Drones – What are they good for?


In recent times, the use of remote-controlled unmanned aircraft – so-called drones – has received increased media coverage. Many of the media reports are based on an increasingly extensive military use of drones. The use of drones raises several difficult questions, in many cases along with counter-perceptions.

  • What is a drone?
  • What are drones used for?
  • Who uses drones?
  • What problems do drones have?

2: What is a drone?

A short distance away, drones can be compared to radio-controlled model aircraft. Today, it is also possible to buy small wirelessly controlled (remote-controlled) helicopter-like devices that move by means of several rotors and which are also called drones . But beyond the remote control, the similarities are few with the drones that the media coverage often applies to. Usually these are much larger, they are technically far more advanced and can be used in completely different ways and for a number of different tasks.

Some have rotors for propulsion and maneuvering so that they can, among other things, stand still above the ground. But most are simply unmanned aircraft, most often propeller-driven with a fuselage of several meters and even longer wingspan. Equipped with instruments that indicate the position and continuous camera footage of the ground below, they can be controlled and controlled over large distances. With lightning-fast communications via satellites, many of the drones that the United States uses militarily over Afghanistan are actually controlled by pilots in control rooms in Nevada or Virginia in the United States.

3: What can drones be used for?

The use of drones also for civilian purposes will probably increase sharply in the years to come. This applies to drones of different sizes and designs, and some of them are much simpler than others. Drones are particularly suitable for monitoring and inspection . They can be used to monitor traffic, inspect power lines and oil pipelines, search for missing persons – or criminals on the run . Furthermore, they can show the extent and effects of natural disasters or pollution, possibly bringing supplies and equipment to isolated persons in hard-to-reach places.

And because the drones do not have a pilot on board, they can be used when extreme weather conditions – for the sake of the pilot’s safety – make it too dangerous to use manned aircraft or helicopters. In many cases, the use of drones for such tasks will also fall significantly cheaper than the use of helicopters.

It has been pointed out that the civilian use of drones may open up for uses that involve a questionable intrusion into the area of ​​privacy . This takes place, for example, when public enterprises conduct police investigations. In addition, we can imagine that some private actors, among them criminals , will benefit from using drones. Among other things, there are fears of the development of tiny but very advanced drones that can be sent in through open windows and doors to contribute to intrusion into people’s privacy .

4: Who has and uses drones?

For the time being, however, the military’s most extensive use of drones is taking place. Military in a number of countries , probably well over 50 and among them Norway, has now acquired drones. Admittedly with big differences in quality and in terms of what they can be used for. The leader in the field is the United States. Israel is also technically at the forefront of drone development and is the world’s largest exporter of drones to other countries.

The military use of drones is in most countries limited to surveillance . Of the most modern drones, some can stay flying over a given area and monitor this for more than a day. Both the United States and Israel have also developed drones that can also attack targets on the ground by firing rockets at them. Israel has used such offensive drones against targets in Gaza.

In Afghanistan, a number of countries use drones for surveillance and reconnaissance in the war against the Taliban. And two of them, the United States and Britain, are also using drones against the Taliban and al-Qaeda targets in the country. The targets could be, for example, Taliban insurgents preparing an armed operation against NATO forces , or well-known al-Qaeda leaders being killed in so-called ” targeted killings .” The number of American drone attacks on such targets is far higher than British; in 2012, the number increased sharply – to as many as 506.

5: Without being at war with

Unlike the United Kingdom, the United States also uses attack drones against Taliban and al-Qaeda targets in Pakistan , mainly in the border areas with Afghanistan. Of these attacks, many have been of the type of targeted killings. This is happening under the auspices of the American intelligence organization CIA. And it is precisely with the use of attack drones against targets in countries that one is not at war with , that difficult questions arise in today’s military use of drones.

The first US drone strike on targets in Pakistan took place as early as 2004. But it was not until 2008 that drone strikes escalated sharply . It happened in agreement with the Pakistani authorities, who saw such attacks as useful in combating the Taliban’s growing influence along the border with Afghanistan. However, two problems with such attacks eventually changed the attitude of the Pakistani authorities.

Several of the attacks led to the civilians , sometimes children among them, were hit and killed. Although drone attacks can be carried out with very high accuracy, it does not rule out the danger of errors. When the “pilot” – the remote control – is sitting safely in a control room on the ground, he or she can better investigate a possible attack target on the ground before an attack, probably more undisturbed and for longer than a pilot in an aircraft. The camera in the drone continuously transmits images of the target area. In that case, it reduces the risk of making a mistake, but does not eliminate it .

In Pakistan, it turned out over time, as in Afghanistan, that drone strikes repeatedly killed people who were not meant to be hit. Sometimes it was due to civilians who were too close to the target, perhaps hidden from the drone camera. Other attacks have been based on incorrect advance information. In some cases, the Taliban or al-Qaeda fighters who were the target have simply been too important to let the consideration of others nearby stand in the way of the possibility of taking them off days when it presented itself.

Estimates of how many civilians have been killed in the so far around 350 drone strikes in Pakistan vary widely. But even very conservative estimates indicate at least 10 percent of a total of between two and three thousand killed in these attacks. In some attacks, the percentage has been much higher. At the same time, news coverage in Pakistan has often tended to further increase the numbers of civilian casualties – with reactions to the attacks accordingly. Rising outrage over civilian casualties in drone strikes has led to growing opposition to them in significant sections of Pakistan’s population.

6: National resentment and growing anti-Americanism

Rising resentment and resistance helped exacerbate the second problem of drone strikes in Pakistan: Many Pakistanis felt that the United States, through drone use and other activities on Pakistani soil, was taking action and setting aside Pakistani sovereignty over its own territory. Along with the outrage over the killing of civilians , this reinforced anti-American attitudes. These eventually gained access to the Pakistani authorities as well. This contributed to a more difficult climate
in US-Pakistani relations.

In a US helicopter attack in November 2011, 24 Pakistani soldiers were killed . As a result, the United States and NATO’s supply lines through Pakistan into Afghanistan were closed. The same thing happened with a US drone base in Pakistan. The drone strikes in Pakistan were then stopped. However, they were resumed only two months later, against protests from the Pakistani authorities – but perhaps also in implicit understanding with the Pakistani authorities who still prioritize fighting the Taliban.

In any case, the US drone strikes on targets in Pakistan have led to an increasingly strong general condemnation of such attacks among the Pakistani people. They have fueled anti-American attitudes there and made relations between the Pakistani and US authorities more difficult. Recently, Pakistan’s ambassador in Washington reportedly informed the US authorities that the political parties in Pakistan have now agreed that the drone attacks in the country must stop .

7: Spreading

But the Americans use drones in more countries than Pakistan without these constituting war zones in which American soldiers participate. Since 2008, the United States has carried out nearly 70 drone strikes in Yemen – not even a war zone. The same applies to some drone attacks in Somalia , where there is civil war, but without the United States as a direct party. And in both Saudi Arabia and Ethiopia , the United States has established new bases for the use of drones, and most recently one in Niger . This could lead to the Americans using attack drones in even more countries that do not constitute war zones where the United States is a party to the war.

It is easy to understand a temptation to expand the use of drone attacks to new countries where current targets may otherwise be difficult to hit. No pilot will be captured if things go wrong, nor will it always be necessary to take responsibility if the attacks succeed; the evidence of where they came from may be lacking. You can end surveillance and any attacks whenever you want.

You can also avoid being involved in a war situation on the ground, from which it can be difficult to withdraw. In addition, the use of attack drones without a permit probably seems less provocative than the uninvited use of attack aircraft. With drones, one can probably hunt for and destroy targets on the ground without creating anything close to a war situation.

8: Drones and international law

An expanded use of attack drones against ground targets – to new countries that are not war zones, will reinforce the difficult questions that the use of drones raises. One of them concerns the relationship to international law . The UN Special Rapporteur on Anti-Terrorism and Human Rights , Ben Emmerson, recently upheld the Pakistani authorities’ claim that the US drone strikes in the country violate the country’s sovereignty. But just as the United States justifies the attacks does not necessarily mean that drone use is in violation of international law.

On the contrary, the United States claims that the right to self-defense in international law allows such drone strikes: the United States is at war with a counterpart, al-Qaeda and international terrorism, which operates globally and in a number of countries. And this gives the United States the right to kill al-Qaeda-linked individuals who pose a clear threat to the United States, when such individuals are in countries that are unable or unwilling to put them out of action.

This is a powerful argument. But how durable is it? Not everyone accepts this argument, and in the future, those who do may become even fewer. Will friends and allies of the United States find it more difficult to accept US drone strikes in countries where there is no war with the United States as a participating party? Especially if the attacks increasingly appear to be partly covert warfare in violation of international law’s rules of war and state sovereignty.

The many targeted killings with drone attacks contribute to the problem here. These have also been called extrajudicial executions . In the United States itself, such attacks have been widely criticized by some for killing US citizens. The US Constitution guarantees all US citizens a trial before a verdict. But what about the many other targeted drone killings – against non-Americans? Do they always rely on good enough information – especially when we see a nascent tendency to expand which individuals and groups are considered affiliated with al-Qaeda?

9: Drones – good for reputation?

Another difficult question concerns how American drone attacks will affect local public opinion if they are used in more countries than today. Will it trigger similar reactions with anti-American sting also in countries other than Pakistan? In the worst case, can it contribute to growing support and increased recruitment to environments that by force seek to fight the United States and its interests – perhaps “Western” interests in general? Can the reactions to such drone attacks be so strong that it increases the threats that the attacks are to combat?

According to sunglasseswill.com, the former US Commander-in-Chief in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal , recently stated that the resentment that extensive US use of drone strikes creates in many parts of the world is much greater than ordinary Americans realize. Furthermore, he suggested that the use of such attacks could create more problems than it solves. Can the tendency to expand who is considered affiliated with al-Qaeda increase the danger of doing just that by creating a suspicion, unwarranted or not, that drone strikes are being used against more than just pure al-Qaeda and terrorist targets ?

One last, serious question: What will happen when more countries, and countries outside the group of allies and close friends of the United States, acquire attack drones and the ability to use them against ground targets as the United States and Britain now do? Will these be tempted to copy the United States’ use of assault drones ashore to outside war zones, and then to ground targets they see themselves served by destroying – perhaps even for reasons of international law similar to the American one?

Could such use of assault drones be directed at the interests of the United States and its allies and friends? Is it perhaps high time to seek to put in place an international agreement and regulations that more strongly limit the use of attack drones, and bring this clearly within the rules of international law?