Wednesday 6 February 2013

DRONES: Are  they  really  needed?  (Part I)

Military drones

A military drone is an unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV), also known as a combat drone or known as an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that is armed with weaponry and has no onboard human pilot. Currently operational drones are under real-time human control.  More often than not, the operator is thousands of miles away. Most of them are operating the military drones from the United States.

The birth of U.S. UAVs (called RPVs at the time) began in 1959 when United States Air Force (USAF) officers, concerned about losing pilots over hostile territory, began planning for the use of unmanned flights. By late 1959, the only spy plane available to the US was the U-2. Spy satellites were another year and half away. Within three months of the downing of the U-2, the highly classified UAV (called RPV back then) program was born, under the code name of Red Wagon. Just after the incident involving the US Navy destroyer USS Maddox, and even before it escalated into presidential Tonkin Gulf Resolution. The war with North Vietnam ongoing, the United States Air Force (USAF) had issued an immediate order for the UAV units to deploy immediately for Southeast Asia on any available C-130s or C-133s. The first drones were the Ryan 147Bs that were piggy-backed on C-130s, and when their missions were completed, the drones would be parachuted for recovery near the Island of Taiwan. Up to then, the drones were only used for reconnaissance.

As an interesting aside, currently British soldiers on the front lines in Afghanistan have been armed with pocket-sized spy drones that can give operators bird's-eye views of the battlefield below. The little flying machine, dubbed Black Hornet Nano, (nano means very small) is just 10 centimetres long and weighs about 15 grams. It flies like a helicopter, allowing it to hover and dart back and forth. It can be flown manually or autonomously, using GPS coordinates, and works in windy and harsh environments. The Hornet is powered by a small rechargeable battery and reportedly has a working range of about 800 metres, a top speed of 35 km/h and can fly for up to 30 minutes at a time.

The Americans have a small battery-powered drone called the Nano Hummingbird for the way it flaps its tiny robotic wings. It has a wingspan of 16.5 centimetres, and weighs less than 30 grams. The Hummingbird’s guts are made up of motors, communications systems and a video camera. It is slightly larger than a real hummingbird. Eventually it will be capable of flying through open windows or sitting on power lines, capturing audio and video with targets being none the wiser.

If these miniature drones can fly and hover silently and the bottoms of them are painted blue or grey as camouflage against the sky, they will be completely non-detectable. The important thing to remember is that when the batteries begin to weaken, the operators better bring them back before they fall into enemy hands. Of course, that problem will be solved if they are powered by miniature solar panels because then they could remain aloft as long as there is still light outside.

During the First World War, (1914-1918) aside from reconnaissance being done with low-flying aircraft or by lookouts in church towers, there was another way it could be done when the enemy was a mere hundred yards or so away. They used fax machines. That’s when fax machines were first used. The spotter would sneak up to where the enemy was carrying a fax machine. He had a map of the area on a sheet of paper and he would mark on the paper where the enemy was. Then he would fax the information back to his headquarters. It was very effective for reconnaissance work. The drawback was that the fax machines (both up front and at the headquarters were connected by telephone wire which meant that it had to be unwound and dragged behind him as the spotter and his assistant moved towards the enemy.

What is incredible about those fax machines was that it wasn’t until 1964 when the Xerox Corporation introduced (and patented) what many consider to be the first commercialized version of the modern fax machine, under the name (LDX) or Long Distance Xerography. Prior to that, ticker tape and teletype machines were being used. I remember when I worked in the editorial room of the Winnipeg Tribune in 1958, we used a teletype machine. When I was the manager of a business firm in Toronto in 1988, I had to convince the owner of the firm to buy a fax machine. When he did, we used it all the time and a couple of years later when I was practicing law, he sold it to me and I used it a great deal of the time. I’m sorry. I am digressing from the main topic of drones.

Drones used as weapons

There can be no doubt that there are problems inherent when using drones as weapons. The biggest problem is the killing of innocent people. More than 300 American-based predator drone strikes have been conducted, killing some 2,500 people. Surely they weren’t all terrorists or insurgents. There are estimates as high as 98% of drone strike casualties being civilians which mean that 50 innocent civilians are killed by those drones for every one suspected terrorist. According to Global Research, over the past four years President Obama has authorized attacks in Pakistan in the American’s fight against Al-Qaeda which have killed more than 800 innocent civilians in which only 22 Al-Qaeda leaders were actually killed by those strikes. Reports of the number of militants versus civilian casualties differ however. According to the Pakistani authorities, 60 cross-border predator strikes in the period from January 2006 to April 2009 killed 14 wanted al-Qaeda leaders and 687 Pakistani civilians. The Pakistani military has on the other hand stated that most of those killed were hardcore Al-Qaeda and Taliban militants. In a 2009 opinion article, Daniel Byman of the Brookings Institution wrote that drone strikes may have killed 10 or so civilians for every mid and high-ranking al Qaeda and Taliban leader. In contrast, the New America Foundation has estimated that 80 percent of those killed in the attacks were militants. The CIA believes that the strikes conducted since May 2010 have killed over 600 militants and have not caused any civilian fatalities, a claim that some experts disputed. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism found that between 391 and 780 civilians were killed out of a total of between 1,658 and 2,597 and that 160 children are reported among the deaths. It is difficult to ascertain just how many innocent civilians are killed by Predator attacks. But whatever those figures are, they are grotesquely unacceptable.

I realize that during World War Two, Allied bombers flew over German cities and obliterated them causing deaths to hundreds of thousands of innocent citizens. Morally it was very wrong. However, over the years, that kind of warfare has changed.

There is no doubt in my mind that Predator drones are extremely useful in killing the leaders of Al-Qaeda and other insurgents, The only other way to eliminate these terrorists is to send in a hit team and shoot them but that is often too difficult to do because their targets are often on the move in vehicles.

This raised an interesting question. Why wasn’t a Predator drone used to kill Osama bin Laden when he was in his hideaway in Pakistan which would have been a stationary target? The answer is obvious. The Americans were pretty sure he was there but not absolutely sure. If they bombed the house he was in and it turned out to be a private home of an innocent and extended family, it would have been a political disaster and internationally, the Americans would look like thugs attacking an allied nation.

Sometimes, really stupid mistakes are made by those who designate the targets of the Predator drones. Drone strikes were halted in November 2011 after NATO forces killed 24 Pakistani soldiers in the Salala incident. On Saturday, 26 November 2011,  two NATO Apache helicopters an AC-130 gunship and two F-15E Eagle fighter jets entered by varying estimates as little as 200 meters (660 ft) to up to 2.5 kilometres (1.6 miles), into the Pakistani border area of Salala in the Baizai subdivision of Mohmand Agency, FATA at 2 a.m. local time, from across the border in Afghanistan and opened fire at two border patrol check-posts, killing up to 24 Pakistani soldiers and wounding 13 others. As to why the Americans bombed the two border patrol check-posts when the Pakistani forces were in it is beyond all understanding. This attack resulted in a deterioration of relations between Pakistan and the United States. The Pakistani public reacted with protests all over the country and the government took measures adversely affecting the US exit strategy from Afghanistan including the evacuation of Shamsi Airfield and closure of the NATO supply line.

Over the weekend commencing the 10th of March 2012, U.S. drones killed 80 innocent civilians in Yemen with American Predator drones according to the villagers.

There were as many as 178 children were killed by drone attacks in Yemen and Pakistan as of the end of November 2012.

It is impossible to know with any certainty how many civilian or noncombatants have been killed by such attacks due to their “covert” nature, lack of timely access to remote villages, and the inherent biases of the U.S. government, targeted terrorist organizations, and host governments. 

According to unnamed counterterrorism officials, in 2009 or 2010 CIA drones began employing smaller missiles in airstrikes in Pakistan in order to reduce civilian casualties. The new missiles, called the Small Smart Weapon or Scorpion, are reportedly about the size of a violin case (21 inches long) and weigh 16 kg. The missiles are used in combination with new technology intended to increase accuracy and expand surveillance, including the use of small, unarmed surveillance drones to exactly pinpoint the location of targets. These ‘micro-UAVs’ (unmanned aerial vehicles) can be roughly the size of a pizza platter and meant to monitor potential targets at close range, for hours or days at a time. They could be used to bomb a car for example without destroying houses on the street.

The CIA reportedly passed up three opportunities to kill militant leaders, including Sirajuddin Haqqani, with drone missiles in 2010 because women and children were nearby. That shows common sense.

The CIA has claimed that the strikes conducted between May 2010 and August 2011 killed over 600 militants and did not result in any civilian fatalities. Quite frankly, I find that hard to believe and the main reason for my disbelief is; how would they know for sure?

The Associated Press studied 10 drone strikes. Their reporters who spoke to about 80 villagers in North Waziristan were told that at least 194 people died in the ten attacks. According to the villagers, 56 of those were either civilians or tribal police and 138 were militants, with 38 of the civilians dying in a single attack which took place on 17 March 2011. Villagers stated that one way to tell if civilians were killed was to observe how many funerals took place after a strike.  The bodies of militants were usually taken elsewhere for burial, while civilians were usually buried immediately and locally.

I believe that the use of drones to kill terrorists and other insurgents is an effective way to get rid of these people. Many terrorists and insurgents have been killed by the use of drones. But I am deeply concerned that innocent people, including children are becoming collateral damage.

Here is how the targets are chosen. A top American official decides who the target is to be. He has to ask himself as to whether or not the target is still a threat to human beings and whether or not he or she has renounced terrorism or abandoned it. He also has to determine if the target can be captured instead. If not, then the target is to be killed. If not up close by a hit team, then by a drone. 

Imagine if you will, a SWAT team enters your home to nab your tenant who is a wanted murderer and a fire fight ensues and your wife and children are killed by police bullets. How would you feel about that? That is how the villagers in Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan feel when those American Predator drones smash into their villages when the purpose of the operators of the drones is to simply kill one terrorist. Imagine that you are taking your family and your tenant to a picnic (a tenant who unknown by you, is wanted by the police) and suddenly you are seriously injured and your family and the tenant are killed by hundreds of bullets being fired into your car. Do you think that the death of your family and the suffering you will endure for the rest of your life was necessary just so the police could  kill your tenant?

I don’t know how this problem with respect to the use of drones can be solved when it comes to killing terrorists and insurgents but hopefully the Americans with all their expertise will find a way to reduce civilian facilities in these drone attacks on terrorists and insurgents.

My next article will be on the uses of commercial drones. 

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