A Drone-Wars, Targeted-Killing Primer– 2/2


A Drone Whistleblower’s Story

US Drone Whistleblower
Brandon Bryant, ex-US Air Force drone operator.

According to a report in The Independent on Feb. 8, 2020, Brandon Bryant signed up for a six-year enlistment as a Predator drone operator in the US Airforce. Since his discharge in 2011, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, he speaks out against the killer drone program and the atrocities he says he was forced to inflict during his time in the  American military which he says is “worse than the Nazis.”

This is the Independent‘s account of his testimony to Amy Goodman of Democracy Now.

Mr Bryant says he reached his breaking point with the US military after killing a child in Afghanistan that his superiors told him was “a dog.” Mr Bryant recalls the moment: After firing a Hellfire missile at a building containing his target, he saw a child exit the building just as the missile struck. When he alerted his superiors about the situation after reviewing the tape, he was told “it was a f***ing dog, drop it.”

Bryant describes another Afghan strike that he participated in from a bunker in Nevada:
The smoke clears, and there’s pieces of the two guys around the crater. And there’s this guy over here, and he’s missing his right leg above his knee. He’s holding it, and he’s rolling around, and the blood is squirting out of his leg … It took him a long time to die. I just watched him.
It’s all in a day’s work.

A Brief History of Military Drones

(Principal source: The Bureau of Investigative Journalism) Unmanned aerial attacks date from August 22, 1849, when Austria attacked the Italian city of Venice with unmanned balloons loaded with explosives. Development of remote-control flying machines began soon after the Wright brothers flew the first airplane a decade before the outbreak of the First World WarUnmanned flight technology advanced in the interwar period. The term “drone” was born when the UK developed the Queen Bee, a bi-plane controlled by radio. Like most military drones at that time, the Queen Bee was a remote controlled target for anti-aircraft gunners to use for target practice.

It was the pioneering work of Abraham Karem, an Iraqui-born Jewish aviation genius brought up in Israel from the age of 14, that began the serious development of the modern military drone. Karem graduated in aeronautical engineering from Technion, the Israel Institute of Technology, and built his first drone for the Israeli air force during the Yom Kippur war. He later immigrated to the US where he founded Leading Systems, Inc. in his garage. There he built the Albatross and then the more-sophisticated Amber drone, which was to evolve into today’s Predator. Karem has been described by The Economist as the man who “created the robotic plane that transformed the way modern warfare is waged and continues to pioneer other airborne innovations.” It is largely thanks to Karem that both Israel and the US are leading military drone producers and exporters.

In the late 1950s the US and others began to use unmanned, remotely-piloted aircraft as spy planes. Radio-controlled and fitted with film cameras, these primitive drones flew over China and North Vietnam gathering images without risking the lives of pilots. These early drones were unreliable and expensive, and their operators had to be within range of their analogue radio signals. Communications satellites changed all that. Drones can now be controlled from comfortable bunkers with ergonomic seats located halfway around the world.

The lightweight, long-slender-winged drones’ ability to “loiter” was invaluable in the 1990s, during the US campaign against the former Yugoslavia. There was a shortage of intelligence on Serbian tank and troop movements and US supersonic jets were struggling to spot the Serbian forces in the thick Balkan forests. But the drones could hover for 24 hours at a time, keeping Serbian units under constant surveillance. Combining this loitering with a second advance, the use of transmitters to send the intelligence straight back to battlefield officers and commanding generals, greatly increased battlefield efficiency and shortened that war.

The key to armed drone efficiency is in eliminating the pilots: the drones are subsequently lighter than manned aircraft and they don’t have to land when the operators get tired. A fresh crew just takes over in the comfortable bunker. In 2000 the US took the final leap forward when the Air Force and CIA became the first to successfully fit drones with missiles, as part of a failed CIA attempt to kill Osama bin Laden. These satellite-controlled hunter-killer drones allow pilots to fly their aircraft from half a world away and it allows generals, spies and politicians to watch the war they are waging on the other side of the world, live on TV.

Assassinations, Anyone?

America’s drones have been used as assassination weapons in at least seven countries throughout Washington’s 15-year war on terror. They have been vacuuming up information, feeding the military’s insatiable demand for battlefield intelligence, and finding and killing alleged terrorists and insurgents. Those operations inevitably killed more than their share of innocent civilians, as well.

The US drone war expanded dramatically under President Barack Obama. Responding to evolving militant threats and the greater availability of remote piloting technology, Over the course of his two terms in office Obama ordered ten times more counter-terror strikes than his predecessor, George W Bush. President Obama would sit down periodically with CIA dirty-tricks specialist, John Brennan, to select personally the candidates for drone assassination. According to Joanna Walters, the Guardian correspondent in New York, Barack Obama “has not had a second thought” about the drone strikes that are causing untold numbers of civilian casualties as the US tries to beat back terrorist insurgencies in the Middle East. Obama was so impressed by Brennan that he made him director of the CIA.

The low-footprint nature of drone strikes – which can be carried out without having personnel in the country being hit – made it politically easier for the US to mount operations in places in which it was not at war. Hundreds of CIA and Joint Special Operations Command strikes have been carried out in Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia, killing hundreds–or thousands–of civilians, according to the NGO Airwars. Human rights organisations have criticizeded the targeted killing program for its “clear violations of international humanitarian law.” (Source: Redorbit.com)

Who Has Killer Drones Today?

Dronewars.net provides us with this table of countries (below) currently operating armed drones, either by developing their own models or acquiring them from other countries. They also include ‘non-state actors’ as operators of armed drones, as some groups have developed fairly sophisticated models.


Lowering the Threshold for The Use of Killer Drones

The use of armed drones is touted as a ‘risk-free’ solution to security problems. By using remote-controlled aircraft to take out bad guys far away from our shores, we are told, we are keeping the public as well as our armed forces safe. The reality, however, is that drones are liable to increase insecurity, not reduce it.

Politicians know that the public does not like to see young men and women sent overseas to fight in wars with remote and unclear aims.  Potential TV footage of grieving families awaiting funeral corteges has been a restraint on political leaders weighing up military intervention. Take away that political cost by using Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), and it makes it much easier for politicians to opt for a quick, short-term ‘fix’ of ‘taking out the bad guys’ rather than engaging in the difficult and long-term work of solving the root causes of conflicts through diplomatic and political means.

Transferring the Risk and Cost of War from Soldiers to Civilians

Keeping ‘our boys’ safe through using remotely-controlled drones to launch air strikes comes at a price. Without ‘boots on the ground’ air strikes are inherently more dangerous for civilians on the ground. Despite claims of the defence industry and advocates of drone warfare, it is simply not possible to know precisely what is happening on the ground from thousands of miles away.  While the UK claims, for example, that only one civilian was killed in the thousands of British air and drone strikes in Iraq and Syria, journalist and casualty recording organisations have reported thousands of deaths in Coalition airstrikes.

Expanding the Use of ‘Targeted Killing’

Legal scholars define targeted killing as the deliberate, premeditated killing of selected individuals of a state that is not in  custody. This is, perhaps, the most controversial aspect of the use of armed drones by the United States, Israel and the UK.    Where International Humanitarian Law applies, targeted killing of combatants may be legal. Outside of IHL situations, International Human Rights Law applies and lethal force may only be used when absolutely necessary to save human life that is in imminent danger.  This does not appear to be the case for many of the drone targeted killing that have been carried out, for example, by the US in Pakistan and Yemen.

While some argue that it is the policy of targeted killing that is wrong, not the weapon used to carry out it out, it is very difficult to imagine that the wholesale expansion of targeted killing would have occurred without armed-drone technology.

Seducing Us with the Myth of ‘Precision’

Drones permit, we are told, pin-point accurate air strikes that kill the target while leaving the innocent untouched. Drone advocates seduce us with the notion that we can achieve control over the chaos of war through technology.  The reality is that there is no such thing as a guaranteed accurate airstrike  While laser-guided weapons are without doubt much more accurate than they were even 20 or 30 years ago, the myth of guaranteed precision is just that, a myth.  Even under test conditions, only 50% of weapons are expected to hit within their ‘circular error of probability’. Once the blast radius of weapons is taken into account and indeed how such systems can be affected by things such as the weather, it is clear that ‘precision’ cannot by any means be assured.

Politicians and defence officials too have been seduced by the myth of precision war and are opening up areas that would previously been out of bounds –- due to the presence of civilians –- to air strikes.  Perhaps most telling is the fact that internal military data which counters the prevailing narrative that drones are better than traditional piloted aircraft is simply classified.

Promoting Permanent War

Perhaps the most dangerous aspect of the rise of remote, drone warfare is that it is ushering in a state of forever war.  With no (or very few) troops deployed on the ground and when air strikes can be carried out with impunity by drone operators who then commute home at the end of the day, there is little public or political pressure to bring drone strikes to an end.

Drones are enabling states to carry out attacks with seemingly little reference to international law norms. US law professor Rosa Brooks argued in a disturbing article in Foreign Policy that ‘there’s no such thing as peacetime’ anymore. “Since 9/11,” she writes “it has become virtually impossible to draw a clear distinction between war and not-war.” Rather than challenging the erosion of the boundaries between crucially distinct legal frameworks, Brooks argues that we must simply accept that “the Forever War is here to stay.” To do otherwise she maintains is “largely a waste of time and energy. “Wartime is the only time we have” she insists.

Advocates say the drone programme has saved American lives and reduced the need for messy ground operations like the 2003 invasion of Iraq. But it has also killed hundreds, if not thousands of civilians, according to data collected by the Bureau and the NGO Airwars — a reality which experts have warned could have a radicalising effect on the very societies from which US drones are trying to eliminate extremists. Human rights organisations have lambasted the targeted killing programme for its “clear violations of international humanitarian law.”

Trump Intensified the Drone War in Afghanistan in 2019

Almost 40 strikes hit Afghanistan every day in September of 2019, new Pentagon figures show, working out as more than 1,100 over the month, a significant rise. The number of US strikes not only increased in September, but that jump was dramatic. There were 1,113 strikes compared with 810 strikes in August, and 537 in July. It follows the collapse of US and Taliban peace negotiations in early September. The talks were suspended by President Donald Trump after the killing of a US soldier in Kabul.

Since then, President Trump repeatedly stated he was hitting the Taliban harder. Mark Esper, the current US defence secretary, told reporters that they had “picked up the pace [of operations in Afghanistan] considerably” since the breakdown of the negotiations. “We did step up our attacks on the Taliban since the talks broke down,” Esper told reporters. “The president did want us to pick up in response to the heinous attacks that the Taliban and others conducted throughout Afghanistan.” (Source: Bureau of Investigative Journalism)

For civilians on the ground, the deepening conflict comes at great cost. Recent UN figures show there were over 650 civilian casualties from US strikes in the first nine months of 2019, nearly double the number injured or killed in the same period the previous year. The UN has said civilian casualties in general – not just from air strikes – reached “unprecedented” levels in the 2019 as violence across the country increased. “The harm caused to civilians by the fighting in Afghanistan signals the importance of peace talks leading to a ceasefire and a permanent political settlement to the conflict; there is no other way forward,” Yadamichi Yamamoto, the head of the UN’s mission in Afghanistan, said.

The Irony/Hypocrisy of “Heinous Attacks”

So, while the United States and their coalition of usual suspects hone their killer-drone effectiveness on hundreds or thousands of innocent civilians in Afghanistan and other places across the Middle East, not having declared war on any of them, Mr. Mark Esper permits himself the luxury of denouncing the “heinous attacks” of the Taliban. He would say that, wouldn’t he.


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