Whoever becomes US president in November will inherit the now commonplace practice of drone surveillance and attacks across the Middle East and North Africa.
Arguably Barack Obama’s most controversial legacy, the US Government has faced intensifying international scrutiny over its use of drones as a weapon in war. This scrutiny, however, should not be directed solely towards the United States.
Allied countries play a key role in the success of the drone program. Australia is one of these crucial allies — it currently processes drone surveillance imagery and provides targeting information via the Pine Gap military facility in Alice Springs. It is set to become an even bigger player in drone warfare in the future.
The Defence White Paper released early this year signals that the Australian Government will spend $2 billion acquiring armed drones by the early 2020s. They will be used to assist the US in the ongoing “war on terror”. Before this investment is made, it is important the Australian public has a chance to debate the ethics of drone warfare. Is the use of armed drones ethically justifiable? Should our taxpayer dollars go on acquiring drones?
Drone technology is quickly advancing and it’s important human understanding and awareness of this technology advances alongside it. Debate about drones has been muted by secrecy and misinformation and this must change. Transparency and honesty is needed so that the public can appropriately consider the arguments for and against the use of drones.
Limitations of technology
One of the major justifications for using drones is their perceived accuracy. The Obama Administration has consistently stated that drones have not caused many civilian casualties and that the program is kept on a “very tight leash”.
Yet the technology has limitations which contradict these claims. Drones drop explosives on their targets — either Hellfire missiles or GBU-12 bombs — which produce deadly blast waves, killing people around the target. For a Hellfire, the kill radius is 15-20m; for a GBU-12, it is 60-90m. So unless a target is standing alone at some distance from other people, there is a high likelihood bystanders, who may be innocent civilians, will be killed.
Furthermore, the intelligence used to target individuals is frequently unreliable. Target identification is usually based on either phone signals and metadata, or on information from local sources who often have their own political motivations.
The Investigative Bureau of Journalism has found that drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia have killed as many as 1,138 civilians, including between 180 and 227 children. “High value targets” make up less than 2 per cent of those killed in drone strikes. This statistic underlines that the technology is nowhere near as precise – or “costless” in innocent human lives – as the political narrative presents to the public.
After years of pressure, the White House finally released its own figures on civilian deaths for the first time. Tellingly, this release was on the Friday afternoon of the Independence Day holiday weekend, presumably to discourage media interest. These figures were so low as to be highly questionable.
The Obama administration claimed the US had only killed 64 to 116 civilians in non-war zones in drone and lethal air attacks, which primarily means Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, between 2009 and 2015. In sharp contrast, the number of civilian casualties documented by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism is six times higher. In fact, the figures estimated by almost every think tank and NGO monitoring civilian casualties were substantially higher than the White House figures.
Australian Government and Australian Defence Force officials echo the White House’s narrative that only a few innocent bystanders have been killed. Australian Parliamentary Secretary for Defence Darren Chester says that civilians are “very rarely” accidentally killed by drones. RAAF chief Air Marshal Geoff Brown has claimed that opponents of the armed drone concept are “emotive and did not know what they were talking about”.
secrecy sets a worrying precedent
Secrecy surrounds the drone program. Most of what the public now knows is a result of whistleblowers from within the program or broader military stepping forward and providing insider information. This secrecy sets a worrying precedent for how our Government’s future drone strikes could be hidden from public view.
There are few “boots on the ground” in countries targeted by the US-led drone campaign. It is therefore difficult — sometimes impossible — for those responsible for leading an armed drone strike (either the US Air Force or the CIA) to confirm after the fact that the actual victim was the intended target.
“The Drone Papers”, a cache of classified documents leaked to digital media outlet The Intercept last year, reveal this lack of on-the-ground intelligence has resulted in a controversial practice of “guilty until proven innocent”. A drone casualty is recorded as an “Enemy Killed In Action” unless there is “conclusive” post-mortem evidence establishing their innocence. This is not a rational, nor honest, evaluation method.
If the Australian Government is to acquire armed drones, it must show it can solve the problem of accurately identifying people who will be, and have been, killed by drones. Impartial, truthful evaluations of those killed must be conducted, reported with detail to the Australian public and published by Parliament regularly. Governments should not wage war in the name of their people without citizens’ explicit knowledge and consent, especially with the advent of a new type of technology which is so fundamentally changing the nature – and costs – of modern warfare.
The artefact of this new form of technology-based warfare – the drone video – is as essential a tool for the public to make up its own mind about the ethics of drone warfare as statistical or other data.
If drone technology now allows our military to see if there is a toddler standing beside a target, we must all be allowed to look at these images. We cannot close our eyes to the ethical question of whether killing the toddler in order to kill the target is acceptable. The difficult reality of this question must be brought transparently to the Australian public. That includes releasing the video footage of previous drone strikes that may have killed other toddlers.
Refusing to make public drone strike footage means that the public cannot see firsthand what killing with drones entails.
If public debate about drone warfare continues to be restricted, whether by the fudging of civilian casualty statistics or refusing to make public drone strike footage, then the Australian Government and Australian Defence Force lacks the necessary mandate to acquire and use armed drones. Until there is honesty and transparency, the Australian public cannot give their informed consent for our Government’s use of drones in war.
‘National Bird’, a documentary expose on the drone program, is screening at Melbourne International Film Festival on Saturday 30 July at 1.30pm.
‘Talking Pictures - National Bird: In Conversation’, a Melbourne International Film Festival and University of Melbourne joint event with Lisa Ling, Cian Westmoreland and Alex Edney-Browne, and moderated by Dr Suelette Dreyfus, will be held on Saturday 30 July at 5pm.
Banner image: General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper. Picture: cclark395/Flickr