Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 22:36 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 22:36 | SYDNEY

Reader riposte: Drones and the nature of war

4 November 2011 13:54

Below, a further response from Crispin Rovere. But first, Nic Maclellan:

In your debate over precision guided munitions (PGMs) and drones, Roger Fortier asks whether we would prefer 'the precise killing of those who would do us harm made possible by smart weapons, or the  good old days of incinerating Yokohama and Dresden?'.This suggests an either/or option, whereas in fact the United States and other nations continue to use a combination of both smart and dumb bombs in modern warfare —  and both contribute to civilian and 'friendly fire' casualties.

Think, for example, of the B-52 raids that pummeled Afghanistan early in the intervention. As one UK soldier suggested in his video of the bombing of the village of Mazdurak: 'I f**king told you nothing but bacteria would live.' Another officer noted about the 2001 carpet bombing of Afghanistan: 'A 2,000lb bomb, no matter where you drop it, is a significant emotional event for anyone within a square mile'.

I find The Interpreter's 'toys for the boys' enthusiasm for precision guided missiles a bit disquieting. The use of JDAM still leads to extensive 'friendly fire' casualties in conflict zones.

The enthusiasm for PGMs also ignores core questions about targeting. What of the precision guided weapons that were used to destroy the Chinese embassy in Belgrade during the 1999 aerial bombardment of Serbia? Or Coalition air strikes against International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) facilities in Kabul in October 2001? Or the deaths of civilians from PGMs during the war on Iraq, such as the use of two 2,000 pound GBU-27 laser guided bombs which destroyed the Amiriyah bunker in Baghdad in 2003 (over 400 people, mostly women and children, died in this attack). These examples suggest that PGMs are either not as accurate as the boosters suggest, that faulty intelligence is a serious issue, or that people are ignoring the rules of war.

Crispin Rovere:

Roger Fortier gives a wildly expansive interpretation to what I am suggesting. Would I prefer the bombings of Yokohama or Dresden? No, but that's not what we’re talking about. I made the observation that psychologically and politically, drones represent a transformational shift in the conduct of operations, rather than an incremental step beyond high-altitude piloted missions. Both drones and strike aircraft use discretionary ordinance in modern warfare. While it is true that not all drone pilots are in Nevada, some are, and for those soldiers the experience of warfare is dramatically different to bomber pilots deployed to the theatre. Drone pilots lead a relatively normal life within their local community, even during active campaigns. This has no equivalent in any circumstance in history since warfare began.

Of course the US touted the killing of al-Alawi, it was an unmitigated tactical success. This would have been true if he'd been killed by a normal airstrike or Special Forces. Yet we will see more declarations of this kind as predator drones offer politicians low-risk, high-return, military options. Drone operations conducted from US soil have few domestic political consequences, no matter how long they might take to succeed, or how many failures are incurred. Deployments of forces overseas, by contrast, must be justified to domestic constituencies, with objectives and timeframes being declared, and a media holding politicians to account when those objectives are not met. 

I am not 'lamenting' anything, merely observing. It is a changing nature of combat operations, and public accountability must adapt to change with it, but drones do have moral implications that are not quite the same as a piloted aircraft. Perhaps it is the implied recognition of this that the legal apparatus Roger Fortier refers to actually exists.