Where drones matter: Notes on U.S. ‘drone policy’

I have been silent but I have not been idle, I promise. More on exactly what I have been doing – if not blogging – later because for now I want to turn my attention to a series of related questions that have been plaguing me for a while now. This is post #1 of a trio: see also ‘Notes on Israeli sikul memukad’ and ‘Notes on British Royal Reapers’ – coming soon!

Do drones matter? To be sure: they do, but not in ways that are self-evident and not only for the reasons their most vociferous opponents commonly cite. They kill, and do so cheaply (at least for those who deploy them) and they enable war to be fought from an evermore remote – and some would argue easier – distance. But are the only reasons that drones matter? I don’t think so. A better question might be: ‘in what ways do drones matter?’, for this forces us to look at what drones are being used for and what they actually do. Fortunately, Derek Gregory has already provided a stunning analysis of why else drones matter, and he has rightly identified their surveillance capacity as central to the question of what drones do, and what they enable. But before we get to Gregory’s ‘Lines of Descent‘, I think it is worth tracing three  geographical lives of drones in the U.S. (this post), Israel (post #2) and the U.K. (post #3).

What if we were to ask where do drones matter? Clearly, they ‘matter’ in all kinds of places and in a variety of ways. Most importantly, they matter to those who live, die and survive under them (see the NYU/Stanford report ‘Living Under Drones‘; Columbia Law School: ‘The Civilian Impact of Drone Strikes‘; Human Rights Watch ‘Precisely Wrong‘. Derek Gregory has a sharp comment on the first item here). This means that drones matter to an ever-expanding geography and people; a territory and population that Lisa Parks has presciently captured in her notion of ‘targeted homelands‘. Some of these lethal geographies have been mapped (Pakistan, and to a lesser extent Yemen and Gaza) but other places we know far less about: Somalia, Afghanistan, Nigeria, to list a few. If you’ve been following the work of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism all this will be familiar stuff, but they’re constantly producing new material and their most recent project, naming the dead is a wonderful antidote to the claim made by Obama – ever the joker –   that casualties have “typically been in the single digits”: Daniel Day himself could never have pulled that one off! Drones also matter to those who have them and unsurprisingly there is a also a geography here, although the have/have-not distinction is becoming increasingly blurred as the market for private and civilian drones begins to boom and the economics become even more attractive. (These issues are especially distorted in the U.S. where the debate  is centered on whether the correct regulatory framework should be State or Federal based: see  here).

Drone owenership worldwide.          Source: The Guardian using date from IISS
Drone owenership worldwide. Source: The Guardian using date from IISS

I won’t wade into the issue of possession by state vs. non-state actors, or whether  drones can be used for human rights. As regards the latter: clearly they can, but as Harvard’s Darryl Li points out, the key question is whether they are used for human rights, and generally speaking they are not. We must treat with tremendous caution the claim that these fatal technologies have an unrealised humanitarian potential, because even if they do, there has been an equally fatal blurring of the distinction between humanitarianism and militarism which renders problematic such facile ‘good’ and ‘bad’ uses of drones: this is Eyal Weizman’s lesson in his fantastic book, The Least of All Possible Evils. The tragic appeal of the the drone is precisely that it has been hailed as an ‘open source‘ technology, which is fine until it is realised by those who have them that the ‘democratization’ and spread of drones also entails their ‘de-democratization’ where – shock horror – ‘non-democracies’ start deploying themDeclared drone stocks.            Source: The Guardian using IISS data

Declared drone stocks. Source: The Guardian using IISS data

It is safe to conclude – and not just from these info-graphics – that drones matter for the U.S. and also they matter – for very different reasons – to the states and spaces where U.S. drones are deployed. However, what is commonly referred to in the U.S. as ‘drone warfare’ is in-fact a much broader apparatus of killing which involves multiple methods, technologies and hit-squads. I always find the obsession with drones remarkable – and I owe much to conversations with my dear supervisor for the following insights. After the most widely anticipated executions of the 21st Century – which was carried out by Navy Seals on the ground and up close – one might expect the debate to have shifted a little. The drones kill, but so do the Seals, the drones watch but so do the spies; admittedly not to the same extent, but these forms of killing and spying still matter.

The Way of the Knife. Mark Mazzetti
The Way of the Knife. Mark Mazzetti

Traditional ‘analogue’ spying, and good old killing with a bullet to the head may not be statistically important in terms of kill-counts, but they have not gone completely out of fashion and they still inform and complement the sophisticated and digitalized sensor-shooter regime of the drone. Mark Mazzetti of the NYT makes this point in his new book (just out last week) The Way of the Knife (Penguin) – and the title he has chosen is not coincidental: he did not, for example call it  The Way of the Drone – and yes, that’s an Apache helicopter on the front-c0ver, not a drone! NPR has a good interview with Mazzetti here, as does Spencer Ackerman at Wired. Another way to think about this is a blending of old and new technologies and methods – this is precisely what Derek Gregory has in mind  in ‘Lines of Descent’. We might also simply ask what Raymond Davis was doing in Pakistan, if  not aiding,abetting and eventually getting in the way of  ‘drone warfare’ (again Mazzetti has the best analysis).

None of this is to suggest, even for a minute, that drones are insignificant. They are a way of war now, they are here to stay and are very likely to become more widely used: no ostrich – or even the Left – could ignore these facts. But there is evidence to suggest that ground-based operations, with small teams of elite and specially trained units will also become more important. This at least is the goal of Admiral William H. McRaven, the man in charge of Special Operations Command and the one who led the mission to kill Osama bin Laden. The NYT reports this morning that:

“Admiral McRaven’s goal is to recast the [SO] command from its popular image of commandos killing or capturing terrorists, and expand a force capable of carrying out a range of missions short of combat — including training foreign militaries to counter terrorists, drug traffickers and insurgents, gathering intelligence and assessing pending risk, and advising embassies on security.”

In its 2012 Defense Budget, the U.S. Department of Defense noted the need to make savings and changes in “areas that were previously sacrosanct”. These changes, it promised would be “manageable because the resulting joint force, while smaller and leaner, will remain agile, flexible, ready, innovative, and technologically advanced.”  But even beyond this shift toward smaller and more flexible units (which has been tried – and failed – before), drone warfare is not always about taking people ‘out of the loop’, but also putting them back in the loop so that there may be an unprecedented cooperation between ground and air surveillance, between drone camera and human eye, between seeing and killing.

In an interview for Blaze Magazine, former Navy SEAL Sniper Brandon Webb (author of a new autobiography, The Red Circle), talked  about how snipers over the last decade have become more integrated with other military elements and units. What he said goes some way toward suggesting that even when drones do do the killing, they reply heavily on ‘boots on the ground’:

“The Main difference we have in the SEAL course is our guys can integrate with anybody […] we can also get an aircraft on the radio and start dropping bombs on the bad guys. They look over, see a big explosion a few clicks away, then out of nowhere a JDAM drops on their head. That’s integration

The Red Circle, Brandon Webb
The Red Circle, Brandon Webb

And yet snipers themselves are still important, for as Sgt. Augusto Zapata explains:

“A UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle] is going to be able to report … vehicles or whatever the case may be […] But that Marine on the ground observing through those optics is going to be able to make out somebody who seems nervous or seems out of place.” .

Now, with signature strikes being what they are (the detection of suspicious “patterns of life” — see Derek Gregory’s analysis), Zapata’s observation is dating fast, but the crucial points remain. First, drones do not kill by themselves, and in a strict sense they never will: they will be programmed by someone to kill and a ‘forensic architecture’ of the electronic domain – a counter and genealogical programming project – will become evermore important if we are to allocate responsibility if and when drones do go ‘fully automated’. Second, although drones have become the weapon of choice for the U.S., they still rely on conventional aircraft, conventional weapons and conventional human killers.

X-47B stealth drone not looking too automated here.      Source: The Guardian
X-47B stealth drone not looking too automated here. Source: The Guardian

All of this makes me wonder if it would not make more sense to talk about ‘targeted killing’ (or, even better, ‘extrajudicial assassination’ — if law is your thing) rather than drone warfare. Why does such language matter? First, it matters because what drones do so well in the U.S. is kill. ‘Drone policy’ is a clean name for a killing policy and we would do well to remember that as Zizek has argued: “brutal violence practised by the state is made publicly acceptable when language is changed.” Do we remember the days when selectively killing people around the globe was called assassination? Apparently not, Lenny Small has argued over at Jadaliyya. But even beyond the problem of language, what is at stake in the name is of utmost political importance for the Left. If the Left oppose drone warfare because it is conducted by drones then they seem to be missing the point, and need to ask themselves whether they would like it any better if the missiles were fired from F35’s. Surely such opposition should be based on something more than whether or not the plane has a pilot? In this sense, and I am fully aware of the following irony: drones are too much of an easy target, but they may also be the wrong target. I see them as a final technological instrument in a much broader apparatus of targeting, a flying machine which completes the mechanics of killing long after lives have been rendered killable in an apparatus populated as much by intelligence personnel,  targeteers and lawyers, as by maps, tracking devices and drones.

There is also a personal dimension to all of this for me. I am neither a technophobe nor a technophile, but all the same I do not like it when my work is understood as being ‘about drones’. It isn’t: it is about targeting and the processes and discourses used by targeteers and military lawyers to make other lives targetable. It is about the law of targeting, not the law of drones because the law does not distinguish between weapons unless they are proscribed — and drones are not (at least not anywhere outside the State of California!). I admit to being more than a little defensive about these issues, but I hope that through this post and the next you will understand why. The last words then, a paragraph torn from my otherwise less combative dissertation proposal:

I should point out from the start that my research is not a platform for thinking about what has become popularly known as ‘drone warfare’. While my research cannot but avoid the debates about the use of drones (indeed they form an important backdrop to my work), I think it would be an analytical mistake to make them a primary focus. The war that commentators seem to have in mind when they talk about ‘drone warfare’ is a war saturated by the use of robots, but it is important to remember that very often drones do not do the killing, even if they are used in the surveillance and reconnaissance missions which aide it. At present at least, it is still humans who pull the trigger (and thus who make the choice to kill) and equally as important is the fact that machines other than drones – sniper rifles and conventional aircraft – remain common killing tools. Moreover, conventional piloted aircraft are equipped with the exact same missiles – “Hellfires” and “JDAM’s” – as their unmanned counterparts, which complicates the narrative that drone warfare heralds a new era of “precision targeting” (see Gregory 2011; Beier 2006; Garlasco 2009; c.f. McNeal 2011). The crucial point remains that targeting – and precision (or lack thereof) – is not unique to drones. Examining the practice of targeted killing avoids slipping into technological-determinism, but it also has the double benefit of opening a space from where we might better examine the historical precursors and legal prerequisites of what is a decidedly late-modern version of a war beset, though not fully besieged by drone warfare”


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