is property damage which severely affects families and workers, and compensation has been hard to come by. The anxiety of living under a sky of drones is also causing civilians to avoid leaving their homes and thus not working, and reports from those in the FATA areas show that people are avoiding engaging in social gatherings, employment opportunities, school and cultural activities such as funerals; and it is reported that widespread mental health issues are growing in the region, particularly Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). US armed forces also have a tendency to kill ‘first responders’, meaning communities and humanitarian workers are scared to help the injured. Drones are thus having an extremely detrimental affect on those living in the FATA and other drone infested waters.

What a reactionary article from Hammond then. It comes as no surprise that he has come out as a drone-apologist, but it serves as a reminder of how we should be careful when framing the debate on ‘drones’. Drones are not keeping us safe. They are being used to terrify a population into submission and the FATA is the testing ground for using drones on a much wider surveillance level, and Hammond in his article makes this very clear- “[drones] will undoubtedly become more common in both the military and civilian arenas over the coming years”. This is essentially saying you may not like drones, but they are here- FOREVER DRONE. This is extremely worrying particularly as it is being sold to us as for our own safety. But safety from what, safety from whom? We must continue in our anti-drone activism, before it is too late.


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