30 March 2010

Throughout the MyWar exhibition, FACT will be publishing guest blog posts from looking at war and politics in the media. Matthew Taylor is a "twentysomething lawyer with interests in arts, music, philosophy, politics, and sci/tech...

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The 1991 Kuwait War involved a display of western military technology that systematically out classed the Iraqi forces against which it was deployed. Such was the technological mismatch that one French philosopher argued that "The Gulf War Did Not Take Place", on the basis that what had occurred - with technology distancing Coalition troops from the battlefield as never before - was not a war.

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But the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq have shown off another significant shift in military technology, creating further distance between the realities of conflict and the experience of some soldiers. The mass deployment of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and their armed cousins, unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs), have brought new capabilities to the battlefield. American and British forces deploying them now rely on these robotic weapons to provide surveillance and conduct ground attacks.

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It's easy to see why UAVs and UCAVs are being deployed so much. No pilot is placed at risk, and the drones have far greater endurance than manned aircraft. They are also far cheaper: one MQ9 Reaper, an armed evolution of the famous Predator drone, costs just $10 million, compared to $90 million for the new F35 aircraft that the US and UK are buying to replace their Harriers. There are also less obvious benefits. UAVs and UCAVs are often fought via satellite links from the United States, allowing pilots and intelligence analysts to be based outside of conflict zones.

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That flexibility has it downsides. Just as the insurgency in Iraq, and the resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan, blurred the lines between combatants and non-combatants in those countries, the use of UCAVs increasingly has that effect on Western militaries and intelligence agencies. Many of the UCAVs deployed by the United States in Afghanistan are controlled by the CIA, not the American military - even though these drones are conducting routine airstrikes on targets within Afghanistan itself, and in Pakistan, a country which is supposedly an American ally.

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American drone strikes in Pakistan are not routinely discussed by the US government, nor are they easily reported by the media. The difficult terrain and a hostile local population means that it can be days or weeks before news of a strike emerges, and there is often no proper investigation of the claims made. It is clear that civilians are regularly killed in these strikes, but so are members of terrorist organisations.

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In February of this year, the New America Foundation published a report into civilian casualties from US drone attacks in Northern Pakistan. On the basis of their research, the authors estimated a civilian casualty rate of 32 percent, meaning that since 2004 at least 250 (and perhaps more than 350) civilians have been killed in drone strikes. An accompanying website documents the ongoing programme of US attacks by drone aircraft in Northern Pakistan.

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The increasing use of drone aircraft has raised concerns about their legality and legitimacy. In July last year, a former Law Lord  argued that they might yet be placed in the same category as landmines and cluster bombs, weapons which are "...thought to be so cruel as to be beyond the pale of human tolerance." Later that month, the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Philip Alston, presented a report in which he noted a failure by various countries to respond to requests for information on drone attacks, and stated that he would examine the law which governs the use of UCAVs for "targeted killings".

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The MyWar exhibition looks primarily at the way civilians experience conflict, given the way digital media has changed how we receive information. But the growth in the use of UCAVs and UAVs has a similar effect for some soldiers and commanders. The experience of a UCAV operator sitting in an air conditioned room in Nevada watching a video screen, is starkly different from that of a pilot living in the heat and threat of Bagram Airfield, or an infantryman patrolling villages in Helmand province.

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However these challenges are addressed, it is certain that future wars will increasingly send in the drones.
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