Playstation warfare

Killing via remote control and home in time for tea. Symon Hill investigates drone warfare.

Drones in Afghanistan will be controlled in the UK by terminals like this CBP one in the US | Photo: Gerald Nino, US Dept. of Homeland Security, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

A man sits at a computer in Nevada, in the middle of America. He is British. He does his work, like millions of other people around the world, by operating a keyboard and mouse, looking at a screen. He will go home at the end of the day and spend time with his children. However, unlike the millions of other people working at computers, at that point he may have killed people in Afghanistan.  He is the new face of warfare – one of several RAF pilots who operate ‘drones’ in America. ‘Unmanned aerial vehicles’ (UAVs), as their manufacturers prefer to call them officially, have become known as ‘drones’ after the sound they make passing overhead. Drones were used for the first time in 2001 and have quickly become a feature of modern warfare: by 2010 UK forces had fired drones in Afghanistan at least ninety-seven times.

Now drones are coming to the UK. They have always been controlled from the US but Liam Fox, the defence secretary, has revealed plans to operate them from RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire. Helen John, a Quaker veteran of Greenham Common, has already begun a peace camp outside the base.

The UK government has remained unusually quiet about drones: they have never been the subject of a parliamentary debate or investigated by a parliamentary committee. This has surprised Noel Sharkey. He is professor of robotics at the University of Sheffield and argues that drones are changing the nature of modern warfare. He believes that there is a ‘worldwide push’ to develop ‘ever more autonomous weapons systems.’

The spread of drones
The Teal Group, an arms industry consultancy based in America, estimates that global spending on drones will almost double in the next decade, reaching 11.3 billion dollars per year. Leon Panneta, the former director of the CIA, has described them as ‘the only game in town.’ It was a prophetic use of the word ‘game.’ 

Drones were used by US forces in six countries in 2010. They have been deployed by Russian forces in Chechnya and, allegedly, by Israel in Gaza. The rapid increase in the use of drones has been noted by the New America Foundation. They report that there were nine US drone strikes in Pakistan in 2004-7. In the first eight months of 2010, there were fifty-three.

‘The possibilities for the global UAV industry are endless,’ according to Lindsay Voss of the Association for UAV Systems International (AUVSI). She made the comment last month as over one hundred drone producing companies exhibited their products at the recent London Arms Fair (DSEi).

Psychological effects

Today, soldiers do not need to be located at or even near the field of conflict. They can be a thousand miles away. It is much safer for them. They are also thousands of miles away from the people who may be wounded or killed by their actions. Does this generate a similar ‘emotional distance’? Philip Alston, professor of law at New York State University, coined the term ‘playstation warfare’ to describe this new method of warfare. He reflects a growing concern about the psychological effect of the use of drones.

‘Seen from behind a computer screen,’ says Amy Hailwood of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FoR), ‘warfare becomes even more unreal’. Chris Cole, who maintains the Drone Wars UK website, believes that it is a ‘recipe for disaster’ when ‘young guys, who have been raised on a diet of video games, are bored but in charge of lethal technology.’

Helen John compares drones to the infamous V2 rockets that rained down on London at the end of the Second World War. She describes them as the ‘direct descendents’ of those deadly, unmanned, rockets and as ‘Nazi technology’. The men who developed, operated and launched the V2 rockets never saw their victims in London. It is the same with any unmanned weapon.

Amy Hailwood argues that ‘the greater level of desensitisation is highly likely to push the direction of travel towards more violence, not away from it.’

Technological developments
There are now further developments. The multinational arms firm BAE Systems used the London Arms Fair (DSEi) to showcase its new ‘autonomous’ drone – known as ‘Mantis.’ The drone will be able to make its own decisions about where to fly based on what it encounters as it moves. Critics fear that one outcome of these developments could be drones that decide for themselves when to fire weapons. Arms manufacturers, however, have denied that they are seeking to develop this possibility.

Chris Cole suggests that drones are the latest in a long line of weapons that are supposed to solve the problem of armed conflict – casualities. He says: ‘There are constantly bigger and better weapons that are supposed to solve the problems – and they do not.’ He argues that, when governments know they can engage in conflict without exposing their own troops to danger, then war is not less likely – it is more likely.

Stanley McCrystal, when working as commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, described drones as ‘extraordinarily effective.’ In contrast, Chris Cole has a deep concern about the many civilian casualties caused by drone strikes. He has used the Freedom of Information Act to attempt to gain accurate information on civilian casualties but found the process ‘incredibly frustrating’ because the authorities have used ‘almost every trick in the book to try not to answer the question.’ Two Christian groups, the Fellowship of Reconciliation and the Speak Network, have called for a parliamentary committee to gather evidence about the effects of armed drones.

There have been widespread public demonstrations in Pakistan against the use of US drones. They were provoked because of the number of innocent people killed by the unmanned weapons. Last year NATO investigated a drone-related incident in Afghanistan, when twenty-seven civilians were killed by US forces, and concluded that the drone operators had ‘downplayed’ the presence of civilians.

Taking action
The prospect of drones based in Afghanistan being controlled from the UK, at RAF Waddington in Linconshire, has fuelled concern among NGOs and campaign groups.

Quaker Peace and Social Witness (QPSW) are one of the seventeen members of the Drones Campaign Network, who are behind a week of action against drones, which runs between 1 and 8 October. 

The week will include many events and activities aimed at increasing public awareness of the drones issue – from media promotion to the staging of protests and vigils at sites connected with drones in the UK. There are, according to the network, at least twenty such sites – ranging from York to Wales – and they include RAF bases, training centres, the offices of drone producing companies and universities engaged in drone-related research.

The expansion in the use of armed drones to attack targets in countries such as Pakistan and Yemen, in addition to Afghanistan, has concerned many Quakers and raised profound legal and ethical questions; the prospect of drones being launched and guided to their targets from a base in England has merely heightened these concerns.

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