A History of Targets and Toys
Ironically some of the first drones were target vehicles used in the training of anti-aircraft crews. One of the earliest of these was the British DH.82 Queen Bee, a variant of the Tiger Moth trainer aircraft operational from 1935. Its apicultural name led to the present term “drone.” In the 1940s, the mass production of the American actor and inventor, Reginald Denny, and the engineer Walter Righter’s “Radioplane” target drone led to the widespread adoption of radio controlled aircraft by the military for not only training AAA gunners but also combat roles from the Pacific Theatre in WW2 through to the present day. The “Dennyplane”, a mid-1930s pre-cursor to the “Radioplane,” brought model airplanes to the masses in a post-depression, pre-war U.S. and was an important forerunner to modern drone technology.
The Drone’s Presence in Vietnam
During the Vietnam War (1964- 75) the U.S. Army flew the little-known BQM-34A drone, which racked up some 3,500 missions, at a cost of more than 550 drones lost. The BQM-34A launched AGM-65 Maverick missiles and GBU-8 Stubby Hobo glide bomb. The drone was flown by a ground operator in a remote control van using a nose TV camera: since the weapons were electro-optically guided the operator could switch screen from the “drone view” to the “weapon view” to guide it to the target.
In the 1980’s the world’s armies began to consider further updating of unmanned aircraft in a serious light. The Israeli victory over the Syrian Air Force in 1982 was thanks, in part, to the use of armed drones in destroying a dozen Syrian aircraft on the ground. Then, in 1986 the U.S. and Israel collaborated on the creation of the RQ2 Pioneer, a medium-sized reconnaissance unmanned aircraft.
Fifteen years later, near the end of the first year of the George W. Bush presidency, a small, remote-control airplane called a Predator left a base in Uzbekistan, crossed the border into Afghanistan and started tracking a convoy of vehicles believed to be carrying jihadi leaders along a road in Kabul. A group of officers and spies, monitoring the streamed images from inside a trailer in a parking lot at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, watched the convoy stop outside a building. With the push of a button in Langley, the Predator fired a Hellfire missile at the building, the back half of which exploded. Seven survivors of the blast were seen fleeing to another nearby structure. A second Hellfire destroyed that shelter, too. Among the dead was Mohammed Atef, al-Qaida’s military chief and Osama Bin Laden’s son-in-law. Now, after the Atef killing, the modern era of the armed drone had begun.
This Brings Us up to Obama
When President Obama settled into the White House on January 20, 2009 he found that President Bush had left him a legacy, a thriving drone assassination program operating in various Middle-East countries. Obama was fascinated with his gift and in the first year of his presidency launched more of these lethal drone strikes than Bush had done during his full two terms of office, concretely 563 strikes, as compared to Bush’s 57. (When I say “Obama launched” I am not referring merely to his authoritative, responsible position in the government organization chart. I’m talking about President Obama’s hands-on role in the selection of drone assassination candidates. The nominations, pre-selected by longtime CIA dirty-tricks specialist, John Brennan, went to the White House where the President signed off on every strike in Yemen and Somalia and also on the more complex and risky strikes in Pakistan — about a third of the total. Brennan was not left unrewarded; President Obama later appointed him director of the CIA. The most reliable information we have regarding the victims of these attacks during Obama’s two terms in office indicates that between 384 and 9807 civilians were killed by U.S. American drones in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen.
These statistics do not include deaths on active battlefields including Afghanistan – where US air attacks shot up after Obama withdrew the majority of U.S. troops at the end of 2014. Afghanistan has subsequently come under frequent US bombardment, in an unreported war that saw 1,337 pieces of ordnance dropped in 2016 alone – a 40% rise on 2015. The Obama administration insisted consistently that drone strikes are so “exceptionally surgical and precise” that they eliminate terrorists without putting “innocent men, women and children in danger.” There is more than a little doubt as to the veracity of this claim, which has been contested by various human rights groups.
The controversy over drones during the Obama administration reached an early flashpoint in 2011, when a U.S. citizen in Yemen by the name of Anwar Al-Awlaki was assassinated by a drone, followed two weeks later by the U.S. killing of his 16-year-old son. It was another two years before Obama’s Department of Justice released a white paper that detailed its legal argument sanctioning Al-Awlaki’s murder. As the ACLU’s Jameel Jaffer explained, the paper said the government would only target “imminent” threats, and only when “capture was unfeasible.” But in practice, Jaffer noted, the administration used an extremely expansive definition of “imminent” that “deprives the word of its ordinary meaning.” “Without saying so explicitly,” Jaffer worried, the government was effectively claiming “the authority to kill American terrorism suspects in secret,” virtually anywhere in the world.
President Trump’s Leap Forward
The New York Times reported in late September that the Trump administration is relaxing Obama-era restrictions on who can be targeted and removing a requirement that strikes receive high-level vetting before they’re carried out. According to the paper, the new rules would also “ease the way to expanding such gray-zone acts of sporadic warfare” into new countries, expanding the program’s already global footprint.
In addition to increasing the pace of these operations, the Trump administration has also loosened guidelines designed to protect civilians in areas like Yemen and Somalia, and overseen a notable increase in civilian casualties in war zones like Iraq and Syria.
In this environment, rescinding the Obama administration’s already lax restrictions on drone attacks — coupled with Trump’s overt and express disregard for human rights and the rule of law — is clearly cause for concern.
Where Is Trump Taking the Drone Wars?
While the United States is the dominant user and developer of military drones, its role as an exporter of these systems is limited due to laws restricting their sales. An August 2017 article on Defense News.com announced, “For months, rumors have floated among both the defense industry and arms control communities that the Trump administration plans to change the 2015 export law that controls what unmanned aerial vehicles can be sold to allies.”