Owen Bowcott’s recent article in the Guardian raises very serious issues about the operation of drones that the US uses to attack its enemies around the world. Bowcott reports that United Nations investigator Christof Heyns has told a conference in Geneva that some drone attacks by the US may constitute war crimes. Heyns went on to say that some states “find targeted killings immensely attractive. Others may do so in future … Current targeting practices weaken the rule of law. Killings may be lawful in an armed conflict [such as Afghanistan] but many targeted killings take place far from areas where it's recognised as being an armed conflict”. Heyns also strongly suggests that a secondary drone attack against rescuers coming to the aid of victims of the first attack is a war crime.
The article confined itself to discussion around the legality under international law of the continued use of drone attacks by the West, but what was not discussed was the possibility of the West’s enemies developing drone weapons for use against the US and its allies.
The drones the US use are little more than very expensive and very sophisticated radio controlled aircraft from which missiles can be launched. Their sophistication lies in the fact that they can be controlled from the other side of the planet via satellite and can very accurately launch laser guided missile to a specific target.
While most of the West’s non-state enemies do not have anywhere near the wherewithal to build drones as sophisticated as the West’s, primitive but effective small drones can actually be constructed very cheaply and, because they can be constructed cheaply, rather than using missiles fired from the drone, the low-budget drone itself could become the missile.
All the technology needed to build such a drone already exists. Hot-wire cut foam shapes covered in high strength carbon fibre reinforced epoxies can quickly become an airframe to which can be attached a lightweight motor with a pusher propeller allowing a cheap video camera to be mounted in the nose by which an operator can guide the drone to its target. Such an aircraft would be able to lift several kilograms of explosive fitted with a simple impact trigger or mobile phone trigger. They can be launched from just about anywhere with the operator up to 2 or 3 kilometres away from the target. Model aircraft enthusiasts build and fly such aircraft everyday all over the world. All that needs to be added are explosives and a video camera.
One can only imagine the hue and cry coming from the West when one of these primitive devices are used to assassinate a Western military or political leader or used against multiple targets in which civilians are killed.
The world needs to think very seriously about where we are going with this technology from the point of view of using it to kill ones enemies. If one has enemies than one is an enemy of ones enemies - and what you think might be right for dealing with your enemy, then so your enemy might think he is right to deal with you in the same way. Where will it end?