And the near future will see this trend continue with the “world’s safest” (though sadly not indestructible) drone being shown off at CES recently and Amazon’s Prime Air delivery service vision perpetually threatening to be realised.
But much like the car, the aeroplane and the internet; once humans have found a way to do sex stuff with it, new technology usually gets co-opted by the other big universal industry – war. Drones even seem to have skipped the sex part (unless there’s a weird sort of hovering fleshlight out there on the market – we daren’t Google it to find out) and have been in the hands of the military for years.
The RAF took delivery of its first Reaper drone in October 2007. Just months later, they had branched out from surveillance operations and armed the drones with Hellfire missiles. This being the British military, one of the two drones the RAF possessed crashed in 2008 and special forces had to be sent in to destroy sensitive material.
Since then, and with an expanded fleet, the UK has supposedly only carried out drone strikes in active combat areas (e.g. Afghanistan, Iraq) but there are claims that British personnel have been flying controversial drone operations in Pakistan and Yemen whilst embedded with American units.
More recently drones have been used in the fight against ISIS. Drone strikes were initially carried out in Iraq and, despite military intervention in Syria only being given the go-ahead in December 2015, it seems that a number of those drones have been straying into the country for as much as a year before that.
As of November 2015, the Ministry of Defence was claiming that a total of 305 jihadis had been killed in drone strikes – with no civilian casualties. At first glance an impressive feat, extolling the virtues of this modern, precision weapons system. But when you dig further, it may not be all it seems. The CIA has previously been accused (as in the video below) of defining “combatants” essentially as “adult men” which is terrifyingly broad and may account for that civilian casualty clean-sheet.
It all feeds into a general air of “guilty until proven innocent” which tends to pervade the discussion about suspected ISIS recruits, especially those who have come from Britain. In fact, such a move was openly proposed by part-time London Mayor and full-time Worzel Gummidge sex doll Boris Johnson in 2014. He referred to the reversal of centuries of judicial safeguarding as a “minor change” – something that a man with an education as good as the one he so readily flaunts should know to be complete and utter bollocks.
This presumed guilt reached its nadir in August 2015 when two suspected jihadis, Reyaad Khan and Ruhul Amin were killed in drone strikes. The missile which killed Khan was launched from an RAF drone. A significant moment in the story of this fight, and one which passed by with too little comment at the time. To state the facts plainly the British state killed one of its own citizens without trial, simply based on the presumption of guilt. To muddy the waters further, the strikes took place in Syria, where the British military was supposed not to be operating. No burden of proof could have warranted a clinical assassination, which is what the drone strike was. Regardless of the evidence against these men, if they had been in the UK at the time, arrests would have been attempted. Even in active terrorist situations, an arrest is the prime objective. When two men attempted to bomb Glasgow International Airport in 2007 by ramming their propane-laden car into it, both were taken into custody, albeit with the help of a timely kick from an off-duty baggage handler. And when Lee Rigby was beheaded near Woolwich Barracks in 2013, both perpetrators were apprehended and are currently serving life sentences. In view of these actions, it seems the only reason drones were used is because the targets were in an already war-torn country and those in charge guessed that no-one would care.
It sets a very dangerous precedent for how we deal with suspected jihadis. And let us not forget the errors which have been made previously. Shaker Aamer was released from Guantanamo last year, having been picked up 14 years previously in Afghanistan where he says he was a charity worker. After being held since 2001 without charge and allegedly tortured, his eventual release can only be taken as an admission of fault on the part of the intelligence agencies involved.
The Prime Minister’s attitude towards drones hasn’t always been so easygoing. Lord Ashcroft’s unofficial biography contained a passage in which an ambassador described Cameron watching drones in action during a trip to Afghanistan when he was leader of the opposition.
“I remember we watched a great, fat, gross American [woman] sitting in an armchair, flying a drone and conducting a strike and pressing a button. There were these Taliban – you could see it on the camera – going across the desert, black and white, and then a puff!
“The missile went down. These two wounded people struggled out of the truck, and then the woman pressed the button again, and another missile went down and these people were vaporised.
“Cameron said: ‘Isn’t that a war crime?’ He immediately got it – obviously it was a war crime, it showed the whole pointlessness of the campaign.”
Sadly the revelation was overshadowed by more salacious, pig-related accusations, but it is almost certainly more important. In conventional warfare it’s not easy to apportion blame and establish a definitive narrative of events, but it is possible and people who commit crimes are punished. But when death drops silently and invisibly from the sky, how can witnesses apportion blame? And the security services aren’t likely to give up their records willingly. Even researching this article was tough because of how little information there is out there.
The Prime Minister understood then that the usual rules of war weren’t being applied to drone strikes, but rather than determining to do something about it once in office, he seems to have instead taken it as a lesson in how to behave.
Drone strikes perfectly encapsulate the detachment from the RAF’s current operations. People controlling aircraft which are far away, in far-off countries drop missiles from so far up they can’t be seen and sometimes the targets are far from the right ones, with the strikes far from the rules of war.
As a final thought, we’ll leave you with testimony given to the US Congress by drone strike survivors, one of whom says he now fears clear blue skies, because that is when the drones fly.
For more information on the UK’s drone operations, follow dronewars.net.