It’s Time to Stop Feeling Comfortable About “Precision” Drone Strikes

Published October 2nd, 2018 - 08:55 GMT
A file photo of a drone (AFP)
A file photo of a drone (AFP)

By Eleanor Beevor

Drones were a neat fit for the Obama foreign policy doctrine. That doctrine was meant to be characterised by a level-headed approach to foreign conflict, and a reluctance to involve America in wars abroad wherever it was avoidable.

And the drone strike was, to its proponents, an ideal halfway solution. It could, in theory, take out critical security threats abroad whilst minimising the risk to both American soldiers, and to the civilians of the country in question.

And so drones now have a funny place in the popular imagination. They inspired fear and revulsion, but also a strange sense of comfort, through the idea that we can take out dangerous terrorists in the cleanest way possible. Unfortunately, there is mounting evidence that “precision” is no longer the defining trait of drone warfare, if indeed it ever was. There aren’t easy answers to the drone debate. But it is vital that the debate is an uncomfortable one, free from the dated idea that drone strikes will ubiquitously minimise the harm of battle. 


The goal of drone technology is not “precision” per se, it’s perception. Drones take over the responsibility of getting visual data from soldiers, outsourcing some of the dangers of reconnaissance to machines. But whether that data is used to conduct a “precise” strike or not is the choice of the drones’ operators, rather than anything to do with the technology. Nevertheless, it seems that the idea of “precision” enables much of the western general public to feel – if not good – then at least not too bad about drones.

According to survey data from the UK and the US, most people would support a targeted strike against a known terrorist with no casualties, although their support for the strike goes down as the number of associated casualties go up. 43% of UK respondents would support a strike against a known terrorist if two to three civilians might be killed in the process. That number drops to 32% if between ten and fifteen civilians might be killed in the strike. Essentially, people’s favourability towards drone strikes goes hand in hand with the strike’s precision. 

Whether a strike’s precision justifies it is still a polarised debate. There is something deeply unsettling, even dystopian, about the idea of military robots stealthily flying above us while a remote operator, physically disconnected from it all, selects and kills a target. That aspect has raised a lot of important philosophical, psychological and ethical questions, as well as considerations of whether drone strikes inadvertently help terrorists to recruit angered civilians.


On the other hand, one could argue that reducing civilian casualties is always justifiable, and if violence is inevitable then surely it’s better to be precise. In that sense, drone strikes are a strange sort of ideological mirror image to the international humanitarian laws that are designed to rein in war’s worst excesses, such as the Geneva Conventions.

There are thinkers who argue that talk of mitigating the worst of war is a cosmetic justification for the unjustifiable act of war itself. Sanitizing warfare, they argue, helps to prolong it. Yet ultimately people choose their side in this debate according to their view of what humanity is capable of. And for those who do not believe humanity is capable of creating a post-war utopia, then sincere efforts to save lives in horrific settings are a justifiable effort. However repulsive the idea of drone strikes, if violence is inevitable, there was reason to think they might be part of the least-worst solution.

The problem is that drone technology has spread at such a rapid and uncontrollable pace that that moral argument is, if not obsolete, then at least only relevant in a dwindling number of cases. And even in those cases, the changing nature of warfare means that good faith attempts to strike a single target very often isn’t good enough. Urban warfare, soon to be the predominant setting of global conflict, won’t give you the movie version of a drone strike, in which a target is clearly visible from above on an open plain.

Pakistani residents gather around a destroyed vehicle hit by a drone strike in which Afghan Taliban Chief Mullah Akhtar Mansour was believed to be travelling in May 2016 (AFP Photo/)

Mosul was a case in point. Surveillance drone footage identified IS militants within the city’s buildings, upon which a strike was ordered. The problem was that even though the militant was identified, other civilians elsewhere in the building were not. And unless the “precision strike” hits its target the first time - which it often doesn’t - then the militant being targeted moves from building to building, trying to evade repeated strikes. In the process, more and more buildings are bombed. 

ISIS fighters proved adept at using the city’s infrastructure against their attackers, to the point that the city emerged in ruins. Adding to that, the large ammunition that the American-led coalition used in its “precision” strikes undermined any advantage that “precision” data had given them by causing excessive destruction. In total, the American-led coalition is believed to have been responsible for 9,600 civilian deaths in the fight against ISIS, a level of civilian casualties not seen since Vietnam. 

More worryingly, there are mounting examples of the fact that not all drone users want to make “precise” attacks; many want quite the opposite. The gloves are coming off in the war for the skies, as drones are increasingly used for mass, not minimal destruction. Russia is a key state that has adopted drones in attacks intended to wipe out large numbers. 


In the Donbas area of Ukraine, Russia are using fourteen types of drone, and have used them to help orchestrate mass attacks that have wiped out entire Ukrainian mechanized battalions. The drones themselves are mostly engaged in reconnaissance to guide long-range missile attacks in this case. However, analysts anticipate that “Predator” style-drones that both surveil and attack will be used in Ukraine soon, since it vastly shortens the time between target identification and the strike.

Nor is drone technology the purview of state powers any longer. In January, a swarm of thirteen drones attacked two Russian military bases in Syria, apparently launched by rebel groups. The drones were rudimentary, made of plywood and small engines. Meanwhile in Yemen, Houthi forces appear to be using drones to drop multiple bombs on Saudi-led coalition forces. ISIS made extensive use of cheap drones in the battle for Mosul against areas being retaken by coalition forces. They would use the drones to drop grenades and other IEDs, injuring and killing scores of civilians. Again, these were a crude, but lethal design. The drones didn’t have any kind of IED launcher – often just plastic cups attached to the outside of the drone, which contained explosives. When the drone was remotely flipped upside down, the explosives fell to the ground. 

One analyst has compared drones to AK-47s, in that they are increasingly cheap, widespread, accessible, and deadly. Added to that, there is an increasingly lax attitude to the use of drones coming from Washington. The Trump administration has been rapidly loosening restrictions on drone strikes, to the point that Trump wants to remove himself from the decision making loop and allow the military to make its own choices. He has designated large areas of Yemen and Somalia “areas of active hostilities”, which allow strikes to be launched even when civilians would be at risk from them.

This will likely set the tone for the next few years of drone conflict, as a no-holds barred scenario in which restraint is a sign of weakness. “Precision” is no longer the defining characteristic of drone warfare, if indeed it ever was. Drones are going to be a formative influence in the future of warfare, and we cannot afford to take comfort in a false promise any more.

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