On the road to Serbia’s Nikola Tesla airport, there is a turn-off to a building that looks like a squashed, glass golf ball. Opened in 1989, the Belgrade Aeronautical Museum is home mostly to planes belonging at one stage or another to the Yugoslav (and later Serbian) Air Forces. But in the middle of the museum, ringed by ageing propeller planes and Cold War-era jets, hangs one of Serbia’s few prizes from the NATO bombing campaign of what was then Yugoslavia: one of the very first Predator drones, shot down by Yugoslav forces on May 13th, 1999.
It’s a funny sort of trophy. Hanging next to pieces of the downed F-16C Fighting Falcon and – more famously – the F-117A Stealth Fighter that the defenders also shot down (both pilots ejected), it’s a proud statement about Yugoslavia’s resistance in an asymmetric fight. But unlike the remains of the manned US aircraft beside it, the corpse of the Predator is also a smug portent of the future of unmanned aircraft. “Yes, you shot me down,” it might say, as it dangles over the heads of passing tourists. “But that’s what I’m for.”
What are drones good at?
‘Drones save lives’. That’s the headline written in massive all-caps by the US military when it’s asked to defend the billions of dollars it pours into defence contractors like General Atomics (which built the Predator, and now produces its bigger brother, the MQ-9 Reaper). Whether you’re talking about the top-end warfighting drones used to track and blow up enemies from bases overseas, or their smaller cousins like the Raven – miniature spy drones that soldiers hurl into the air like an American football – drones offer the capabilities of a regular aircraft without risk to the people controlling them. If a drone gets blown up (or crashes, as sometimes happens, and more often than you’d think), instead of phoning bereaved parents, you phone a company like General Atomics and ask for another one (or, more likely, another four – the drone business is good enough that GA can afford to sell in bulk).
But drones often aren’t simple trade-offs between effectiveness and safety. The Reaper – of which the US Air Force has 93 and the UK has ten – mostly makes headlines when it kills people. Fully loaded, it most commonly carries four Hellfire missiles and two Paveway II laser-guided bombs. The Hellfires are the primary armament (and indeed all its forebear, the Predator, was meant to carry), and come in a variety of configurations – but their selling point is their accuracy and relatively small blast radius, compared to other ordnance.
“We use these weapons because we care about precision,” says Dr. Jack McDonald, teaching fellow with the Centre for Science and Security Studies at King’s College London. “The Americans [are focused on] trying to get more and more precise, more and more specific targeting systems. If you don’t care about precision, or don’t care about precision to the same degree… you might not bother with [drones]. You might just go with a bigger bomb.
“The idea is that we’ve been going for smaller and smaller bombs – essentially trying to turn [a drone] into an intercontinental sniper rifle… One way you can look at drones is, ‘oh, [they] kill hundreds of civilians.’ On the other hand, if you look at how many civilians die in normal military operations, they are actually relatively precise.”
But even though the Reaper is undeniably good at blowing things up, its primary mission is surveillance. A Reaper drone can stay in the air for up to 14 hours, fully loaded (and more than twice that without weapons), dawdling in slow circles around a building or humming along in pursuit of a vehicle. Its Multi-Spectral Targeting System (MTS) lets the Reaper see in the dark and in bad weather, making it an excellent spy plane. And unlike human pilots, drones don’t get sleepy if you ask them to fly for 30 hours without a break.
Finally, drones are also (at least relative to a manned alternative) pretty cheap. In the 2015 financial year, the US Air Force put in orders for 24 new Reapers at a cost of $385 million (give or take a couple of hundred thousand dollars). That’s just over $16m (£10.5m) per drone. Compared to the predicted £100m cost of the F-35B, or the £87m cost of the UK’s Typhoons, that’s peanuts – money saved on things like stealth, speed and manoeuvrability that simply aren’t needed surveilling or attacking people that can’t shoot back.
So, drones are great?
On the surface, yes. But counter-intuitively, that might be the problem.
One downside to cheap, safe warfare is that it makes wars easier to start. If you don’t have to worry much about cost or at all about the lives of pilots, then there’s a risk that wheeling out the drones to solve your country’s problems becomes a default response. In the case of the UK, you can argue that we saw the start of that with the recent ‘targeted killing’ (the PR-scrubbed term for drone assassination) of British citizen Reyaad Khan in Syria in August. But the US, which has been employing the practice for years, is far and away the best case study: Afghanistan and Iraq aside, the US has conducted drone strikes in Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia – three countries with which it is not formally at war.
But don’t the ends justify the means? Surely, this is just self-defence scaled up for the 21st century? That’s the argument the UK government presented when it announced the killing of Khan. But even if you accept the self-defence position (and not everyone does), drone strikes – particularly targeted killings – potentially create serious long-term problems for short-term gains.
Firstly, as the US has learned, whatever the drone manufacturers’ claims of accuracy, people make mistakes. According the UK-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism – which takes a special interest in drone strikes – since 2004, the US has launched 421 strikes in Pakistan alone, killing up to 3,989 people – with up to 965 of those being civilians. Human cost aside, this is not good practice for winning hearts and minds.
Secondly, for those on the ground who are actually fighting against a country with drones, there’s a different problem: drones aren’t fair. In the New York Times bestselling book, Wired for War, author P. W. Singer discusses how flying a drone from a ground station using fancy computers, from the perspective of those on the receiving end, isn’t efficient, pragmatic or risk-averse – it’s cowardly. It also sends an unintended message: that countries which use drones are terrified of losing soldiers, which means you don’t have to kill very many of them before those countries lose the will to fight.
But so long as they work, don’t the pros outweigh the cons?
Well, first of all, there’s the question of whether they really do work – at least as advertised. As has been written elsewhere, extended air campaigns actually have a fairly poor track-record of forcing an enemy to surrender. Everywhere we or the US has used drones, the response from the people we’re bombing has largely been, ironically, to keep calm and carry on.
The omnipresence of drones also does nasty things to those unfortunate enough to live underneath them. Drones aren’t invisible – while Reapers have high ‘ceilings’ (the maximum altitude the aircraft can fly) of 50,000 feet, reports of drone sightings on the ground are still common. Communities know when drones are flying overhead – sometimes they can even hear the engines, if a drone is flying low enough. This turns day-to-day living into a terrifying waiting game. The Guardian’s February story of 13-year-old Mohammad Tuaiman, who was himself killed by a CIA drone strike, presents a typical account. He told the Guardian that the drones, “turned our area into hell and continuous horror, day and night, we even dream of them in our sleep”.
“The people in Washington DC, sitting down the President, sorting through intelligence reports… They know what’s going on,” says McDonald of civilian life under drones. “I imagine the people who are members of Al-Qaeda know bits and pieces. But if you’re a civilian in a village in Pakistan or Yemen or Somalia, and you happen to be standing near to someone who the Americans have judged to be a participant in an armed conflict, you have no real way of knowing [what’s happening or why].”
A silver lining – thin for the British and US publics, invisible to victims like Mohammad Tuaiman – is that when the US and British governments make mistakes (and they do – the first confirmed killing of civilians by an RAF Reaper was in Afghanistan in 2011) or engage in assassinations, there are at least journalists, human rights organisations (like the UK charity Reprieve) and legal authorities to hold them to account. But the United States' massive shift into unmanned aircraft has effectively served as an advertising campaign to all countries, including those in which criticisms of the government don’t happen. China has produced and is selling its own suspiciously similar-looking version of the Predator, Russia is building its own and Iran already has. Without accountability – which the CIA drone programme proves is not a given even in countries with free reporting – the number of anonymous and targeted killings by drone will only go one way.
“Essentially, if you are putting into the international realm the idea that if [there is] a non-state actor in the territory [and] the state is unwilling or unable to prevent attacks by that actor [then] you’re allowed to strike at them, you are expanding the legitimate use of force,” says McDonald. “[It] expands the scope for the use of force by states like Russia and China, who may not have the same values that we do, or restraint and things like that. It’s one of the reasons you should be very, very careful about doing [targeted killings].”
What does all this mean for the future of drones?
Thanks to the myriad drones buzzing over Afghanistan and Iraq over the past 10 or 15 years, the term ‘drone’ often gets conflated with the idea of ‘a thing that flies’. But flying drones are only the poster children for a larger trend. In the US, which unsurprisingly leads the way in drone research, the attitude is that if it flies, drives, swims – or even walks, in some cases – drone-ification is worth looking at.
So while the designs for future UAVs are suitably ambitious (the follow-up to the Reaper, the General Atomics Avenger, is a jet-powered stealth drone) other companies are experimenting with solar panelling, while a company called LaserMotive has successfully powered an airborne drone with a ground-based laser; different branches of the US military are also jumping on the remotely-piloted bandwagon.
Meanwhile, the Army likes drones that walk or roll on tank treads to act as pack mules, bomb disposal technicians, and in the future, combat medics that can rattle over to a downed soldier, scoop them up and carry them to safety – all while under fire. The Army already uses current systems like the Special Weapons Observation Reconnaissance Detection System (SWORDS) – basically guns on treads driven a bit like remote control cars – to support ground troops.
In fact, drones are proving so good at doing the jobs of people, that the biggest question around their future doesn’t concern them so much as the people piloting them. If drones are cheaper, safer and more effective than their human counterparts, why have humans at all?
The idea of fully autonomous drones is hugely controversial. On the one hand, it solves an important problem: pilots don’t really like flying drones. At best it’s mind-numbingly boring – sitting in a box flying round and round without anything happening. At worst, when things do happen, it’s traumatic – PTSD and burnout are still real problems for drone pilots, as they see the before and after of a strike in far grislier detail than a traditional pilot does from the air.
On the other hand, taking humans ‘out of the loop’ completely leaves us with the unsettling prospect of drones making decisions about which clumps of pixels on a screen to ignore and which to drop a hellfire on top of. In the same way that a driverless car killing a child that chases a football into the road is instinctively worse than one that gets ploughed into by a human driver, that it’s a machine in the driver’s seat (or cockpit) makes it worse in a way that’s hard to quantify (even if an automated system makes fewer such mistakes overall).
Fortunately, that somewhat dystopian vision is still a ways off, if only because it makes so many people so uncomfortable.
“I think that’s a long way off in the sense of trying to replicate what human beings do,” says McDonald of drones working under their own initiative. “Western militaries don’t want autonomous weapon systems that humans don’t control – it’s part of their professional identity: ‘We are the people who make these decisions and carry the weight of them.’ So when you talk to military professionals, none of them want robots that just go off and fight their war for them.”
What’s the immediate future for the UK?
For better or worse, more drones and more killing. Although in the UK we’ll have to wait until this autumn’s strategic defence review to see where our military budget will go, David Cameron has been open about the government’s desire to bolster the UK drone fleet, while defence secretary Michael Fallon said following the targeted killing of Reyaad Khan said that Britain “wouldn’t hesitate to take similar action again”.
But after more than a decade’s use, what more investment in lethal drones will achieve from a strategic point of view is less clear.
“I think that if you look at Israeli use of drones and American counter-terrorism, what they’re saying is that, they can pull apart and smash networks, but they can’t solve political problems,” says McDonald, of where more drones will take us. “What they lead you down is into a road of lethal management. You have non-state actors that are able to use force, or coerce states, or terrorise people, so you pull apart that network and [try to] kill them all, but you’re not going to kill every last one of them or all the people who share their ideology. But there’s things that they can do: they can take out people that have specific bits of knowledge like bomb-makers, but I don’t think they can really win, in the sense of a decisive victory. But then again, what [technology] can?
“If you look at America and Al-Qaeda, victory there [for America] is annihilation. America defines Al-Qaeda as a militant network [and a] military target. It’s not the case of Al-Qaeda saying, ‘OK, we give up, here’s a peace treaty,’ – it’s all those people either dead or in prison. And I think that locks you into endless conflict. But the thing with drones is that even though they’re expensive, they make endless conflict manageable.”
Jack McDonald is a research associate and teaching fellow with the Centre for Science and Security Studies, in the War Studies department at King’s College London, and the author of the forthcoming book ‘Enemies Known and Unknown: Targeted Killings in America's Transnational War’.