News & Investigations

News & Investigations

Published

November 21, 2011

Written by

Chris Woods and Emma Slater
This page is archived from original Bureau of Investigative Journalism reporting on US military actions in Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Chris Cole is an activist and campaigner, pushing for accountability on armed drones. He writes the respected blog Drone Wars UK, which earlier this year uncovered details of the first civilian deaths caused by UK drones. Along with others he demonstrated outside the Unmanned Aircraft Systems conference held in London last week. 

The conference appears to be mostly benign. Inside right now, NASA is talking about scientific applications for drones, there’s very little military kit on show. Why the demonstration?

We’re here because we want to challenge the growing use of armed drones around the world. There’s almost a drone strike, not every week but every day. And it’s happening outside the public arena, there’s very little public awareness of it, and very little public accountability for it. And it’s almost as though it’s acceptable and normal, and we want to come here today to say no, the public are against drones. One of the sessions here is to ‘overcome the public hysteria surrounding drones’. And the MoD has said they need to challenge the ‘perception issue’ of drones, because there’s an instinctive reaction among the public against drones, I think…. We don’t accept this idea of remote risk-free warfare as the drone industry likes to call it. It isn’t risk free. There are hundreds if not thousands of civilian casualties of drones. The worry is drones will make war more likely in the future. We’ve seen the US this year use drones in six countries, six different conflicts simultaneously, and many military experts say that simply wouldn’t have been possible without the use of drones. But the fear is, if there is no risk, if there is no cost through using unmanned systems, then their use will only increase and we’ll see a lot more warfare in the future.

Chris Cole of Drone Wars UK – photo by Chris Woods

Why has the armed drone become so widespread?

The rise of the drone – really it’s for a number of reasons. Technological, with their ability to condense and transmit huge amounts of data wirelessly, and the availability of military satellites. Economic reasons – drones are much cheaper than traditional manned or piloted aircraft. Drones cost about $10m or $11m – Reaper drones – a traditional fast jet would be about $60m. Political reasons – ever since the Vietnam war the public is even more reluctant to go to war when they see body bags and coffins come back. There’s been a real push to make undertaking war and launching attacks risk-free. These are the claims that these guys in [the conference] are using about drones – risk-free warfare. And we of course know that that’s simply not true. Risk free to those who are operating drones, but there are many many victims of drone strikes – hundreds, maybe thousands, of victims of drone strikes.

It’s important to realise that drones are used in three different ways. The first way is just the same way as manned aircraft. If you’re about to launch an attack or come under attack, you use drones or manned aircraft as cover.

It’s the second two ways, the other two ways that drones are being used, that are really causing civilian casualties and eroding human rights and civil rights. The first is through persistent presence, as they call it. The eyes in the sky where drones are loitering over an area or a compound or a town for days or even weeks, looking for what they call ‘targets of opportunity’. Looking at suspicious behaviour. And of course, what constitutes suspicious behaviour?

We’ve seen the US this year use drones in six countries, six different conflicts simultaneously, and many military experts say that simply wouldn’t have been possible without the use of drones. But the fear is, if there is no risk, if there is no cost through using unmanned systems, then their use will only increase and we’ll see a lot more warfare in the future.

Just this week it was great to see a protest – very brave people came out in the Yemeni capital Sana’a to protest against drone strikes and remember the young 16-year-old, Abdulrahman Al-Awlaki, who was killed in a drone strike two weeks ago, the son of Anwar Al-Awlaki, who was targeted for assassination.

There are constant protests in Pakistan, there are protests in the United States just this week, or two weeks ago, 38 people went on trial for undertaking civil disobedience at Hancock air force base…And here in the UK protests are growing. So the task is to resist this future of drone wars. By being here today we’re doing this, and we must continue to resist the rise of the drone.

But British soldiers are asking for more drones, our military feels safer, more secure with a drone overhead.

The best way to secure our troops is not to have them engaged in battle. When we’re bringing this technology in, if there’s more warfare it’s not going to make our soldiers more safe. Drones aren’t a solution. They’re billed as this new tool to bring security and safety, not only to our troops but to the public. And the reality is that drones aren’t what they claim to be. We’ve already seen a huge backlash in Pakistan to the drones. And we”ll see that elsewhere. Rather than bringing more security to the world, drones will bring more instability.

Some 50 countries now have drones, there are 800 models on the market – isn’t the genie out of the bottle?

Yes – the legality, the ethics of this are lagging far, far behind. Nobody in the UK seems to be willing to take responsibility for this, certainly nobody globally does except the UN special rapporteur. They put out pleas for discussion and debate on this, yet nothing is done about it. The UK MOD put out their own report looking at the moral and legal and ethical aspect, they too said there needs to be a proper debate and our parliamentarians really need to take this on board. But they just seem to be too frightened to get involved in this issue. They seem to see it as too complicated. And that’s a real worry, when the technology and the military strategy is outpacing the morality and the ethics.

The best way to secure our troops is not to have them engaged in battle. Drones aren’t a solution.

The conference chair General Israel says that it is the nature of warfare for events to run ahead of policy. And that the military will always seek military advantage. Doesn’t he have a point? 

I think it’s our responsibility to say no, to say that we have to gain control of this, because we are already seeing, you can’t just blithely say that’s the way things are when hundreds, maybe thousands of civilians are being killed, as we’re risking more and more warfare. We can’t just accept that’s the nature of the beast. We have to really challenge this if we want to make the world a more secure place. And that’s what we’re trying to do here, to bring peace and security to the world. And if the military and industry are saying ‘That’s not possible, we’ve got to seek military advantage, that’s the way things will always be’, then no. We have to do better than that.