Burden of Empire
The Western public is sick of war. Close to two decades of fighting across the greater Middle East, in Afghanistan and Iraq mainly, alongside military action in Libya, Somalia and Syria have contributed to a war-weariness among the American public which is shared by nations throughout the West who have acted to assist the US in its conflicts.
This war-weariness and rising skepticism towards foreign adventure was a large part of the nationalist surge which began in the latter half of the previous decade.
However, this has also occurred at a time in history when the United States’ supremacy, and by extension Western supremacy, is under renewed challenge by a variety of different powers. This challenge has come in the form of states, such as China or Russia, or in the form of networks or guerrilla movements, such as the Islamic State.
Retaining any position of power always requires states to demonstrate their strength. This is obviously harder when state elites have to balance a public tired of conflict, whilst confronting determined revisionist powers. To balance this and defend their elite position, the leadership of a defensive United States have expanded their country’s covert means of warfare.
Thus we have witnessed the birth of a ‘shadow war.’
The Shadow War
A shadow war is a campaign which is waged away from public scrutiny and with resources that are designed not to elicit reaction.
It is being waged across all the continents of the Earth, and within cyberspace aswell. With only minimal media attention, the United States has led the way in the creation of a vast arsenal of technology and specialist manpower that has been deployed in battlefields as distant as Libya to the Philippines.
To be clear, the US is not the only country partaking in this covert war-fighting. Russia, for instance, has mercenaries spread throughout Africa. Iran uses its wealth to sponsor terrorists and criminals as far afield as South America. However, neither of these countries come close to the arsenal and expertise the US can call on.
The United States is still the world’s premier power and has the economic might and reach to support a global campaign which dwarfs all its competitors.
One of its core tools in this global campaign is the Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), commonly referred to as ‘drones.’
The drone war, a key front in the global shadow war, was conceived at a time when the United States was an unquestioned power. Heady from its victory over the Soviet Union, American research sought to perfect a means of covert warfare which would give them complete dominance of the sky but did not require the vast resources of the navy or air force.
While the technology was in its infancy, President Bill Clinton approved the use of drones to survey the deserts and mountains of the Hindu Kush or Sudan.
However, it was during the premiership of Barack Obama that the world would really witness the destructive capability of drone warfare.
President Obama would come to power at a time when the American war on terror was in full swing, but the voting public of the US was most opposed to foreign wars. Therefore, the impersonal drone offered a pragmatic solution to the question of how best to extend American power while resisting the mass use of soldiers. Drone bombings of high ranking members of Al Qieda became a feature of Obama’s reign — with a total of 563 drone bombings throughout his two terms.
Alongside this, Obama’s premiership saw the construction of a vast information and intelligence gathering apparatus which linked the expanded drone fleet with one of the world’s largest collections of data.
So-called ‘signature strikes’, in which men who shared many of the physical features of known terrorists but where not positively identified, became infamous throughout Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Obama’s liberal use of drone warfare would go on to earn him an unflattering reputation which contrasted with the image he has sought to cultivate throughout the world.
This is an environment that any incoming president would have had to face, and an option that they would all have likely opted for. Obama’s reputation as the ‘drone president’ was garnered because his premiership occurred at a time when the world was shifting into a more technological form of warfare.
It was also the emergence of the second-stage of the US’ global campaign against Islamist terrorism. Whereas his predecessor had faced an Al Qaeda which was only concentrated in a few key battlefields, Obama faced a far more amorphous enemy which had spread itself over a wider range of countries.
Countries such as Somalia, Pakistan (a supposed US ally) and Yemen became constant targets of drone bombings.
His successor, Donald Trump, shares Obama’s preference for avoiding foreign engagement and has arguably inherited an even more confused international environment, this has been reflected in an intensification of the global drone campaign.
The Obama administration specified that rapid deployment of lethal forces was only legal in countries which the US considered to be areas of hostilities, mainly Afghanistan and Iraq.
Drone strikes in other countries needed to be approved by senior figures in the various branches of the American military-intelligence complex after certain conditions aimed at protecting civilians were satisfied.
This is not the case for the current administration, where the President’s preferences for delegation has meant that the CIA and Pentagon now have greater powers over the decision to pull the trigger. Other countries have been added to the list of where rapid lethal strikes can occur.
This has all meant that an expanded drone force can now strike at a larger range of targets, most of which the United States is not at war with, with less legal oversight.
Age Of The Drone
This is a trend which looks set to continue no matter who sits in the halls of power in Washington, and that’s simply because drone technology itself is experiencing a surge in improvement and manufacturing.
Drone technology is already playing a larger role as a tool in global infrastructure. NGOs and state aid departments are trialing their use in the context of post-disaster environments. Amazon is developing them as means of delivery, and they have already proven themselves effective as a tool for police to use in manhunts.
Of course, at the centre of this technological refinement is military investment, with armies across the world spending over 70 billion dollars on them in this year alone.
A drone-filled world comes with good and bad results. For one, the drone allows politicians to avoid the political fallout that the loss of soldiers in military action would cause.
This is convenient for politicians, but may prove deleterious for world peace as public anger and opposition is one of main factors preventing world leaders from pursuing an aggressive foreign policy.
While there may be some members of the general population who are concerned about the deaths of innocent people in drone strikes, the issue simply does not have the emotional resonance to generate widespread public anger or gain mainstream media attention.
Compared to invasions, naval bombardments or even special forces, drones also represent a far more surgical option which is appropriate for a world such as ours, where small numbers of insurgents move and hide within large thronging masses of civilians.
As technology improves and we begin to see increasing maneuverability and lightweight design, these UAVs could be made to fly through complex environments and tight spaces which makes them well suited to a planet which will soon be covered in mega-cities.
The Kill Switch
Unfortunately, civilians will die in drone strikes. However, we can hope that coming technological advancements could mitigate this.
For instance, improvements in camera capability and real-time analysis technology could eliminate the risk of killing the wrong person.
Perhaps, next generation drones will be fitted with data sensors able to calculate the percentage chance of civilian casualties whilst recommending to the individual tasked with approving the strike a course of action to minimise potential non-combatant deaths.
Currently, drones must be piloted by a human but eventually we will likely see these weapons being operated solely by advanced AI. This alone leaves us with moral quandaries.
Drone operators still suffer PTSD like their comrades in the midst of combat but a soldier in the middle of battle can reason that they must take life so that they may survive.
This is not the case for a drone operator, who is often miles away, sometimes on a different continent, and to whom their target represents no personal threat. This often leaves drone operators showing higher levels of fatigue and trauma than battlefield based operatives.
However, we may come to miss this human element as we may eventually see drones being completely operated by AI.
At present there are safeguards remaining to prevent drone-based aggression. What happens when these safeguards are finally chipped away, or this technology is utilised by regimes which do not care about public scrutiny or the value of human life?
An AI system cannot distinguish between an innocent or a terrorist if it has been programmed to always obey orders.
Likewise, weapons agreements between the United States and tyrannical powers, say Saudi Arabia, could mean we see this technology being used as a weapon of repression by despots. For instance, to assassinate revolutionary leaders, or members of ethnic rights groups. If you don’t think this is possible then look at how the Saudis use American-made weapons against the people of Yemen.
How the increasing prominence of drones as a standard weapon of war will alter the global system remains to be seen. If drones become cheap and ubiquitous enough, say via open sourced schematics and wide-spread 3D printing, they could democratise warfare to the extent the mass production of the Kalashnikov rifle did.
However, if they remain in the hands of the elite and their technology is held a guarded secret, they could help to cement current dictatorial regimes and power structures.
Ultimately, these are questions that we will discover in the coming years. What is not up for debate is that these machines and weapons will play a prominent role in our lives long into the future.