Monday 29 April 2013

Why drone on about drones?

Last weekend, the British media suddenly discovered that the RAF is flying American-built drones. They made this discovery because, on Saturday, there was a march from Lincoln to nearby RAF Waddington to protest about the use of these drones.

The demonstration was not that large (estimates vary between 200 and 600 people), but it has at least served the purpose of raising awareness of the issue. The puzzle is why it was not until this demonstration that the media realised the RAF had any drones at all.

The RAF operates a fleet of ten Reaper drones. The aircraft are all based in Afghanistan but are operated remotely. The first five have been operated since 2007 by the RAF’s No.39 Squadron, which is based at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada but is due to relocate to RAF Waddington. The second five entered service this week, and are operated by No.13 Squadron based at Waddington.

The Guardian claimed on Saturday that it had “revealed” this news last Thursday. It did no such thing. Britain’s ownership of drones is not a state secret but has been in the public domain from the beginning.

The media’s belated realisation that Britain has drones is not the only puzzle. The other mystery is why drones are considered an issue at all.

The objections to drones boil down to the following:
  • No pilots are risking their lives – a good thing, surely?
  • The risk of civilian casualties – no greater a risk than with conventional aircraft. In both cases, the point is to use such weapons accurately and within clear rules of engagement.
  • The use of drones for targeted assassinations – no moral difference to any other method of assassination. In any case, unlike American drones, the RAF’s are not being used for this purpose.
  • The use of drones by the security services rather than the military – again, something that America does but not Britain.
  • The use of drones to continue the ‘War on Terror’ – well, yes, but so are all the other armed forces. The problem is the strategy, not the weapons systems.
  • The risk that RAF Waddington will become a ‘target’ – far less risk than during the cold war, when nuclear-armed Vulcan bombers were based at Waddington. Unlike during the cold war, however, a sturdy wire fence should provide ample protection.
  • The use of drones avoids public scrutiny or accountability – how? Political decisions on military matters are subject to the same scrutiny and accountability regardless of the weapons systems. This scrutiny and accountability may well be deficient but, if so, there is no evidence that the problem is unique to drones.
The point is not drones per se but that, like any other weapons system, they should be used legitimately and properly. Saturday’s demonstration missed this point and diverted attention away from the main issue, which is the counter-productive strategy of the ‘War on Terror’. Rather ironic, is it not, that the demonstrators missed the target?

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