Saturday, July 09, 2011

Bernd Debusmann: America’s problematic remote control wars

America’s problematic remote control wars
by Bernd Debusmann

The United States is deploying missile-laden remotely piloted aircraft to kill enemies in six countries, scientists are working on ever more sophisticated military robots, and there are a host of unanswered questions on the future of warfare. Some of the more intriguing ones are asked abroad.

Such as: “Is the Reaper operator walking the streets of his home town after a shift a legitimate target as a combatant? Would an attack (on him) by a Taliban sympathizer be an act of war under international law or murder under the statutes of the home state? Does the person who has the right to kill as a combatant while in the control station cease to be a combatant on his way home?”

This comes from a study by Britain’s Ministry of Defence and refers to the air war waged by U.S. pilots who operate, from bases in the United States, heavily-armed drones flying over Afghanistan or Pakistan 7,500 miles away. The Reaper is the workhorse of the drone fleet, which has grown from around 50 a decade ago to more than 7,000 today. It is increasing at a fast clip, unaffected by defense spending cuts in other areas.

Most of the drone missions for the military are flown from Creech Air Force base near Las Vegas. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has a separate, covert, program that critics see as targeted assassinations. The CIA’s drones are operated from northern Virginia. The pilots, sitting in cockpits in front of television monitors, run no physical risks whatever, a novelty for men engaged in war.

Debate over the remote-control air wars — drones are now in action over Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Iraq, Libya and Somalia – has been largely confined to academia and think tanks, both civilian and military. But reports this week that the CIA had extended drone strikes to Somalia have prompted calls for a closer examination of where war ends and assassinations begin.

It is not an issue, however, that strikes a chord with the public and U.S. politicians are largely in favor of drone strikes. They are seen as an inexpensive way of targeting enemies, with no risk to the lives of American personnel. The downside to the seemingly risk-free elimination of Taliban fighters, al Qaeda militants and assorted other anti-American elements is of little apparent concern in the U.S.

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