Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), also known as
drones, are aircraft either controlled by “pilots” from the ground or,
increasingly, autonomously following a pre-programmed mission. While
there are dozens of different types of drones, they basically fall
into two categories: those that are used for reconnaissance and
surveillance purposes; and those that are armed with missiles and
The use of drones has grown quickly in recent years because unlike
piloted aircraft they can stay aloft for many hours (Zephyr, a British
drone under development, has just broken the world record by flying
for over 82 hours nonstop); they are much cheaper than military
aircraft; and they are flown remotely so there is no danger to the
While the British and US Reaper and Predator drones are physically in
Afghanistan and Iraq, they are controlled remotely via satellite from
Nellis and Creech USAF base outside Las Vegas, Nevada.
Ground crews launch drones from the conflict zone, then operation is
handed over to controllers at video screens in specially-designed
trailers in the Nevada desert. One person “flies” the drone; another
operates and monitors the cameras and sensors; while a third person is
in contact with the “customers”, ground troops and commanders in the
While armed drones were first used in the Balkans war, their use has
dramatically escalated in Afghanistan, Iraq and in the CIA’s
undeclared war in Pakistan.
Only game in town
The US has two separate “squadrons” of armed drones – one run by the
US air force and one run by the CIA. Using drones, the USAF has
increased the number of combat air patrols it can fly by 600% over the
past six years.
At any one time, there are at least 36 armed US UAVs over Afghanistan
and Iraq. It plans to increase this number to 50 by 2011. CIA director
Leon Panetta has recently said that drones are “the only game in
The CIA have been using drones in Pakistan and other countries to
assassinate “terrorist leaders.” While this programme was initiated by
the Bush administration, it has increased under Obama and there have
been 41 known drone strikes in Pakistan since Obama became president.
Analysis by the US think tank, the Brookings Institution, of drone
attacks in Pakistan, has shown that for every militant leader killed,
10 civilians also have died.
The UK has several different types of armed and surveillance drones in
Iraq and Afghanistan – and others in the production or development
Britain began using armed drones in Afghanistan in October 2007 after
purchasing three Reapers from General Atomics in 2007 at a cost of £6m
each. The MoD confirmed in June 2008 that a British Reaper UAV had
fired its weapons for the first time, but refused to give any details.
In March 2009, the Daily Telegraph reported that British drones had
been used ten times in armed strikes.
As well as armed drones, the UK has several types of surveillance
drones, most notably Watchkeeper, a drone jointly produced by Israeli
company Ebit and Thales UK. The UK is purchasing 54 Watchkeeper drones
and ground stations at a cost of £860m. The first 10 will be built in
Israel and then production will transfer to a specially-built facility
Testing is taking place at Aberporth in Wales, and Watchkeeper is due
to enter service this year. There have recently been reports that
Watchkeeper may be armed in the future.
The UN’s special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary
executions, Philip Alston, has said that the use of drones is not so
much combat as “targeted killing”. Alston has repeatedly tried to get
the US to explain how they justify under international law the use of
drones to target and kill individuals. This the US has so far refused
In a report to the UN, Alston has said the US government (and by
implication the UK government) “should specify the bases for decisions
to kill rather than capture particular individuals.... and should make
public the number of civilians killed as a result of drone attacks,
and the measures in place to prevent such casualties”. A further
question is the extent to which operators become trigger-happy with
remote controlled armaments, situated as they are in complete safety,
distant from the conflict zone.
Keith Shurtleff, an army chaplain and ethics instructor at Fort
Jackson, South Carolina, worries that: “as war becomes safer and
easier, as soldiers are removed from the horrors of war and see the
enemy not as humans but as blips on a screen, there is very real
danger of losing the deterrent that such horrors provide.” Increased
Military drone manufacturers are looking for civilian uses for
remote-sensing drones to expand their markets and this includes the
use of drones for domestic surveillance. Drones will no doubt make
possible the dramatic expansion of the surveillance state. With the
convergence of other technologies it may even make possible machine
recognition of faces, behaviours, and the monitoring of individual
The sky, so to speak, is the limit.
Chris Cole is Director of
the Fellowship of Reconciliation. FoR will be launching a campaign on
drones in the spring.
Jim Wright is an anti-war activist living in Sussex and Canada.
Next issue: the Israeli connection; BAE and drones; drones and direct
energy weapons; grounding the drones.