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The changing landscape of air surveillance, digital warfare, and the RAF’s airstrikes: a commentary

In an age of rapid technological advancements, the rise of drone reconnaissance and satellite surveillance technologies has significantly transformed the nature of aerial threats facing communities across the globe. While these innovations bring undeniable benefits, they also raise pressing concerns regarding civilian safety, civil rights, humanitarian issues, and military operations. A significant challenge lies in understanding the consequences of these technologies and addressing the immaterial and nonphysical repercussions they bring.

The integration of artificial intelligence (AI), algorithms, and machine learning within these systems introduces new, less visible forms of trauma, such as psychological stress and environmental damage. As military operational images increasingly remove humans from the decision-making process, human agency in image production and its impacts become circumstantial. Drone pilots, far from threat, dictate life and death decisions. AI further distances those pilots from the decision, by predicting what is – and is not – a threat, often based on poor data. Determining how to legislate for such military technologies that increasingly exist independent of human agency is a pressing issue, but militaries seem reluctant – and sometimes hostile – to engaging on such matters with civil society.

There is also a neo-colonial issue to this. The development and deployment of these drone and surveillance technologies are often controlled by a select few nations, leaving the majority of the world’s population without any influence or oversight. This lack of transparency creates an environment of secrecy, making it difficult for the public to engage with the processes behind these technologies. The history of drone reconnaissance is inextricably linked to colonial practices and their determinations of life and death. In this context, as Professor Anthony Downey has argued, neocolonialism is marked by the annexation of present-day and future realities through the use of data extraction and surveillance technologies. Sovereign and military-industrial interests entangled with private companies add further complexity to this landscape.

A clear example of these concerns is the new analysis by AOAV, which found that at least 29 civilians were killed in nine Royal Air Force (RAF) airstrikes in Iraq and Syria between 2016 and 2018 – at least 10 more civilian deaths than any previous analysis had concluded. AOAV’s research raises significant questions over the RAF’s civilian casualty recording, transparency and accountability, as the RAF had only accepted responsibility for one civilian death during this period. The investigation was done through cross-referencing 950 strike reports cited in RAF press releases with Pentagon airstrike data, alongside data collected by Airwars and AOAV’s own global explosive violence monitor.

The RAF’s airstrikes and their consequences become pivotal to the argument of the dangers of neo-colonial digital supremacy leading to civilian deaths. They exemplify the potential dangers and ethical issues associated with advanced surveillance technologies and drone warfare. The lack of transparency and accountability in RAF’s operations serves as an example of how these technologies can lead to civilian casualties and further exacerbate the existing concerns related to human rights and international law.

In the face of the changing landscape of the digital capabilities that underpin the RAF’s airstrikes, it is essential to develop new human rights review and greater accountability to protect communities and individuals worldwide. The future of warfare is embedded in algorithms, making it crucial to understand the social constructs fuelled by Big Data and their implications on global power dynamics. We need to debate this future and quickly.

By critically engaging with the evolution of surveillance technologies, territorial plotting, the ‘war on terror’ and drone warfare, we can begin to address potential harm, but it needs to be done.

A thorough examination of the ideological, national, and corporate intentions behind surveillance technologies (including examining the true civilian cost of the RAF’s airstrikes), is crucial to understanding their impact on communities worldwide.

As surveillance technology evolves, our response must adapt. Addressing the legal and political implications of autonomous weapons systems and developing counter-strategies against aerial surveillance are essential steps in this process.