Chris Cole sees the rapid recent rise of drone use as one part of a strategy to rehabilitate the very idea of warfare in the 21st century and presents four arguments to counter this relegitimisation of violence.
Over the past decade-and-a-half, the rise in the military use of armed, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVS), commonly known as drones, has been astonishing. From an obscure technology originally used by navy gunners for target practice, drones have become central to the way in which armed forces fight wars and project power in the early twenty-first century. While the US and Israel monopolised the field for more than a decade, an increasing number of countries, including China and Turkey, now manufacture and export a startling array of these weapons systems.
Armed drones are prized by military powers for two primary reasons. Firstly, they can be operated remotely over very great distances via satellite links. While the drones themselves are located near the point of operation, once they are launched, control can be handed over to pilots sitting safely thousands of miles away.
Secondly, due to the lack of any crew on board, drones can remain airborne far longer than a piloted aircraft. While typically a fast-jet can remain in the air for around 8 hours before the crew become fatigued, drones can fly far longer, around 20 hours currently. Crews simply change shifts on the ground while the drone remains in the air. This remote operating together with a greater persistence is seen as an important strategic advantage by the military.
However, it’s important to emphasise that the rise in the use of drones is not just due to their perceived tactical military value. They also play a significant role in rehabilitating the acceptability of war.
The fall and rise of warfare
Throughout the 20th century, the idea of warfare, which had previously been portrayed as glorious and heroic, increasingly became seen as outmoded, immoral, and threadbare. At the dawn of the century there was the slaughter of the ‘war to end all wars’, quickly followed by the deaths of millions more in the Second World War. Then came the Cold War with the ever-present threat of nuclear annihilation and the humiliation of US and Soviet military might in Vietnam and Afghanistan, respectively. Acceptance and support for war as a means of solving international political crisis drastically declined. As the twentieth century drew to a close the reputation of war in the West was on the wane
But remarkably, just a couple of decades later, the value and effectiveness of the military and warfare in the minds of many has been rehabilitated due to a pro-active strategy by those advocating military solutions. I’m not, of course, suggesting that there is a secretive cabal somewhere manipulating the public into accepting warfare. But rather those who advocate military solutions are not only paying much greater attention to how war is presented to the public, but are actively seeking to counter the negative perception of warfare in order to undermine anti-war sentiment.
Such a strategy includes at least five elements:
- Military intervention now always being framed as for humanitarian purposes rather than for national self-interest or geopolitical advantage. The Libyan intervention in 2011, for example, was framed as being for the protection of the people of Benghazi, while a couple of years later, the return of the US and the UK to Iraq was framed as being for the defence of the Yazidi community.
- The decision to go to war and the conduct of military operations in war itself, is now always presented as being in the hands of detached independent legal authorities and advisors who are above grubby politics and beyond reproach.
- The advent of ‘Help for Heroes’ and a whole raft of similar armed forces charities has helped to create a culture where it is increasingly difficult to be critical of the use of armed force lest it be seen as criticising armed forces personnel, ‘our boys and girls’.
- The stoking of fear of terrorism. The terror attacks that have taken place in the UK and in Europe over the past decade have undoubtedly moved public opinion in favour of military response to security issues. While the actual number of terror attacks in the West continue to remain small, they have a great deal of power to shock and disturb, and always gain huge media coverage. Fear has led many to the conclusion that there is no alternative to the use of ‘pre-emptive’ military force.
- A focus on high-tech ‘precision’ weaponry presenting a narrative of ‘clean’ and ‘bloodless’ warfare which enables armed forces to accurately, swiftly and cleanly take out ‘bad guys’ whilst leaving innocent civilians unharmed.
The framing of warfare in this way hasn’t, of course, negated the impact on the ground. While the US-led military intervention against ISIS in Iraq and Syria has been presented as virtually casualty free, Airwars has documented thousands of civilian casualties.
So, the question is how do we start to counter the rehabilitation of warfare? Here are four ideas for starters:
First, we should be pointing out that the idea of precision, ‘risk free’ war is nonsense. Although weapons are much more accurate than they were thirty or forty years ago, air strikes still cause huge numbers of civilian casualties. While drones and other remote, high tech, weaponry means states can undertake air strikes with virtual impunity, it is not risk free, but further transferring the risk of war from military personnel to civilians.
Second, we must continue to argue that warfare is not effective but, rather as Professor Paul Rogers has long argued, mere ‘liddism’. We need instead to be arguing that the root political causes of conflicts need to be addressed. Neither building border walls nor using drones to deter refugees at borders tackles the factors that cause people to flee from warzones. Tackling long term inequalities and injustices, like the situation in Palestine, would also go a long way to undercutting terrorism.
Third, instead of devoting the enormous talents of our engineers and scientists to developing autonomous weapons systems – the latest iteration of the arms race – our brightest and best should be working on developing renewable energy resources and ways to tackle climate change, a real security threat to hundreds of millions.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly of all, we need to be educating our fellow citizens to understand that in a global world, our security depends not on selfishness or ‘protecting our national interest’, but rather on global welfare, on the common good and common security.
The views and opinions expressed in posts on the Rethinking Security blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the network and its broader membership.