Targeted killing as a first resort outside active hostilities

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No Precedent


No causal link between U.S. drone doctrine and other’ countries choices---means can’t set a precedent

Kenneth Anderson 11, Professor of International Law at American University, 10/9/11, “What Kind of Drones Arms Race Is Coming?,”

New York Times national security correspondent Scott Shane has an opinion piece in today’s Sunday Times predicting an “arms race” in military drones. The methodology essentially looks at the US as the leader, followed by Israel – countries that have built, deployed and used drones in both surveillance and as weapons platforms. It then looks at the list of other countries that are following fast in US footsteps to both build and deploy, as well as purchase or sell the technology – noting, correctly, that the list is a long one, starting with China. The predicament is put this way:

Eventually, the United States will face a military adversary or terrorist group armed with drones, military analysts say. But what the short-run hazard experts foresee is not an attack on the United States, which faces no enemies with significant combat drone capabilities, but the political and legal challenges posed when another country follows the American example. The Bush administration, and even more aggressively the Obama administration, embraced an extraordinary principle: that the United States can send this robotic weapon over borders to kill perceived enemies, even American citizens, who are viewed as a threat.

Is this the world we want to live in?” asks Micah Zenko, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Because we’re creating it.”

By asserting that “we’re” creating it, this is a claim that there is an arms race among states over military drones, and that it is a consequence of the US creating the technology and deploying itand then, beyond the technology, changing the normative legal and moral rules in the international community about using it across borders. In effect, the combination of those two, technological and normative, forces other countries in strategic competition with the US to follow suit. (The other unstated premise underlying the whole opinion piece is a studiously neutral moral relativism signaled by that otherwise unexamined phrase “perceived enemies.” Does it matter if they are not merely our “perceived” but are our actual enemies? Irrespective of what one might be entitled to do to them, is it so very difficult to conclude, even in the New York Times, that Anwar al-Awlaki was, in objective terms, our enemy?)

It sounds like it must be true. But is it? There are a number of reasons to doubt that moves by other countries are an arms race in the sense that the US “created” it or could have stopped it, or that something different would have happened had the US not pursued the technology or not used it in the ways it has against non-state terrorist actors. Here are a couple of quick reasons why I don’t find this thesis very persuasive, and what I think the real “arms race” surrounding drones will be.

Unmanned aerial vehicles have clearly got a big push from the US military in the way of research, development, and deployment. But the reality today is that the technology will transform civil aviation, in many of the same ways and for the same reasons that another robotic technology, driverless cars (which Google is busily plying up and down the streets of San Francisco, but which started as a DARPA project). UAVs will eventually move into many roles in ordinary aviation, because it is cheaper, relatively safer, more reliable – and it will eventually include cargo planes, crop dusting, border patrol, forest fire patrols, and many other tasks. There is a reason for this – the avionics involved are simply not so complicated as to be beyond the abilities of many, many states. Military applications will carry drones many different directions, from next-generation unmanned fighter aircraft able to operate against other craft at much higher G stresses to tiny surveillance drones. But the flying-around technology for aircraft that are generally sizes flown today is not that difficult, and any substantial state that feels like developing them will be able to do so.

But the point is that this was happening anyway, and the technology was already available. The US might have been first, but it hasn’t sparked an arms race in any sense that absent the US push, no one would have done this. That’s just a fantasy reading of where the technology in general aviation was already going; Zenko’s ‘original sin’ attribution of this to the US opening Pandora’s box is not a credible understanding of the development and applications of the technology. Had the US not moved on this, the result would have been a US playing catch-up to someone else. For that matter, the off-the-shelf technology for small, hobbyist UAVs is simple enough and available enough that terrorists will eventually try to do their own amateur version, putting some kind of bomb on it.

Moving on from the avionics, weaponizing the craft is also not difficult. The US stuck an anti-tank missile on a Predator; this is also not rocket science. Many states can build drones, many states can operate them, and crudely weaponizing them is also not rocket science. The US didn’t spark an arms race; this would occur to any state with a drone. To the extent that there is real development here, it lies in the development of specialized weapons that enable vastly more discriminating targeting. The details are sketchy, but there are indications from DangerRoom and other observers (including some comments from military officials off the record) that US military budgets include amounts for much smaller missiles designed not as anti-tank weapons, but to penetrate and kill persons inside a car without blowing it to bits, for example. This is genuinely harder to do – but still not all that difficult for a major state, whether leading NATO states, China, Russia, or India. The question is whether it would be a bad thing to have states competing to come up with weapons technologies that are … more discriminating.

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