The global drone race

The rise of the terminator empire

By Michael Hillcoat

 Staff Writer

Illustration by Kathleen Murray

Throughout the long and bloody history of armed human combat, there has never been a weapon like the fighter jet. Training pilots and building planes are some of the most expensive endeavors a military can engage in; and together, pilot and jet, have revised warfare in a way unlike any other weaponized invention…

Until the drone.

In September of 2012, Stanford and NYU released a joint report detailing the use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles by the United States military, more commonly known as UAVs or drones, in the North Waziristan tribal areas of Pakistan. According to their document, “Living Under Drones,” strikes in Pakistan have been amongst the most heavily documented and yet massively confusing datasets recounting the United States’ military action in a post-9/11 world. The document and website devoted to the ongoing collection of evidence include “130 interviews with victims, witnesses, and experts.”

The accounts are of horrific consequence belied by an eerie indeterminacy. Shopkeeper Firoz Ali Khan told investigators “I have been seeing drones since the first one appeared about four to five years ago. Sometimes there will be two or three drone attacks per day … hovering [but] we don’t know when they will strike.” Another man, Hisham Abrar whose cousin was killed by a drone, describes “when the weather is clear, three or four can be seen … They are in the air 24/7, but not when it’s raining. Every time they are in the air, they can be heard. And because of the noise, we’re psychologically disturbed—women, men, and children … When there were no drones, everything was all right. [There was] business, there was no psychological stress and the people did what they could do for a living.”

Drones are such a new kind of warfare that it was only in 2013, after 10 years of increasingly frequent and deadly drones strikes by the United States in Pakistan, that the UN appointed a Special Rapporteur, Ben Emmerson, to document and report on the attacks. In his final report, Emmerson “urges [sovereign] States ‘to ensure that any measures taken or means employed to counter terrorism, including the use of remotely piloted aircraft, comply with their obligations under international law, including the Charter of the United Nations, human rights law and international humanitarian law, in particular the principles of distinction and proportionality.’” Heavy language aside, Emmerson continues to highlight what are, remarkably, legal justifications for drones abroad.

In regards to international and domestic laws, the onus is on President Obama and the Central Intelligence Agency to provide justification for killing what are termed “enemy combatants” or “militants,” especially in the case of an American citizen. In 2012, The New York Times reported for the first time on “kill/capture lists” and how President Obama, himself a trained lawyer, and his legal cabinet determined their targets and the legality of summary execution.

In accordance with international law, preemptive killings require the justification of imminent threat. However, when determining the elimination of American citizens known to be involved with militant groups in Pakistan, acknowledging their right to trial remains tricky.

Moreover, according to Citizens In Conflict’s “The Civilian Impact of Drones,” targeting itself may be determined by the controversial “signature strike in which the US conducts targeting without knowing the precise identity of the individuals targeted… [where] the individuals match a pre-identified ‘signature’ of behavior that the US links to militant activity or association.”

Signature strikes are the most controversial aspect of the worldwide evolving drone (arms) race as they account for high civilian casualties. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism reports that “from June 2004 through mid- September 2012, available data indicate that drone strikes killed 2,562-3,325 people in Pakistan, of whom 474-881 were civilians, including 176 children.” As individuals, groups, and nations continue to acquire drones, technology will continue to get smaller and more efficient, as made evident by the growing amateur drone community around the world. More and more the stories of Pakistan’s Tribal Areas will become the stories of every nation as the “War on Terrorism” continues to hunt around the world. And as the international community reaches more of a consensus on the use of drones, they will become more engrained into the fabric of war.

According to CBC, the United States has been patrolling its Canadian and Mexican borders with drones since 2009.