Proliferation of Drones ­Raises New Concerns

By Erika Simpson | 2016-07-01 12:00:00

A British Airways aircraft carrying 132 passengers was about to land at Heathrow airport in April when, according to the pilot, it collided with a drone. Another drone came very close to hitting a Boeing 737 taking off from a British airport a few weeks earlier.

They say if you can use Google maps, you can fly a drone. Drones or Un-manned Air Vehicles (UAVs) are power-driven aircraft designed to fly without human operators on board. Last year an off-duty drunken US intelligence agency employee flew a drone that crashed inside the White House complex. His 60-by-60-centimetre drone managed to evade White House radar that was supposed to warn of larger threats like manned airplanes and incoming missiles.

The US Federal Aviation Agency estimates that 30,000 drones will be approved to fly in US skies over the next twenty years.1 Estimates are that worldwide spending on UAVs will triple over the next decade, totalling $93 billion.2 Already Mexican drug cartels are using drones to transport drugs and weapons into the US. One drone laden with crystal meth crashed into a supermarket in Tijuana, Mexico, because three kilograms of illegal narcotics was too much for it to carry.

Unmanned drones can carry high-resolution still cameras, video cameras and thermal cameras, so they are useful for aerial surveillance as well as search and rescue operations. Vehicles that operate in the air, without people on board to control them, can track wide, isolated expanses such as the Arctic much less expensively than manned aircraft. Drones can also stay in dangerous airspace longer than manned aircraft, so they were used at Japan’s crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant to survey the damage.

Drones could reinvent how humanitarian aid is provided—but they are also being deployed as weapons half a world away. In May a US drone strike killed another top ISIS commander in Iraq. At Creech air force base in Nevada and at CIA headquarters, protestors regularly carry placards opposed to pilots killing people in Afghanistan and Iraq as if they are playing video games in air-conditioned offices.

Over the last decade, there have been about 300 US drone strikes outside the battlefields of Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. Of these, around 95 percent occurred in Pakistan, with the rest in Yemen and Somalia. Cumulatively more than 2,000 suspected militants and an unknown number of civilians have been killed. The US government does not release figures but there is broad consensus that about two dozen senior followers of Osama bin Laden were killed in recent years—leading al-Qaeda to use drone footage to celebrate their martyrdom and recruit more followers.

The option of killing al-Qaeda-, Taliban- or ISIS-inspired militants from the air—without immediately risking American lives—is portrayed as one distinct benefit of drones. Initially the US government intended to use drones against highly valued targets, like key leaders of al-Qaida. But according to experts, approximately two percent of the deaths caused by drones since 2004 are highly-valued, while the remainder are lower-ranking operatives.3

President Barack Obama admits “a lot of these strikes” have been in Pakistan’s tribal areas, but who was targeted and under whose authority can only be guessed at. According to Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy, a renowned Pakistani scientist and peace activist:

“About two dozen senior followers of bin Laden have been taken out by drones in recent years. But in general, ascertaining casualties of either militants or non-combatants is extremely difficult?.In short, damage assessment by drones is a free-for-all; you can believe what you want?.Drones have prevented large formations of Taliban fighters from acting in concert. This sort of evidence suggests they are militarily significant—at least in a limited way.”4

According to a 2015 national survey by the Pew Research Center, 58% of Americans approve of the US conducting missile strikes from drones to target extremists in such countries as Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. About a third (35%) disapproves of U.S. drone attacks. Support for drone strikes crosses party lines, though Republicans (74%) are more likely than independents (56%) or Democrats (52%) to favor the use of drones to target extremists. Nevertheless, US drone operations remain widely unpopular in the rest of the world. In 31 of 39 countries surveyed in 2013, at least half of these publics disapproved of the attacks and US drone policy remains deeply unpopular outside North America.5

A recent report by the US Stimson Task Force on Drones suggests that the rule of law is being threatened by drones because basic concepts—like “battlefield,” “combatant,” and “hostilities”—no longer have clear or stable ­meanings.6 Without much stronger regulations governing their use on the battlefield, this relatively simple technology could be turned against the U.S. and its allies. In 2010, Iran’s then-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad unveiled the “Ambassador of Death” drone. Already University of Southampton engineers have used a laser 3-D printer to assemble by hand, in minutes, a nearly-silent drone.

According to a recent U.S. Army War College report, human-controlled drones could be used for drone-up shootings (like walk-up shootings), to take down aircraft or to move as semi-autonomous swarms of UAVs.7 The proliferation of drones raises many new concerns, therefore it will be important to abide by emerging international rules of law.

The Canadian drone industry in southwestern Ontario, particularly in London and Waterloo, will need much heavier domestic regulation and stronger export controls.

The Aeryon Scout drone manufactured in Waterloo, Ontario made international headlines when Libyan rebels purchased one for $100,000 and used it to collect video intelligence of Moammar Gadhafi’s compounds. Sales to these sub-state actors should be subject to strict export controls.

If Canada’s Department of National Defence recommends in the forthcoming Defence White Paper that DND acquire more UAVs, Minister of Defence Harjit Sajjan should avow the government’s intention to abide by emerging international law governing their use. Minister Sajjan should strictly restrict UAVs to assisting the Canadian Forces during defensive peacekeeping and UN-sanctioned operations—and disallow them from aiding in offensive operations on upcoming battlefields.

However, the US Marine Corps and the US Department of Defense are researching ways for drones to act like teammates with robots on the battlefield. They foresee robots that plug into injured troops on the battlefield, monitor their care and keep them alive with medication and blood transfusions delivered by drones.8 To draw a distinction, therefore between using drones in an offensive versus defensive fashion may well resonate with the public—but such distinctions will not play a major role in future battlefields. It is up to Canada’s peace movement now, before vast arsenals of UAVs are acquired by Canadian agencies like DND, to prescribe strict ethical rules and expectations governing their potential use.

Dr. Erika Simpson is associate professor in the department of political science at at Western University, and the author of the book, NATO and the Bomb along with other scholarly articles and opinion pieces available on her blog:


1 Research Group of the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, Drones in Canada: will the proliferation of domestic drone use in Canada raise new concerns for privacy? Ottawa: Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, 2013, 5-8.

2 John McHale, Worldwide UAV market to triple over next decade, say analysts, Military embedded systems, August 20, 2015

3 Audrey Kurth Cronin, Why Drones Fail: When Tactics Drive Strategy, Foreign Affairs 92, no. 4, 2013

4 Pervez Hoodbhoy, Drones: theirs and ours, OpenDemocracy, November 3, 2012

5 Pew Research Center, Surveys about drones conducted in 2012, 2013 and 2015

6 Task Force Co-Chairs, General John P. Abizaid and Rosa Brooks, Recommendations and Report of the Task Force on U.S. Drone Policy, Washington, 2015

7 Robert J. Bunker, Terrorist and insurgent unmanned aerial vehicles: Use, Potentials, and Military Implications, U.S. Army War College: United States Army War College press, August 27, 2015, p. V iii

8 Sean Gallagher, Marines test autonomous robot-drone teams for future on battlefield, Arstechnica, May 3, 2016

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2016

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