The rise of the killer machines

Sunday, December 5, 2010

One of the features of advances in military technology is that an increasing proportion of those killed in wars are civilians, not combatants.

During the 20th century, airstrikes became the preferred form of warfare by technologically well-resourced superpowers. This led to civilians becoming the majority of those killed in wars worldwide.

In the first decade of the new century, new developments in military technology have raised the possibility for powerful countries of increasingly dispensing with combatants entirely.

Since the US introduced the aptly named Predator drone (remote controlled, pilotless aircraft) in 2001, armed drones and other remotely operated weapons have become part of several countries’ arsenals, most significantly the US and Israel.

US armed drones currently in operation are the Predator and the Reaper, both of which fire hellfire missiles. Other drones are used for surveillance.

In Afghanistan and Iraq, most airstrikes are still carried out by crewed aircraft or conventional guided missiles. However, drone attacks are increasing in Afghanistan.

In neighbouring Pakistan, drones are the main means by which the US wages war. This is primarily for political reasons. The Pakistani armed forces and government collaborate with US forces, but wish to downplay this to the Pakistani population.

To this end, Pakistan has an official policy of not allowing US soldiers or crewed aircraft to cross into Pakistan, while also collaborating with drone strikes.

The US drones deployed in Pakistan actually take off from a base inside the country guarded by Pakistani soldiers.

Since taking office in January 2009, US President Barack Obama has made extending the war in Afghanistan into north-west Pakistan a key component of US attempts to control Afghanistan.

This has led to a big increase in drone warfare. In September, there were 22 drone attacks in Pakistan, compared with 60 during the whole eight years of the Afghan war under former president George W Bush.

Casualties from drone strikes are rarely counted. Western media reports of drone strikes tend to focus on claims of targeted Al Qaeda or Taliban commanders killed. Most casualties, however, are civilians.

The October 12 Der Spiegel reported that US drones “attacked Baitullah Mehsud, the head of the Pakistani Taliban, 16 times. In other words, either informants or the drones’ cameras identified Mehsud’s location 16 times and the drones fired 16 times. The first 15 tries failed.

“Then, in the last attempt, when the report was correct and Mehsud was in fact at his father-in-law's house, Mehsud and 10 friends and relatives were killed.

“According to sources in Islamabad, CIA drones killed some 700 civilians in 2009.”

In 2010, the rate of drone attacks in Pakistan increased seven fold from 2009, the Foreign Policy Journal reported on August 27.

Drones take a heavy psychological toll on the populations they target. The October 1 Globe and Mail reported: “Sleeping pills and anti-depressants have become a regular part of the diet [in the drone-infested parts of Pakistan] even in poor villages where few people can afford meat.”

Peshawar psychiatrist Muhammad Shafique told the Globe and Mail: “They lie down at night and they don’t know if they will get up again. Especially at night, they are seized with anxiety … this 24-hour buzzing in the sky gives people a fear that’s worse than dying.”

In the Palestinian Gaza Strip, the psychological distress caused by the constant presence of Israeli drones is worsened by there being nowhere to run to in the small, besieged enclave. A drone attack on November 17 killed two brothers in Gaza who were reportedly members of a small resistance group, Ma’an news agency said.

A distinctive feature of remote control weapons is that they allow combatants to kill without danger to themselves and with a psychological, as well as geographical, distance from their victims. The hundreds of Pakistani civilian victims of drones were killed by US military personnel operating a console like a sophisticated video game in Fort Creech airforce base in Nevada or the CIA’s Virginia headquarters.

The distance, and anonymity, of the drone operator has made drones the big powers’ chosen weapon for assassinations.

In a March 28 report to the United Nations’ Human Rights Council, Philip Alston, UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, and arbitrary executions cited armed drones operated by intelligence agencies as a way of avoiding accountability for conduct in war.

“The result has been the displacement of clear legal standards with a vaguely defined license to kill, and the creation of a major accountability vacuum”, he said.

Alston said the first assassination by a CIA drone was the November 3, 2002, killing in Yemen of Qaed Senyan al-Harithi, who the US suspected of involvement in the terrorist attack on the USS Cole in 2000.

There are other remotely operated weapons. Israel enforces a 300 metre buffer zone on the inside perimeter of the Gaza Strip, reserving for itself the right to kill anyone who strays into it. These are usually people scavenging for building materials.

One of the weapons Israel uses for this is Sentry Tech, a system of machine guns on towers spaced every few hundred metres along Gaza’s wall and operated by remote control.

The July 7 Defense Industry Daily said Sentry Tech’s machine guns “can typically enforce a kill zone around 1 to 1.5km deep” and that system was capable of being upgraded to fire missiles “for increased range and lethality”.

The June 1 Defense News reported disturbing plans to fully automate the system. This would mean that if anything triggered a sensor, the machine gun would automatically fire.

More disturbing still is the development of “fully autonomous” weapons. A new generation of drone is being developed that will be controlled by an internal computer on the basis of information it acquires from a bewildering array of sensors.

The drones will be able to decide to attack a target without human intervention.

This has the added benefit of even less accountability. If a computer autonomously decides to commit a war crime, then who is responsible?

The November 21 Observer reported the unveiling in July of Britain’s BAE Taranis, a prototype fully autonomous stealth drone. The US’s Boeing X45 is a fully autonomous drone prototype. Tank-like land-based fully autonomous military vehicles are also being developed.

Surveillance drones are also becoming ubiquitous, and are even used by police forces. The February 12 Daily Mail reported Britain’s first drone-assisted arrest.

“Merseyside Police … have been using the drones for two years, mainly to help in search and rescue operations, to execute drug warrants and to crack down on anti-social behaviour”, the paper said.

Drones are not invincible, however. On August 8, Lebanese Hezbollah resistance movement leader Hasan Nasrallah accused Israel of being behind the 2005 assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. As evidence, Nasrallah showed the media video surveillance footage of Hariri from an Israeli drone.

Nasrallah demonstrated that Hezbollah guerrillas were capable of hacking into drones’ communications. He also said that in 1997, Hezbollah fighters ambushed an Israeli force at Ansariyeh using information acquired from hacking drones, Al-Manar TV reported on August 9.

On October 27, Al-Manar TV said Israeli officials had conceded that the images shown by Nasrallah were genuine.

The dangerous rise in the use of automated machines for killing is an outgrowth of the capitalist system’s constant wars between competing powers for markets, resources and geopolitical dominance. Unless we end this profit-driven system, this science fiction-esque nightmare will grow.

From GLW issue 864