The use of unmanned aircraft by the United States in the realm of counterterrorism has become a lightning rod of sorts. While an invaluable tool for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), a second function involving lethal strike capabilities has stirred controversy as it has become easier to kill targets and purported enemies of the state enabling what is known as the “targeted killing” program. Though the U.S. has a virtual monopoly on the unmanned aircraft or drone market in the battlespace, several other nations are catching up.
Britain, which has operated U.S. made Reaper drones in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria announced recently that it killed two of its citizens with drone strikes in Syria thought to be members of the Islamic State – the first such occurrence of a targeted assassination by the island nation. Additionally, Pakistan confirmed over the weekend that it too conducted its first successful lethal strike via unmanned aircraft in its highly volatile tribal region killing at least three suspected militants as part of its recent push to oust terrorist groups from safe havens.
These strikes are representative of a new era of warfare in which automation will come to play a large part. While drones are simply a tool, it is the potential reach and capabilities of these tools that have caused uproar. For example, the U.S. has devised a secretive, yet apparent legal framework for how lethal strikes will be carried out – both against non-citizens and citizens. Many strikes have taken place far beyond so-called “hot” battlefields in which the U.S. is engaged in war.
The United Nations has sought to examine and potentially regulate the use of unmanned aircraft. There have been debates regarding a highly regulated system for drones, some going as far as suggesting banning them outright akin to other overly deadly weapons such as chemical and biological weapons. Some have discussed the limiting of further automation in which robots would possess capabilities to carry out targeted strikes on their own based on pre-programmed algorithms without a “human-in-the-loop.”
There is clear need for an international legal framework that speaks directly to the use of these military tools. Legal frameworks set out by the U.S. and Britain have outlined subjective and contentious arguments.
As several news outlets have been quick to point out, the legal rationale outlined by Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron is very similar to that described by President Obama regarding the U.S. framework for carrying out the same activities. Cameron stated in an address to the House of Commons that this is not likely the last time Britain will deploy such forces against its own citizens or other militants that threaten its security describing the strike(s) as “an act of self-defense.”
“[W]e took this action because there was no alternative. In this area, there is no government we can work with. We have no military on the ground to detain those preparing plots. And there was nothing to suggest that [the suspected militant] would ever leave Syria or desist from his desire to murder us at home. So we had no way of preventing his planned attacks on our country without taking direct action,” Cameron said echoing similar sentiments of President Obama.
Adding that the action was legal, Cameron offered his reasoning:
“We were exercising the UK’s inherent right to self-defence. There was clear evidence of the individuals in question planning and directing armed attacks against the UK. These were part of a series of actual and foiled attempts to attack the UK and our allies…And in the prevailing circumstances in Syria, the airstrike was the only feasible means of effectively disrupting the attacks planned and directed by this individual...The United Nations Charter requires members to inform the President of the Security Council of activity conducted in self-defence. And today the UK Permanent Representative to the United Nations is writing to the President of the Security Council to do just that.”
Similarly, the U.S. has outlined a three-pronged test it uses to examine if it will take the lives of one of its citizens extra-judiciously as outlined in a leaked white paper by the U.S. Department of Justice. They are;
1) “an informed, high level official of the U.S. government has determined that the targeted individual poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States;” 2) “capture is infeasible, and the United States continues to monitor whether capture becomes feasible;” and 3) “the operation would be conducted in a manner consistent with applicable law of war principles.”
Additionally, the British strike was conducted separate from the global U.S.-led anti-Islamic State coalition “to deal with a clear, credible and specific terrorist threats to our country at home” and “conducted according to specific military rules of engagement.” According to the Washington Post, the U.S. is also currently engaged in a covert effort in Syria to hunt down members of the Islamic State much like it did in Iraq to dismantle the Islamic State’s predecessor organization, al-Qaeda in Iraq. The covert U.S. effort also follows similar patterns taken in regions where the U.S. is not engaged in a hot conflict, such as Yemen.
Now that Britain has engaged in lethal drone strikes in the name of self-defense, separate from the coalition, and outlined an apparent legal framework – following the U.S. lead of course – they have set the stage for similar action by others. In fact, there are reports that France announced it will begin conducting ISR flights in Syria as well, expanding their effort from Iraq, while also mulling strikes. France has already seen horrific acts of terror carried out on its soil with the massacre at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and the thwarted attack on a train. Many European nations feel these threats as they are easily connected to transnational pipelines from war-torn regions, unlike the U.S., which is not to say there are not threats to the U.S. but such threats have been inflated.
Pakistan, on the other hand, has decried the U.S. drone campaign within its borders while also continuing to allow strikes to occur. Pakistan has also been a duplicitous ally of the U.S. – with some calling for the U.S. to cut aid – as it tends to only act in its best interests. This includes harboring, or at the very least, turning a blind eye to “good” terrorist organizations within its borders that are more focused on other nations such as India or Afghanistan rather than conducting attacks against the Pakistani government or people. However, Pakistan took a different public stance by cracking down on all groups ending its policy of passively enabling others following a massacre at a military school in which militants killed scores of students and teachers.
Pakistan initially stated that its drones would be used for surveillance but the school attack changed its calculus. Additionally, Pakistan has not demonstrated a clear legal rationale for its strike. Moreover, Pakistan’s motives could be hard to read but it could be tempted to use such technology to further its interests in the region meaning using it against other regional states.
The new age of warfare has arrived. It is unclear how other nations will apply new technologies that make warfare operations significantly easier and less risky for its own soldiers, which could include some level of deniability by nations acting nefariously. Drones are simply one of a myriad set of tools to be used in war. Despite being a tool of warfare, in the post 9/11 world, drones have come to augment the awesome, yet debatably excessive operations of U.S. covert counterterrorism forces that have conducted a wide variety of operations in far flung regions of the globe. With other nations beginning to follow the U.S. lead, the newly lethal capability of drones adopted by others and associated polices behind their uses will continue to raise criticisms in overt wars and especially covert operations.