The military use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), commonly known as drones, has risen sharply over the last decade.
These remotely piloted killer robots enable operators to launch missiles and bombs on human targets in the combat zone, while they remain safe in operations trailers thousands of miles away in the Nevada desert.
With weapons dispatched at the touch of a joystick, armed drones involve a form of ‘playstation warfare’ that risks creating a culture of convenient killing.
While the majority of drones are used for surveillance and intelligence purposes, increasingly armed forces are using drones controlled by satellite communication to launch missiles and bombs.
Armed drones have been used by the US military in Afghanistan (since 2001), Iraq (since 2002), and Yemen (since 2002), by the CIA in Pakistan (since 2004) by the UK military in Afghanistan (since 2007) and by Israel in Gaza (since 2008).
It is estimated that drones are being used or developed in over forty countries. In a rare interview on the use of armed drones, CIA Director Leon Pannetta described them as “very effective” and “the only game in town”. This viewpoint is being backed by significant resources - the US budget allocation for drones increased from $1.7 billion in 2006 to $4.2 billion in 2010 .
Military planners clearly see drones as the future of warfare.
As the government defence spending review gets underway, it is essential that the public has access to accurate information about UK forces use of armed drones. Recently leaked war logs from Afghanistan revealed that up until July 2010, British Reaper drones had fired weapons 97 times in Afghanistan, though the MoD has refused to release any further details.
The UK currently has three Reaper drones in service in Afghanistan and since July 2007 has been renting three Hermes 450 surveillance drones from Elbit Systems of Israel on a ‘pay-by-the-hour’ contract.
In military circles drones are touted as the low-cost, low-risk, precision instruments that will triumph in the ‘war on terror’. The reality is very different. Drone strikes are causing high numbers of civilian casualties.
Conservative estimates from the New America Foundation, a US thinktank, suggest that one third of the deaths from drone attacks in Pakistan are civilian.
Drones are prone to costly accidents - 79 accidents at $1 million each according to the US Air Force - and are fuelling an angry backlash amongst the population of Pakistan, including the failed attempt to plant a bomb in Times Square.
Philip Alston, the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions has also raised serious concerns about the use of armed drones in connection with targeted killings. He has challenged the US and the UK to explain the legal basis of using drones to target and kill individuals.
The most concerning aspect of military drones is that the ‘playstation warfare’ they encourage. Reducing the physical and mental distance between operator and target is likely to lower the threshold for launching an attack – making it more convenient to kill than capture.
A recent US Air Force report found that 23 civilian deaths in Afghanistan in February were caused by subtle internal pressure on the pilot of the drone strike, causing him to misrepresent intelligence information in his desire to support the ground troops with a strike. He consequently reported children as ‘possible children’ and adolescents as ‘military aged-males’ with the resulting loss of 23 innocent lives .
The refusal by the UK government to release information about the circumstances in which armed drones have been used or the civilian casualties they have incurred, is creating an accountability vacuum which must be rectified.
The growing use of robotic weapons is taking us down a dark trajectory, and yet it is happening with almost no public debate. The Fellowship of Reconciliation is urging that there is a serious, informed and open discussion about the use of armed drones by British forces.
The organisation hopes to begin this debate the Drone Wars conference on 18 September 2010 in London. Programme and booking can be found at www.for.org.uk.
FoR’s latest briefing Convenient Killing – Armed Drones and the ‘Playstation Mentality’ can be downloaded from www.for.org.uk from 18 September 2010.
 Visiongain ‘The Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) Market 2010-2020: Technologies for ISR and Counter-Insurgency’ Visiongain, 21.06.10 www.visiongain.com, accessed - 23.08.10
 Christopher Drew ‘Study Cites Drone Crew in Attack on Afghans’ New York Times, 10 September 2010 - http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/11/world/asia/11drone.html - accessed 12.09.10
© Amy Hailwood is Education and Campaigns Officer for the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FoR) England - http://www.for.org.uk/