Watching the watchkeepers: Why regulate drones?

A debate is quietly raging in the US press over remote-controlled warfare. On one side is the Wall Street Journal, which ran an editorial in April praising the expansion of UCAVs under Obama; on the other side is The New Yorker and The Nation, with Tom Engelhardt of the latter taking a strong line.

Andrew Gibson is a freelance journalist interested in military robotics, arms control (particularly nuclear), civil wars and politics

The WikiLeaks revelation that US Forces had to shoot down one of their own, out-of-control drones demonstrates an important principle about unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs). No matter how much information they collect, their misapplication is clouded by old-fashioned secrecy. This is tragic in that, in principle, drone technology has the potential to enhance jus in bello and make war crimes investigations more efficient.

The debate

A debate is quietly raging in the US press over remote-controlled warfare. On one side is the Wall Street Journal, which ran an editorial in April praising the expansion of UCAVs under Obama. The piece argued that such systems are a more precise and thus more moral way of disrupting terrorist networks. Their accuracy minimises collateral damage and UCAVs, by definition, keep troops out of harm’s way.

A second contention is that the legal controversy over drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen is misplaced, as America has been at war with the Taliban and al-Qaeda since 2001.

On the other side is The New Yorker and The Nation, with Tom Engelhardt of the latter taking a strong line. He regularly argues that UCAVs lend themselves to extra-judicial assassinations, their accuracy is exaggerated by the defence industry and, most importantly, efficient in uniting host nation civilians against a distant, misinformed West.

In short, Englehardt understands drones as part of a myth of hygienic war and an enabler of mission creep; The Wall Street Journal presents them as the reality of hygienic war and the West’s answer to the suicide bomber.

This debate mirrors another about whether mediating war through computer screens makes soldiers more fair-minded or bloody-minded, less partial or less empathetic. As the equivocating prophet of robotic warfare PW Singer put it:

“Technology might well lessen the likelihood of anger-fuelled rages, but it might make some soldiers too calm, too unaffected by killing.”

Singer cites Steven Green, the sociopath soldier prosecuted for raping a 14-year-old Iraqi and murdering her family. Green later claimed that killing a person felt no different from squashing an ant. According to Singer:

“The true fear… is that turning killing into merely the elimination of icons on a computer screen might make the experience feel the same way even for otherwise normal troops.”

A happy inversion of this example is the case of a US soldier who, inadvertently, was filmed by a drone abusing an Iraqi detainee under his guard.

Ultimately, one’s position on drones boils down to trust. Does one trust the military when it claims to have killed an ‘insurgent’? Exactly how does the CIA gather information in Pakistan? Was that an AK-47 or a broom? Does the gunner care? The arguments are Guantanamo Bay all over again, with wings.

The Solution, in an ideal world

The virtue of unmanned systems is that they record everything. UAV operators and troops on the ground use secure (but not unbreakable) satellite links to discuss the images being relayed. In principle, almost every aspect of the decision-making behind every shot can be stored and reviewed. Indeed, the online chatrooms which UAV operators and intelligence analysts commonly use to communicate are ideal for the logging of conversation.

The point is that most UCAV systems continuously collect evidence on their operators, potentially strengthening cases against those with a bloody mind. Indeed, regular, independent reviews of the evidence would deter young recruits from reverting back to their childhood world of Grand Theft Auto. This capacity is something new for the military.

A US Army survey found 45 per cent of soldiers would not report a fellow soldier they witnessed injuring or killing a non-combatant. The unflinching gaze of unmanned aerial and ground vehicles have the potential to remove this human element completely.

Aspects of design can enhance such a process. Currently, the huge amounts of data collected by UAVs make the review of operations tiresome. A conversation is being had in defence circles about how better to store, tag and retrieve the important bits. The US Air Force has spent $500 million on software similar to that used by television football pundits, during the half-time match analysis. Sky Sports employ people to ‘tag’ the live video feed of games, attaching electronic notes to players every time they do something special (i.e. ‘Robert Green: Cock-Up’ or ‘Rooney: Anguished Face’).

The military rationale for embracing this software is mainly pedagogic: to understand insurgent behavioural patterns and to develop and teach doctrine. However, the same technology could be used to investigate whether UCAV, UCGV, ACUV and UCSV operators are acting within IHL (international humanitarian law). As Asim Quershi has argued, killing rather than capturing suspected terrorists is legally dubious. At the very least, making the review of footage from combat drones easier would dissuade operators from laughing when they shoot.

Concluding remarks

Much of the above is a suggestion of what could be, rather than what is. However, we are still at the beginning of the unmanned revolution and need to think clearly about regulation. The US Department of Defense has an estimated 6,500 unmanned vehicles in its inventory and has signalled its intention to expand. In Britain, the production of the Watchkeeper UAV is underway and next year will be the first, optionally combat, UAV to be operated out of the country. It is not too late to develop mechanisms, both practically and institutionally, to test the claims of the anti-drone lobby.

Phillip Alston, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, has warned that remote warfare may lead to the development of a ‘Playstation mentality’. He argues that a new generation of UCAV operators may lack context and dehumanise the enemy. However, military planners are impervious to such lines of argument. They would prefer waging war to be as simple as a video-game.

The only useful way to articulate concerns about combat drones is through the language of law, evidence and sensible design.

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