The use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) or drones, for better or worse, is becoming a reality in the military. The use of drones is highly controversial and inherently unpredictable over the long term. The edge of the technological frontier can be considered a door that rarely can be closed once opened.
For some time now, the Canadian Forces has been pursuing the prioritization of UAVs in Defence spending, while making their case to the Commons and Senate defence-related committees. The drone program is in its infancy, but looks to be bolstered quietly by the Liberal government. Spending on drones was however part of the Liberal Party’s publicized platform in the 2015 election. The opposition to UAVs is generally focused on its offensive use, but also comprises the risk of how they could potentially be used.
The Canadian Forces are pushing for strike capability in at least some of its drone program, but the majority of foreseen operations will be patrol and reconnaissance along Canada’s coasts and in the arctic. There are many military defensive and even humanitarian advantages or capabilities created with the advent of the drone. Economically or from a budget perspective, it uses capital expenditures to reduce operating costs as drones supplant the use of planes or Special Forces missions. The monitoring of Canada’s borders will be bolstered with increased capacity and cost efficiency.
There’s the reduction in the number of “boots on the ground” in foreign conflicts, though that is a double-edged sword — the risk being the consequences of disassociation of a population to the conflicts in which their country fights. This isn’t to say the horrors of conflict don’t affect drone operators — U.S. drone operators suffer Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder just as often as average ground troops — but one must worry about it becoming a “video game mentality” as the use becomes normalized. Army, Navy and Air Forces are given very agile reconnaissance capabilities that can also be used for search and rescue, particularly in remote areas. It can act as an artillery support unit for ground troops or to directly engage vehicles, ships and other strategic targets. Scouting, targeting, communications reception, and even support through supply drops could be logistical uses of drones as well. It’s easily foreseeable for drones to be used as a form of countermeasure for missile or artillery defense as well.
Supporters of drone expansion would also argue that because of its reconnaissance and relatively precise targeting capability, drones have the humanitarian benefit of causing less civilian casualties or collateral damage. On its flip side, it could lead the military to strike where it previously wouldn’t have due to the proximity of civilians. In an age where terrorist members hide within civilian communities or even use human shields, the collateral risk versus the tactical benefit is a constant game of what British WWII code-breaker Alan Turing called bloody calculus. In the current context of the U.S.-led War on Terror, limiting civilian casualties is a crucial factor in maintaining the legitimacy of drone use – at least to try to assuage criticisms.
One of the specific allegations against the use of drones is that their use violates international law by breaching the territorial integrity of sovereign nations without that country’s permission (though it should be noted that some foreign governments authorize it, as they are often fighting the same groups). If a foreign military had bombed a country using a plane, artillery or other traditional means the legal consequences would be fairly stern, but somehow drone use has not been treated as seriously.
The fact that the war on terror is not state-vs-state combat creates a gray area over what types of international laws and treaties should be respected. For example, the designation of “enemy combatant” placed on alleged terrorists captured by the U.S. does not mean “prisoner of war” where Geneva Convention and other U.N. treaties on the treatment of prisoners kicks in. Nor does it mean “criminal”, where civilian criminal law would try those captured, but at the same time grant a defendant legal rights.
The existence of places such as the Guantanamo Bay detainment facility in Cuba and the treatment documented in Abu Ghraib undermines the legitimacy of foreign interventions.
The drone killing of a U.S. citizen turned terrorist prompted Kentucky Senator Rand Paul to demand the U.S. Federal government elaborate their drone policy as it pertained to the government’s right to kill one of its citizens domestically and abroad (and if so, under what circumstances and oversight). The covert use of drones against targets, both domestic and foreign, is an inherent risk. The government and military use of UAVs prompts warnings of the increasing surveillance state and data collection, by giving government the means for privacy and civil rights abuses. This is why it is important that governments build in and articulate oversight and privacy safe guards instead of just the purported benefits to security.
Perhaps the most hazardous undercurrent to the drone age is that it’s a politically advantageous position to have, relative to putting troops into harm’s way. It’s a position where a politician can be a war hawk but from a distance. This is countered, however, with the knowledge that the countries that adopt drones will have a tactical advantage over those that don’t — and if conflict is inevitable it’s better to have them than not. The inherent risk of the attitude that “it’s better to have it so you don’t have to use it” is that its presence may become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The risk of psychological distancing is equally concerning not for drone operators themselves but those further up the chain of command. Confederate General Robert E. Lee once said “It is well that war is so terrible, otherwise we should grow too fond of it” — a warning still relevant today.