D is for Drones: How the West embraced unmanned aerial warfare

During the last decade, Western militaries shifted towards mechanised warfare to fight enemies such as Isis.

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Increasing mechanisation of war has been a prominent feature of the last decade as the West finds itself primarily fighting unconventional wars: mainly against non-state actors who use asymmetrical tactics. This has been an enhanced feature of the military landscape ever since 9/11, of course, but intensified with the advent of the Syrian crisis in 2011.

Keen not to repeat the mistakes of the Iraq invasion of 2003, Western officials watched cautiously as large swathes of both Syria and Iraq succumbed to an alphabet soup of different jihadist groups. Organisations like Isis grew in strength and size, and so, too, did their capacity for external attacks, many of which struck Europe and claimed hundreds of lives. As pressure for some form of intervention grew, it was American experiences in another theatre of the "9/11 wars" that gave inspiration for how the Levantine crisis might be confronted.

For years, the corrugated mountain ridges of Pakistan’s tribal areas provided fleeing members of al-Qaeda and their Taliban counterparts with an enviable geographic advantage over their adversaries. This is where the United States first began to realise the value of drone strikes, allowing them to attack otherwise hard-to-reach adversaries with relative ease.

Having come to power partly on a platform of opposing president Bush’s adventurism in both Afghanistan and Iraq, president Obama pivoted American military strategy away from nation-building towards more conventional counterterrorism. This has the dual effect of shrinking America’s footprint on the ground, while also being less labour intensive. Obama immediately embraced it and authorised more drone strikes in his first year than George Bush had done throughout the entire course of his presidency. 

The results were staggering. With American troops no longer operating on the ground, what the United States learned was that it could continue pursuing its enemies without risking the lives of its own servicemen. Meanwhile, the entire middle management structure of al-Qaeda, which had overseen the group’s external attacks and managed its relations with other groups (such as the Taliban), was quietly decimated through the aggressive use of drones.

This gave rise to new thinking about how the West would combat non-state actors in Syria and Iraq. When Isis was able, at its peak, to control a patch of territory that rivalled the size of Great Britain, few could predict how the territorial Caliphate might come to an end. Yes, drones played a role here, too, but the broader lesson from our campaigns in Pakistan’s tribal areas was that aerial domination would be the favoured way of conducting asymmetrical campaigns in the future. Indeed, the global coalition against Isis was, in effect, a coalition of assorted Air Forces who led the charge against the group.

Even here, terrorist groups have been innovating and adapting. Isis developed its own form of relatively primitive – although nonetheless effective – drones which were used to deploy grenades against the Syrian Democratic Forces and Iraqi Army. Similarly, the Iranians are known to have used the cover of their intervention in Syria to provide Hezbollah with drone capacity, too, something they have sought to use against the Israelis.

Our military campaigns in the Middle East and elsewhere have been anything but straightforward, of course. There are serious concerns about the human rights and ethical considerations of increased mechanisation in warfare with drone strikes often identifying incorrect targets. This has become even more acute in Syria where there have reports of individuals being identified as targets based on artificial intelligence algorithms identifying them as potential terrorists. There is also the associated point of drone operators being too distant and remote from the battlefield and therefore being unable to fully appreciate the environment and context within which they are operating.

The issue roared into public consciousness in the UK after then prime minister David Cameron authorised the RAF to conduct a drone strike against Reyaad Khan, a British foreign fighter who had joined Isis. It was the first time our government had droned one its own citizens and Cameron was called to parliament to explain his decision. 

Yet, there are some positives associated with the increased use of technology too. Towards the end of 2016 when the Syrian regime pitilessly bombarded the people of eastern Aleppo, in an attempt to reclaim the city from rebel control, the United State flew drones over the area to put President Bashar al-Assad on notice that it was gathering evidence of war crimes. This followed months of deliberate and systematic targeting of civilian facilities, such as hospitals, operating within the area. 

In many respects, the inherent tension with drones on the battlefield is emblematic of our current age. For policymakers they present and easy and quick fixes to the difficult entrenchments in which we have found ourselves over the last decade and beyond. Artificial intelligence will now identify and eliminate terrorists. Yet, with drone operators becoming increasingly detached from the battlefield there is a danger of negating basic human judgements, handing over decision-making to evermore automatous anonymous system in the most lethal of circumstances.

> This article is part of our A-Z of the 2010s.

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Shiraz Maher is a New Statesman contributing writer and the director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College London.