Bill Berkowitz / Buzzflash
(December 13, 2021) — Armed aerial drones are a part of our military fabric now, but how death robots in the sky came to be is part of a larger trend that began at the turn of the century.
“The [smart bomb] revolution came with the Afghanistan war,” Slate’s Fred Kaplan reported in mid-November, “which coincided with the invention of armed drones guided by the signals from GPS satellites. Aircrews simply punched in the latitude and longitude of the target; the drone-fired missile or bomb homed in precisely to that spot. The science fiction fantasy of pinpoint bombing from remote distances became a reality — a reality all too tempting to exploit.”
The use of armed drones to hunt terrorists began as highly secretive operations. Often, drones only entered the public conversation after it was revealed that off-target strikes were responsible for the slaughter of civilians.
President George W. Bush was the first to use drones, but it was President Barack Obama who made it a favored tactic. By the time Obama became president, “armed drones were in mass production, and the infrastructure of drone strikes — imaging networks, monitoring stations, and trained joystick pilots — was in place,” Kaplan noted.
Contrast that with President Biden, who, despite having launched an early December MQ-9 “Reaper” drone strike against a senior al-Qaida leader and planner in Syria, has used them sparingly, according to The Week’s Ryan Cooper.
“President Biden has almost totally halted drone strikes, and airstrikes in general, around the world,” Cooper wrote. “It’s a remarkable foreign policy reform, but also a remarkable failure of both government communication and media coverage. A hugely significant change in foreign policy has happened — and almost nobody is paying attention.”
What people are paying attention to is the ubiquitous marketing of drones. Drones have become a favored holiday gift. A slew of companies tout their drones as faster, more video efficient, having longer battery life, ultra compact, and cheaper than the competition.
In a 2013 interview with Amazon’s Jeff Bezos on “60 Minutes,” Bezos said that Amazon had plans to drone-delivered goods directly to America’s front porches sometime within the next few years. As far as I can make out, that has not yet materialized.
Of lesser interest to the public than the marketing of drones for recreational purposes has been their military use — even when they go tragically wrong. In late August, in response to the terrorist attack on the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, that killed more than 170 Afghan civilians and 13 U.S. soldiers, the US launched a drone attack that killed 10 Afghan civilians, including seven children.
NBC News reported that, according to a Pentagon review of the Afghanistan drone attack, “multiple issues, including execution errors, confirmation bias and communication breakdowns led to the mistaken drone strike on what was believed to be an Islamic State Khorasan terrorist group bomber. The United States had intelligence that ISIS-K was plotting an attack against the airport using a white Toyota Corolla. They began tracking the wrong vehicle after it showed up at a known ISIS-K location.”
The NBC report underlined what Just Security’s Luke Hartig just pointed out in early November: “Drone strikes are complex analytic and operational undertakings that rely on techniques and procedures developed and refined over many years.”
While the US may be reducing military drone use, using drones as death robots is spreading: Iran used them to attack a US base in Syria; Yemen’s Houthi fighters recently claimed to have fired 14 drones at several Saudi cities; and there was a recent drone strike on the home of Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi by an unnamed Iraqi political group.
The Week’s Ryan Cooper reported that one of Obama’s signature foreign policy moves was the escalation of the use of drones. “The drone strike was thus the perfect tool for his presidency: a cheap, high-tech, and supposedly super-accurate method of fighting terrorism (and extending U.S. military hegemony) at no risk to American soldiers. … ‘Turns out I’m really good at killing people,’ Obama told aides in 2011. ‘Didn’t know that was gonna be a strong suit of mine.’”
According to Cooper, Obama’s statement “was only true if ‘really good’ is measured by quantity, not quality, of the strikes. The intelligence used to pick targets was routinely atrocious, and airstrikes blew up weddings, markets, and random civilian houses… Many people in drone-ridden areas, especially children, developed chronic PTSD from the constant buzzing whine of a machine that could and quite often did kill them out of nowhere for no reason.”
But while President Obama is known for radically escalating the drone war, the reality of his drone policy is more nuanced than Cooper indicates.
First off, President Obama’s escalation continued a trend established by President Bush during the last year of his presidency. From 2011 on, however, Obama steadily reduced the number of drone strikes, and authorized only a few during the last year of his presidency.
President Trump continued his predecessor’s trend as well: He rapidly increased the total number of strikes at the beginning of his administration and reduced them to almost zero by the time he left office.
President Biden appears to be using drones at the beginning of his administration the same way both Obama and Trump used them at the end of theirs — sparingly. This is good news. It is, after all, great to see that the US is reducing the carnage it inflicts on the world with drones.
Unfortunately, the USA let the death robot genie out of the bottle and now that carnage is being inflicted on the world by other countries. Maybe what Biden needs to do is get louder not just about the USA’s declining use of drones over multiple administrations, he needs to start speaking up about the need to better rein in their use by others. Drones may be here to stay but that doesn’t mean they always have to be here to slay.
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