A drone is a pilotless aircraft remotely controlled from afar. Drones range from a toy that a parent or grandparent buys a child for his birthday to a state-of-the-art killing machine. These killing machines are worth millions of dollars and are better known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).
The scope of drones’ capability is quite staggering, for they can be utilised in various tasks that would have otherwise been undoable. However, the potential for their doing good or doing harm depends on what users gear them up for.
From one perspective, drones are extremely beneficial. From videotaping aerial footage to venturing where humans cannot go, drones execute extraordinary missions. Today, many TV programmes and documentaries present stunning landscapes as drones sweep over vistas.
Drones also save lives. They can deliver medical supplies and transport time-sensitive and urgently needed organs to recipients in remote areas. They survey and monitor dangerous areas without endangering people. They locate lost wanderers via attached sensors and infrared devices which could have otherwise have been difficult to spot with the naked eye.
Drones can fight wildfires. In Los Angeles in the US, once a fire is spotted drones are deployed to screen the area and detect the fire’s movement and speed. Sea drones are used in search-and-rescue operations and warn swimmers of sharks. They also identify defects in ships so that they can be resolved.
Today, drones are also essential in the military environment. Drones never tire nor call it quits. They can be used where it is too risky for a helicopter or a manned plane to venture. They can survey areas where the enemy remains hidden and identify the locations of terrorists. In essence, no country wants to receive its soldiers in body bags, so drones keep forces safe and don’t endanger them.
Now we come to the crux of the topic of this article – which is whether UAVs are ethically correct and morally sound. As drone operators (pilots) remain out of reach and harm’s way, enemies become fair game. The drones’ superiority first leaves the enemy at the whim of a machine, and second it leaves him at the mercy of someone sitting in a safe office in one urban environment or another.
This unfair advantage can empower attackers to the extent of smugness: I am invulnerable and indestructible, and I do as I please. From halfway around the world, a “pilot” can manoeuvre a drone to kill. As that pilot enjoys the safety of his surroundings, he may lack empathy altogether.
In 2012, New York Times reporter Elizabeth Bumiller told the story of US Reaper RPA (Remotely Piloted Aircraft) pilot D. Scott Brenton who was fighting the war in Afghanistan from Syracuse in New York. “I see mothers, fathers and kids playing soccer,” Brenton said. “Sometimes I am ordered to launch when the kids are around... I have no emotional attachment to the enemy. I have a mission to perform, and I execute it.”
It is as though a pilot is playing a video game rather than killing innocent civilians turned into sitting ducks.
Drones often miss their targets, and in the process may kill hundreds, if not thousands, of people. They have been deployed by the US in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Somalia and Yemen. Turkey has used drones against Kurdish groups in Iraq and Syria and in Turkey itself. Iran has been blamed for the attack on Saudi oil installations last September, which was mainly performed by drones. Israel uses the “Harpy,” an unmanned drone, that can be launched from a ground vehicle towards Gaza. This can continue to circle in the sky until it finds its target.
Since the former Obama administration, the US has launched over 300 drone strikes in Yemen. Thousands have been killed, including many civilians. Many Yemenis live with the constant humming sound that drones give off as they hover in the skies detecting extremists and inspecting the ground.
A US NASA study has found that the sound that drones make is roughly twice as annoying as the noise produced by a truck. Though the Yemenis have grown accustomed to the sound, they are constantly worried that a person walking in the street may be the next target of a drone.
Taking the drone phenomenon a step further, the UK newspaper The Guardian has asked “what would stop armies from deploying upgraded drone bots to search for, identify, and then take out every man in a village between the ages of 18 and 50? Or to send a killer drone to ID and assassinate a head of state?”
This technology may seem far-fetched today, but swarm drones, fleets formed of hundreds or even thousands of drones, exist and will likely be the face of war soon. The BBC says that “instead of being individually directed by a human controller, the basic idea of a drone swarm is that its machines are able to make decisions among themselves.” The thought is petrifying.
What does the law say about UAVs? Are they permissible or illegal? Some would say that there is no real difference between one aerial vehicle and another, since whether manned or not both kill. Others would say that drones can be used for targeted killings: minimising the harm inflicted on civilians is not even a consideration, and as drone strikes become more common, the concept of saving civilian lives, or of taking prisoners of war rather than shooting to kill, will become non-existent.
As states able to use this technology go to war, drones will empower them further, allowing them to outwit their adversaries.
I don’t see drones as becoming a tool of the past. Quite the contrary, I see their uses growing, their efficacy being enhanced and their killing capacity evolving to do more of what it is assigned to do: annihilate.
We must all become more mindful of the dangers of drones and the harm that they can do.
The writer is the author of Cairo Rewind on the First Two Years of Egypt’s Revolution, 2011-2013.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 5 December, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.