Article in Law / Ethics
The use of UAVs in drone wars is described in detail by Chris Woods in his excellent book entitled Sudden Justice: America’s Secret Drone Wars. All interested in drone warfare should read it.


Military drones are unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVS), aircraft without a human pilot on board. The flight of UAVs is controlled autonomously by on-board computers or by the remote control of a ‘pilot’ from the ground or in another vehicle. The use of UAVs in drone wars is described in detail by Chris Woods in his excellent book entitled Sudden Justice: America’s Secret Drone Wars. All interested in drone warfare should read it.

Sudden Justice explores comprehensively the secretive history of the use of armed drones and their key role not only on today's battlefields, but also in a covert targeted killing project which has caused the deaths of thousands of people. Days after the attacks on America on 9 September 2001, a Predator drone carried out the world's first lethal drone strike, in Afghanistan. The Predator was operated by the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).The CIA had nurtured and developed drones for almost a decade, seeking a platform from which it could monitor its targets and act lethally and instantly.

Military drones are operated by a three-man crew - one person ‘flies’ the drone, another operates and monitors the cameras and sensors, and a third person is in contact with ground troops and commanders in the combat zone. The ‘pilots’ of the drones are typically stationed many miles, often thousands of miles, away from the target.

American and British drones are controlled, via orbiting satellites, from Nellis and Creech US Air Force base outside Las Vegas, Nevada, America.

Since 2001, remotely piloted aircraft have played a critical role in America's global counterterrorism operations. But there is another, covert war: one in which drones scour the skies of some countries searching for militant and terrorist targets. The American government insists that this secret war is legal. The CIA claims that its armed drones are 'the most precise weapon ever invented', so perfect that civilians no longer need to be killed.

Sudden Justice describes the reality of this secret drone war, one in which hundreds of civilians have died, and where the long-term strategic interests of the West may have been jeopardised.

Military drones were at first remotely piloted, but increasingly they follow a pre-programmed mission. Some military drones are used for reconnaissance and surveillance; others are armed with missiles and bombs. Drones are increasingly being used for civilian purposes such as policing, surveillance and firefighting and security applications, like monitoring electric power lines or pipelines.

Drones were used for reconnaissance, surveillance and intelligence gathering in the 1990-1991 Gulf War; drones carrying weapons were first used in the Balkans war. The Americans operate two groups of drones - one run by the US Air Force, and one run by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The most commonly used American drones are the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper. Currently, more than 75 countries reportedly possess some sort of drone.

The MQ-1 Predator is a medium-altitude drone used, since 1995, by the US Air Force and CIA. It carries cameras and other sensors and two Hellfire air-to-ground missiles or other munitions. Propeller-driven, it can fly up to 400 nautical miles (740 kilometres) to a target, loiter overhead for 14 hours, attack the target, and then return to its base.

The MQ-9 Reaper is a bigger and more capable UAV than the earlier Predator. With a turboprop engine, it is much more powerful than the Predator, able to carry 15 times more ordnance and cruise at three times the speed.

The British began using armed drones in Afghanistan in 2007, having purchased three Reaper drones from the USA in 2007. Drones are in demand because they can stay aloft for many hours. A British drone has just broken the world record by flying nonstop for over 82 hours. In addition, they are much cheaper than military aircraft and they are flown remotely, so there is no danger to the flight crew.

Assassination by drones

The use of drones to assassinate suspected militants in non-combat areas, such as Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, is a very controversial method of warfare. US President Barack Obama has intensified the policy, initiated as a response to the 9/11 attacks on the USA by former President George W. Bush as part of his global ‘war on terror.’

Currently, US President Obama personally approves of targeted drone strikes outside the USA. But Obama has recently proposed a new set of legal checks designed to bring an end to a ‘boundless war on terror.’ The US argues that it has the right to kill people in foreign countries as part of an ‘armed conflict’ with al-Qaeda. Some eminent international lawyers insist, however, that there is no basis in international law for such assassination by drones.

Consequences of military use of drones

In a recent article in the science journal Nature, entitled “A world of killer apps”, the author P. W. Singer explains that the military use of robots has consequences beyond the saving of pilots’ lives.

“US President Barack Obama recently argued that he did not need congressional approval for military operations in Libya,” he explained, “because they were carried out by unmanned aerial systems such as the MQ-1 Predator and the MQ-9 Reaper. In Pakistan, US unmanned systems have made more than 250 strikes against suspected terrorists since 2004.”

General Westmoreland’s vision

The automated battlefield was described in some detail by General William C. Westmoreland, then the US Army’s Chief of Staff, in a speech he gave to the Association of the US Army as long ago as 14 October, 1969.

The General said: “On the battlefield of the future, enemy forces will be located, tracked and targeted almost instantaneously through the use of data-links, computer-assisted intelligence evaluation and automated fire control. With first-round kill probabilities approaching certainty, and with surveillance devices that can continuously track the enemy, the need for large forces to fix the opposition physically will be less important.”

“I see battlefields”, the General went on, “that are under 24-hour real or near-real time surveillance of all types. I see battlefields on which we can destroy anything we locate through instant communications and almost instantaneous application of highly lethal firepower.”

Even more powerful and versatile drones are being developed; they will be among the weapons used in a foreseeable automated battlefield.

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About the Author 

Charles F Barnaby
Frank Barnaby, a nuclear physicist, worked at the: Atomic Weapons Research Establishment, Aldermaston (1951-57); University College, London

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