Drones come in many shapes and sizes. The U.S. military operate several thousand small, hand-launched, Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) which are used to gather local intelligence, such as the AeroVironment RQ-11 Raven. Alongside these numerous aircraft systems, they also deploy larger combat aerial vehicles which carry weapons payloads. The most recognisable and numerous of these is the General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper.
Under successive U.S. administrations, drones have played an increasingly active part on the War on Terror. Data cataloguing the number of flight-hours of manned and unmanned U.S. vehicles between 2002 and 2016 shows flight-hours of the latter proliferating approximately nine times in that period, with roughly 450,000 flight-hours logged in 2016. U.S. drone strikes have been recorded in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Somalia, among others countries, and the capabilities that they provide users has resulted in the proliferation of UAVs into the armouries of more than two-dozen state militaries.
The proliferation of drones in military arsenals raises a number of concerns. Going beyond familiar discussions of rival arguments concerning the ethical and moral implications of drone strikes, this article seeks to analyse the ways in which drone warfare upsets traditional notions of soldiering, potentially hastening the ushering of the era of ‘post-heroic’ warfare. Moreover, as drones operators are typically not restricted to servicewomen, the use of women drone pilots may cause a departure in the established gendered roles in warfare.
These unseen impacts are from a relatively new phenomenon. Although the U.S. reconfigured unmanned aerial target drones to spy on North Korea, China and North Vietnam during the 1960’s and 70’s, the first dedicated platform that provided real-time camera footage to personnel on the ground was only developed in 1995. But it was an invention that was to change everything. The Gnat-750, developed by San Diego defence contractor General Atomic, proved to be so useful to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in its surveillance role during operations over Yugoslavia in 1995 that it was quickly adopted and adjusted by the U.S. military. Renamed the MQ-1 Predator, the drone’s task was to undertake unarmed reconnaissance in sensitive environments. Successful U.S. Air Force experiments fitting laser designators to drone aircraft and an unarmed Reaper’s sighting of Osama bin Laden in Kandahar in 2000 quickly led to suggestions that these developments be taken one step further and drones be weaponised.
Since then thousands of strikes have been carried out in Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia, carried out by the highly secretive Central Intelligence Agency and Joint Special Operations Command at the Pentagon.
This proliferation has resulted in what French philosopher Grégoire Chamayou has called the ‘dronization’ of warfare – the culmination of shifts in military strategy and tactics which places UAVs at the heart of counter-insurgency and conventional military operations. Chamayou argues that this stratagem is determined by the politically motivated imperative of minimizing risks to one’s own combatants. The military value of safely attacking enemies accurately from a distance, however, has meant that even non-state actors have begun to utilise UAV’s.
The Islamic State, or ISIS, successfully modified commercial drones for offensive means against Iraqi security forces in 2017 and proudly recorded their use for distribution among its online propaganda organs. Video analysis of these attacks revealed that the explosive devices carried by the modified drones were often easily modified M433 40mm grenades, setting a dangerous precedent to other groups seeking to emulate their improvised means of air support.
As drones offer militaries and non-state actors the possibility of striking enemy targets unexpectedly without endangering personnel, their place seems guaranteed on modern battlefields.
Advocates of this weapon system argue that UAVs increase the technical precision to strikes by better determining combatants from civilians. This reasoning is framed by the implicit suggestion that drones act as a humanitarian tool of sorts by lowering the chance of collateral damage through their weaponry and methods of target acquisition.
An obvious flaw with this argument, however, is the homogeneity of the type of ordnance typically carried by State-deployed drones. Aerial platforms conducting Close Air Support (CAS) typically utilise ordnance such as the AGM-114 Hellfire missile and the Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) to support friendly ground forces. Unlike earlier drones, the MQ-9 Reaper has a payload of 3,800lb and 7 hardpoints, resulting in it carrying similar armaments as its fixed wing contemporaries.
Advocates also argue that UAVs ability to provide close air support helps prevent casualties among friendly forces operating locally. An examination of drone strike locations, however, reveals that many attacks take place in environments where there is a general absence of opposing combatants. Pakistan’s Federally Administrated Tribal Area, far removed from ISAF forces, is typical of an area where drones have operated prolifically. This raises an important question. In the absence of combat, how does one determine combatant status? Establishing this criterion and separating combatants from non-combatants is evidently difficult. Civilian fatalities to date are estimated to stand at a minimum of 769, reaching as high as 1,725, including more than 250 children, all killed in U.S. drone strikes across Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. And this is just the dead.
Furthermore, while figures of civilian fatalities caused by drone strokes from the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS in Iraq and Syria are unavailable, the U.S. and its allies have announced that at least 1,302 Iraqi and Syrian civilians killed between August 2014 and the end of April 2019. The actual total is estimated to be much higher. Again, far more are also likely to have been wounded.
From such figures, it is clear drone warfare raises troubling issues concerning their potential contravention of international commitments and obligations. Noting that civilians account for the vast majority of causalities in armed conflicts, international agreements such as UN Security Council Resolution 1265 and the Protection of Civilians have sought to decrease their exposure to physical harm. However, as a recent Oxford Research Group report noted, the current appetite for foreign intervention in ungoverned or weakly-governed spaces and stretched defence budgets has resulted in the adoption of ‘remote warfare’ by many Western nations. This light-footprint strategy involves Western forces providing support, including the deployment of special forces and air assets such as drones, to local forces who assume the majority of ground combat responsibilities.
Partnered operations, though, threaten to undermine international commitments to protect civilians through a variety of means. A lack of boots on the ground limits the ability of commanders to conduct accurate pre- and post-strike Battle Damage Assessments (BDAs), which are crucial for recording and reducing civilian casualties. Such deficiencies in accuracy between air- and ground-led assessments was noted in a 2016 report, which revealed that in 19 out of 21 BDAs, civilian causalities were only discovered once ground-led investigations accessed the affected area.
Remote warfare might represent a step-change for Western militaries constrained by defence budgets and public unease with casualties, but this strategy increases the danger and threat of physical harm to civilians and the ability for commanders to accurately assess the number of civilian deaths caused.
But what other impact has the rise of the drone had? And in particular, how has it impacted notions of heroism in warfare?
Although drones provide militaries with increased surveillance and strike capabilities, the dronization of warfare has undeniably undermined the framing of the soldier as a heroic risk-taker. Drones fantastically increase the distance between the killer and the target. A UAV pilot and their target might not even be located on the same continent. By providing such insulation from their victims, drone warfare contradicts centuries of universal discourse that the fundamental principle of the morality of warfare is the right to exercise self-defence within the conditions of mutual imposition of risk. With drones, the reciprocal right to kill is removed, and warfare degenerates into a policing action, plunging the notion of ‘just war’ into crisis.
Heroism in combat
Despite cultural, temporal and chronological changes, our understanding of the virtues of heroism in combat has remained relatively consistent throughout history. Indeed, our understanding of ‘virtue’, that of behaviour showing high moral standards, comes the Latin vitus, derived from ‘vir’, meaning man. This refers to what Cicero called the ‘excellent qualities of men, including physical strength, valorous conduct and moral rectitude’. Earlier Greek philosophy provided much of the foundational context of western discourses of heroic combat. In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle argued that ‘the courageous man will be one who is fearless in the face of an honourable death’. Physical risk was paramount in Greek warfare. With the exception of the city state of Sparta which fielded a professional army, other cities relied on citizen-soldiers during war. A military formation known as the phalanx was used, whereby deep rows of infantrymen armed with large shields and long spears, protected by bronze or linothorax cuirasses, clashed and pushed against an opponent’s battle line while trying to maintain their own cohesion. The terror of these clashes meant that admiration in ancient Greek society of the masculine ideal only extended to those who had exposed themselves to physical risk in the phalanx. Describing what makes a virtuous man, the martial poet Tyrtaeus suggested that ‘no man ever proves himself a good man unless he can endure to face the blood and the slaughter, go against the enemy and fight with his hands’.
Ancient Greece, then, provided in Western philosophy the foundation for the notion that those who face their opponents directly in combat are brave and honourable. From such a foundation, it is possible to trace this view of warfare through the medieval European code of conduct of chivalry right up to contemporary militaries.
Although the tactics and technology utilised in warfare have changed, comparable characterisations of heroism being accomplished through deeds of great valour and endurance by personally facing and defeating one’s enemy on the battlefield occur right up to the present day. During basic training in the U.S. Army, soldiers are instructed in the importance and honour of bravery in battle through the Soldiers Creed, which instructs recruits to ‘place the mission first’ and ‘never accept defeat, never quit’. The Soldiers Creed reminds them that they must be ‘ready to engage, and destroy the enemies of the United States of America in close combat’.
In addition, other traditional definitions of valour which grew up organically and separately from Western interpretations also praise those who had risked their lives in melee fighting. For instance, both the early medieval Islamic moral code of Futuwwa and the Japanese warrior code of Bushidō, determined that heroism was only achieved by combatants exposing themselves to physical risk.
Crucially then, placing oneself in danger is a central principle of heroic combat. It follows, then, that a soldier must be capable of being a victim themselves for their actions to be honourable and heroic.
Carl von Clausewitz, the early 19th century Prussian general and military theorist, captured this essence of heroic self-sacrifice in his seminal work, On War, where he reminded his readers that: ‘We should not forget that our mission is to kill and be killed. We should never close our eyes to that fact. Making war by killing without being killed is a chimera; making war by being killed without killing is inept. So, one must know how to kill, while being ready to die oneself.’
The heroic soldier, in this view, has to be both executioner and victim. This duality is a vital aspect of jus in bello, justice in war, the reciprocal right of combatants to kill each other. If the fundamental principle of the morality of warfare is a right to exercise violence, within the conditions of mutual imposition of risk, then the emergence of new types of warfare, such as the application of deadly force by drone pilots, profoundly challenges our view of the warrior as a courageous risk-taker.
Killing safely from a distance has repeatedly raised debates in different societies about martial honour. History is littered with chroniclers complaining about the absence of heroism associated with the use of weapons allowing users to kill from afar. The use of the crossbow in the 12th century due to its relative simplicity and its unsurpassed ability to penetrate the heavy armour worn by knights led Pope Innocent II’s attempt to outlaw its use at the Second Council of the Lateran in 1139. The prohibition was disregarded, but it illustrates the notion that killing from afar deviated from the ideal of heroic warfare. This contempt toward users of ranged weapons among the knightly warrior class is also evident through their brutal behaviour toward prisoners. Pierre Terrail, an eminent French knight in the 14th century, justified the execution of captured crossbowmen during the Italian War of 1494-1498 on the basis that ‘their weapon was a cowardly one and their behaviour treacherous’.
Other instances of opposition to ‘unfair’ ranged weapons are recorded even once their use on the battlefield had become relatively normalised. The preeminent 17th century Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes, author of Don Quixote, described artillery as ‘a devilish invention’ that permitted ‘a base, cowardly hand to take the life of the bravest gentleman’. Even by the 19th century, by which point the firearm had been widely used in European armies for more than 200 years, pressing home with the bayonet was considered to be the proper preserve of soldiers, as Alexander Suvorov, Russia’s Generalissimo during the Napoleonic Wars, observed: ‘the bullet is a mad thing; only the bayonet knows what it is about’.
Although most societies have generally abstained from urging their soldiers to sacrifice themselves for a higher cause – be it God, the State or a cult of personality – the premise of warfare based on heroic self-sacrifice is still deeply admired within military circles. Instances where soldiers have willingly sacrificed themselves to protect their comrades are considered to be especially selfless and conspicuous acts of valour. Indeed, of the six Medals of Honour – the highest military decoration presented by the U.S. government to a member of its armed forces – awarded to servicemen in the Iraq war, four were awarded posthumously to personnel who voluntarily fell on grenades to protect their comrades.
Historical attitudes that are rooted in the virtues of heroism in war, though, clash with the political and technological shifts of modern warfare. It raises an important question: at a time when conflict is becoming increasingly remote through the use of drones, are we witnessing the decline of the heroic warrior? And where do the operators of unmanned aerial vehicles fit within our increasingly blurred understanding of what it means to be a ‘good’ soldier?
The issues raised by dronization to the military ethos of heroic self-sacrifice nods toward what Edward Luttwak, Senior Associate, Center for Strategic and International Studies has called ‘the post-heroic’ age. Luttwak, like Chamayou, posits that post-Cold War western societies have developed a deep-rooted aversion to casualties, and have resultantly heavily invested in costly defence equipment that they cannot utilise except for in a low-risk environment. Drones fall neatly into this category. None of the U.K.’s current drone inventory were actually designed to operate in contested airspace where they may be at risk. Moreover, only one U.K. operated Reaper has deployed in what is known as permissive airspace – a low risk environment, with little to no use of adversary electronic warfare, communications jamming, anti-aircraft systems or aircraft. In short, the UK’s killer drones fly largely uncontested.
Despite alleged and confirmed examples of drones being shot down, in Afghanistan, Israel, Yemen and, most recently, a U.S. Navy RQ-4A Global Hawk in the Strait of Hormuz, drone pilots are extraordinarily unlikely to be in danger while conducting operations. A typical U.S. drone combat air patrol (CAP) consists of four aircraft: one over the target area, another en-route to replace the primary aircraft when its fuel runs out, and the remaining two platforms undergoing routine maintenance.
Of the 186 U.S. crew-members required to maintain a CAP, only fifty-nine personnel are actually located at the site from which the drone operates. The others are split between air bases such as at Creech Air Force base, Nevada, where pilots fly the drones via Ku-band satellite and intelligence and decision-making facilities across the U.S..
The great range of some drone aircraft used in recent operations has meant that even the aircrews responsible for arming and maintaining them may be deployed on bases far removed from the conflict zone. The Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk, for instance, has a range of 22,779 kilometres and a flight endurance of 30 hours. This has allowed their operation against ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria from bases as far away as the Al Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates, some 2,000 km away.
As a measure of comparison, the short ranges of other manned aircraft which have been similarly utilised by NATO forces in ground attack roles, such as the United States’ Marine Corps AV-8B Harrier II, has required the aircraft’s crew and maintenance teams to be located close to the combat zone. A clandestine attack by fifteen Taliban fighters on Camp Bastion in September 2012, for instance, resulted in the death of a U.S. Marine Corps aircraft mechanic and a Harrier squadron commander by small arms fire and the wounding of 17 other personnel. During the raid, the Taliban were also able to destroy seven USMC AV-8B Harrier II jets. Aerial operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have also resulted in a number of fatal instances where coalition rotary-wing aircraft have been shot down by hostile fire. At least one RAF fixed-wing C-130 transport aircraft and a U.S. Air Force A-10 ground-attack aircraft were shot down by Iraqi forces in the early stages of 2003 invasion. By and large, though, drone operatives and their support teams are insulated from direct combat threat, especially against non-state actors.
The threat of the post-heroic has raised challenges and inflamed opinion within the armed forces of several states utilising drones as they grapple with the issues of remote-control killing and how it might potentially diminish the professional virtue of the warrior as a heroic risk-taker. This is evidenced through the general reluctance of extending recognitions of valour to drone pilots within armed forces’ and the opinions voiced and perceptions of service personnel of UAV operators. One U.S. drone pilot noted during an interview that his occupation has been compared to a ‘Star Wars game’ by his contemporaries.
Scepticism of the valour of drone pilots is also prevalent among some senior members of defence communities. U.S. Defence Secretary Leon Panetta’s proposal of a “Distinguished Warfare Medal” to recognise the achievements of drone pilots and cyber warriors and their impact on combat operations was met with derision by some in the U.S. defence community, as well as by veterans organisations and sections of the media. The status of the award, one that sits above the Bronze Star (which is typically awarded for combat actions) and the Purple Heart (a decoration awarded to those wounded or killed while serving on active duty), resulted in 22 senators protesting to the Department of Defence that it diminished the significance of other awards earned by risking one’s life in combat or through accomplishing acts of heroism in combat.
Derisively referred to as the “Nintendo medal”, the award was quickly cancelled by Panetta’s successor, Chuck Hagel, in 2013. However, in recognising the importance and ubiquity of drones in combat operations, Hagel did oversee the introduction of a more modest ‘R’ remote impact device to recognise service members who use remote technology to directly impact combat operations. Since its introduction in 2016, at least 17 United States Marines and two U.S. Air Force personnel have been awarded this.
In the U.K., former Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson, a keen proponent of drone warfare, met less resistance than his American counterpart when he announced that under new rules, personnel from all three U.K. services, including those serving from outside of the traditional area of operations, were eligible to receive a new award, the Operation Shader medal without clasp, marking the U.K’s campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Eligible recipients included RAF Reaper crews of 13 Squadron and 39 squadron, based at RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire and Creech Air Force Base in Nevada respectively, who remotely operate the U.K.’s MQ-9 Reaper drone fleet. While the introduction of this award reflects the changing nature of warfare and the contributions that personnel working from outside operational areas may make, it is worth highlighting that drone operators were eligible to receive the award alongside more conventional personnel, such as ground crews based in RAF Akrotiri, Cyprus who arm RAF Tornado and Typhoon aircraft conducting air strikes over Iraq and Syria.
Drone warfare and gender
Alongside the challenges that dronization presents to the warrior ethos, the comprehensive introduction of UAVs also has consequences for societies’ gendered conceptions of warfare. The ultimate objective of combat is to kill the enemy. Across different histories and societies, it has been a relatively fixed principle that this was accomplished by men. Institutional regulations and culture have prohibited women from assuming roles where they would directly kill the enemy, such as infantry and armoured units. Although there have been some notable exceptions to this rule – the Tamil-separatist Sri Lankan Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam’s (LTTE) women’s wing, and the Syrian –Kurdish YPJ for examples, the organisation of large numbers of women to conduct combat operations that are identical to their male counterparts is generally quite unorthodox.
Although some NATO countries have recently relaxed restrictions concerning women’s participation in combatant roles, many liberal states have only just begun implementing similar changes. If U.K. and U.S. experiences finding female recruits are anything to go by, combat units are likely to be overwhelmingly filled by men for the foreseeable future.
These experiences do not suggest that women do not belong in combat units – but accounts of training within combatant branches demonstrate that a macho and masculine environment discourages women’s participation and disparages all things feminine. Blood training, group exercises and military socialisation may sharpen soldier’s combat skills but they lionise masculinity. Weak and ‘soft’ recruits are labelled with loaded gendered language.
In a recent Radio 4 production, for instance, A History of Hate, former U.S. Marine, Scott Camil, observed that during training instructors would call recruits ‘ladies’ and ‘girls’ if they were angry with their physical performance. Camil explained that being considered as a woman by fellow trainees was an extremely negative label, and the anthesis of what it meant to be a Unites States Marine. The intensity of military training and the breaking down of an individual’s civilian identity and rebuilding them as a soldier in a distinctive masculine mould has played a significant role in perpetuating gender roles in the military.
The operation of drones, however, presents a challenge to this orthodoxy. Drones do not rely on gender roles that are traditionally present in other types of warfare. Physical fitness, strength and stamina, hallmarks of military masculinity, are essential attributes for those who choose to attend specialised infantry training courses, such as the U.K.’s Infantry Battle School, but are evidently not a requirement or necessity for operators of UAVs.
Discussions of what comprises a heroic soldier are not a novel debate. But drones present difficult questions about the changing nature of warfare. If the enemy’s reciprocal ability to kill is removed, then drone warfare – for the technologically superior belligerent – diminishes the professional virtues of soldiers as heroic risk takers. With the proliferation of drones in state inventories likely to increase in the coming years and the capacity for new types of drone operations – such as ‘swarm’ squadrons to confuse and overcome enemy air defences – drones challenge the very parameters of war. Moreover, they present a distinct challenge to the masculine orthodoxy of soldiering, potentially altering established gendered notions of those who wage war.
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