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© 2021 Oriental Institute, The Czech Academy of Sciences, Kevin L. Schwartz, and Ameem Lutfi
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From Yemen to Libya, Syria, and Nagorno-Karabakh, armed drones delivering precision munitions or commercial drones re-engineered into flying bombs by insurgents are changing the security landscape. The Middle East conflicts have become opening acts for prolonged unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) warfare and remote-controlled terrorism. Following 9/11, the United States opened the proverbial Pandora's Box by deploying armed UAVs for targeted killings. Since then, the evolution and diffusion of armed drones with increased capabilities and lower operational costs have ushered in a new type of deterrence by turning conventional military doctrine on its head. Technically, drones have been used on the battlefield since at least 1991. Their early usage was, however, limited to reconnaissance and intelligence gathering. Following the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the role of drones shifted from scouting to targeted killing. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama advocated using drones as an efficient and precise tool in hunting Al-Qaeda operatives. 1 In the years following 9/11, the U.S. established a near-monopoly on medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) drones the costly, but highly-efficient, Predators and Reapers, which cost US$4 and US$16 million per unit, respectively. That monopoly, however, has ended. The past decade has seen several new producers enter the market. Turkey and China, in particular, have emerged as key producers. While Chinese drones are reaching customers in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, the Turkish TB2s, aircraft that were battle-tested during the 44-day Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, are making inroads from Poland to Ukraine. In sharp contrast to the U.S., both China and Turkey have been less concerned about safeguarding their proprietary technology and thus placed little regulatory barriers on foreign sales. As their market share shrinks with the entry of new players, we are likely to see the U.S. also reassess its drone export policy . 2 This increased market competition, as one would expect, has already greatly reduced both the economic and political barriers to drone purchases. The drone is no longer an exclusive province of national armed forces, for instance. Moreover, the ability to weaponize inexpensive commercial drones is gaining momentum. In fact, the new remote-controlled warfare cycle that arose out of 9/11 has shifted from military-grade drones in favor of relatively cheap, off-the-shelf hobby toys that can be weaponized for pennies on the dollar. Instead of a few multi-million-dollar military-grade UAVs, the new battlespace is being progressively saturated with cost-efficient and widely-available ones. This development has put drones within the reach of a number of non-state militias. The so-called Islamic State (IS) and other terrorist groups, long a target of U.S. drones, have now gone from being the hunted to the hunter. They are refitting commercial drones into flying bombs capable of carrying out missions ranging from advanced scouting and surveillance to artillery spotting or “suicide” bombs. The use of professional photography drones by IS to capture video of its fighters in action for propaganda purposes is a case in point. The upper hand once held by national armies has been reversed in favor of insurgents. 3 An example is Saudi Arabia's ineffective efforts to combat armed drone incursions in Yemen and within its borders witness the attacks on the Abqaiq oil facilities, which Riyadh was powerless to stop. While the Saudis have the American Patriot air defense system, using a missile worth US$3.4 million to bring down a drone worth a few hundred dollars will be a costly and unproductive endeavor — assuming the American system is capable of doing so to begin with. The French philosopher Grégoire Chamayou suggests that remote killing without the possibility of being killed suspends the rapport of reciprocity in armed conflict. He noted that “the seduction of the drone has been the promised inevitable invulnerability." 4 The sense of invulnerability enabled by drones, Chamayou argues, also lowers the threshold for conflict while increasing the propensity to aggression, and redefining the ethical and political norms of war in the process. One very important norm redefined in the very early days of U.S. drone military operations was a willingness to accept collateral damage, thus normalizing the idea of civilian casualties. 5 The psychological effect of drones has also not been studied closely: the constant whine of drone engines overhead and the terror of not knowing where their payloads will land has extracted a terrible cost. As we enter the age of AI-controlled drone swarms raining death from above, the post 9/11 normalization of collateral damage and silencing of traumatized populations is set to taint our future.
September 8, 2021 The Evolution of Armed Drones for Targeted Killing after 9/11
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HOME HOME THEMATICS THEMATICS
From Yemen to Libya, Syria, and Nagorno- Karabakh, armed drones delivering precision munitions or commercial drones re-engineered into flying bombs by insurgents are changing the security landscape. The Middle East conflicts have become opening acts for prolonged unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) warfare and remote- controlled terrorism. Following 9/11, the United States opened the proverbial Pandora's Box by deploying armed UAVs for targeted killings. Since then, the evolution and diffusion of armed drones with increased capabilities and lower operational costs have ushered in a new type of deterrence by turning conventional military doctrine on its head. Technically, drones have been used on the battlefield since at least 1991. Their early usage was, however, limited to reconnaissance and intelligence gathering. Following the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the role of drones shifted from scouting to targeted killing. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama advocated using drones as an efficient and precise tool in hunting Al-Qaeda operatives. 1 In the years following 9/11, the U.S. established a near-monopoly on medium-altitude, long- endurance (MALE) drones the costly, but highly-efficient, Predators and Reapers, which cost US$4 and US$16 million per unit, respectively. That monopoly, however, has ended. The past decade has seen several new producers enter the market. Turkey and China, in particular, have emerged as key producers. While Chinese drones are reaching customers in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, the Turkish TB2s, aircraft that were battle-tested during the 44-day Nagorno- Karabakh conflict, are making inroads from Poland to Ukraine. In sharp contrast to the U.S., both China and Turkey have been less concerned about safeguarding their proprietary technology and thus placed little regulatory barriers on foreign sales. As their market share shrinks with the entry of new players, we are likely to see the U.S. also reassess its drone export policy . 2 This increased market competition, as one would expect, has already greatly reduced both the economic and political barriers to drone purchases. The drone is no longer an exclusive province of national armed forces, for instance. Moreover, the ability to weaponize inexpensive commercial drones is gaining momentum. In fact, the new remote-controlled warfare cycle that arose out of 9/11 has shifted from military-grade drones in favor of relatively cheap, off-the-shelf hobby toys that can be weaponized for pennies on the dollar. Instead of a few multi-million-dollar military-grade UAVs, the new battlespace is being progressively saturated with cost-efficient and widely-available ones. This development has put drones within the reach of a number of non-state militias. The so- called Islamic State (IS) and other terrorist groups, long a target of U.S. drones, have now gone from being the hunted to the hunter. They are refitting commercial drones into flying bombs capable of carrying out missions ranging from advanced scouting and surveillance to artillery spotting or “suicide” bombs. The use of professional photography drones by IS to capture video of its fighters in action for propaganda purposes is a case in point. The upper hand once held by national armies has been reversed in favor of insurgents. 3 An example is Saudi Arabia's ineffective efforts to combat armed drone incursions in Yemen and within its borders witness the attacks on the Abqaiq oil facilities, which Riyadh was powerless to stop. While the Saudis have the American Patriot air defense system, using a missile worth US$3.4 million to bring down a drone worth a few hundred dollars will be a costly and unproductive endeavor assuming the American system is capable of doing so to begin with. The French philosopher Grégoire Chamayou suggests that remote killing without the possibility of being killed suspends the rapport of reciprocity in armed conflict. He noted that “the seduction of the drone has been the promised inevitable invulnerability." 4 The sense of invulnerability enabled by drones, Chamayou argues, also lowers the threshold for conflict while increasing the propensity to aggression, and redefining the ethical and political norms of war in the process. One very important norm redefined in the very early days of U.S. drone military operations was a willingness to accept collateral damage, thus normalizing the idea of civilian casualties. 5 The psychological effect of drones has also not been studied closely: the constant whine of drone engines overhead and the terror of not knowing where their payloads will land has extracted a terrible cost. As we enter the age of AI-controlled drone swarms raining death from above, the post 9/11 normalization of collateral damage and silencing of traumatized populations is set to taint our future.
© 2021 Oriental Institute, The Czech Academy of Sciences, Kevin L. Schwartz, and Ameem Lutfi
© 2021 Oriental Institute, The Czech Academy of Sciences, Kevin L. Schwartz, and Ameem Lutfi
The Evolution of Armed Drones for Targeted Killing after 9/11
Written by
Principal research fellow at the Middle East Institute at the National University of Singapore.
If you are interested in contributing an article for the project, please send a short summary of the proposed topic (no more than 200 words) and brief bio to submissions@911legacies.com. For all other matters, please contact inquiry@911legacies.com.
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