Games without Frontiers, War without Tears: More US Pilots Are Now Being Trained to Fly Drones Than Conventional Jets. but Given That "The Most Precision Weapons in History" Kill So Many Civilians, Should They Be Legal?

Article excerpt

The recent news that President Barack Obama presides over a secret kill-list, which has sentenced thousands to death by drone, has disturbed many. Torture and extraordinary rendition under George W Bush, it turns out, have been replaced with industrial-scale extrajudicial execution by his successor, as many view it.

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Today, CIA and Pentagon armed drones range at will over Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, seeking out alleged terrorists. These wars are "secret" only in that they are removed from proper accountability. White House and CIA officials brag in selective leaks about drones' effectiveness, even as they use the courts to block close scrutiny. Lawyers and journalists seeking to expose the truth have been smeared. Mounting evidence of hundreds of civilian casualties is pushed aside. And, until now, the compliant US media have barely raised a whisper.

No wonder Obama's re-election team seeks to present him as the warrior president, the decapitator of al-Qaeda. Domestic US opinion polls show 83 per cent support for the covert drone war; those unmanned killing machines may help put Obama back in the White House. And yet, like in the case of Guantanamo, there may be a devastating cost to the international reputation of the United States.

The armed drone, or unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), is the defining weapon of America's seemingly endless global "war on terror", just as the tank once symbolised an earlier conflict. The CIA used weaponless drones in the 199os during the Balkan wars, but there were grave concerns at the implications of slinging missiles under their wings. Only in the summer of 2001 did the CIA practise bombing a mock-up of Osama Bin Laden's Afghan training camp out in the Nevada Desert. And just days before 11 September 2001, the CIA and the Pentagon were still bickering over who should control the drones programme. Neither wanted the responsibility for extrajudicial killings.

No wonder, with Bush's state department bluntly telling Israel a fortnight earlier: "We remain opposed to targeted killings. We think Israel needs to understand that targeted killings of Palestinians don't end the violence." That principle was soon ditched, along with many others. The first weaponised Predator took to the skies above Afghanistan just days after the atrocities of 9/11. The first US extrajudicial targeted killing by drone took place in Yemen the following year. Since then, more than 3,000 people have died in roughly 400 covert drone strikes by the US.

Most drone strikes take place within conventional warfare. Hundreds of armed US UAVs--and a handful of British ones--now patrol the skies above Afghanistan. Satellite control direct from the US is near-instant, as the pilot and navigator sit in air-conditioned comfort at an ever-expanding network of air force bases. More US pilots are now being trained to fly drones than for conventional fighter and bomber jets. Little wonder that the sequel to Tony Scott's Top Gun is likely to be set on a drone base, a world where "kids play war games" by day "and then they party all night".

Until recently, only one company was making lethal drones for the US: the privately owned General Atomics. It is unknown quite how many billions of dollars Washington has spent on the Predator and its bigger, faster successor the Reaper. The company's accounts are not publicly available.

We do know that the General Atomics production lines in San Diego work day and night to churn out these ungainly killers. The only approved rival is in the form of a tiny hand-launched aircraft being "trialled" by US special forces in Afghanistan. The Switchblade by AeroVironment is better known as "the kami-kaze drone", because it can be flown into a crowd of opponents and detonated.

Firing line

Great claims are made about the effectiveness of the Predator and Reaper, and US officials frequently tout drones as being "the most precise weapon in the history of warfare". …