Disarmament Insight


Tuesday, 26 August 2008

Remote Controlled Killing: Up Close and Personal

The United States’, along with other states’ armed forces have become increasingly reliant on Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). UAVs have been used extensively in Iraq and Afghanistan and the trend toward employing improved robotics technology and unmanned systems is likely to continue in the near future.

Seated in front of video screens thousands of miles from the theatre of operations, sensor operators and pilots remotely control UAVs by way of a games console or keyboard. Increasingly powerful cameras provide them with good optical pictures of individuals on the ground. The image resolution is high enough to distinguish between a man and a woman. After launching a missile, at the end of their shift, military personnel involved in these operations go home to their families.

Not surprisingly, this way of war-fighting and the high-resolution images of the effects of a UAV attack are taking their toll on the “remote-control warriors,” many of whom suffer from considerable mental stress. One US Colonel explains why:
In a fighter jet, ‘when you come in at 500-600 miles per hour, drop a 500-pound bomb and then fly away, you don't see what happens,’ but when a Predator [a type of UAV] fires a missile, ‘you watch it all the way to impact, and I mean it's very vivid, it's right there and personal. So it does stay in people's minds for a long time.’
High tech, it seems, has brought the reality of war closer to home again. From the perspective of International Humanitarian Law, this is preferable to high altitude bombing insofar as this technology should allow an attacker to better verify whether a target is in fact a military objective and to assess expected incidental loss of civilian lives more accurately.

It also makes war more real and less impersonal for the attacker, a change in perception that may mitigate the dehumanization of the opponent so common in today’s conflicts. Yet, this has nothing to do with the chivalrous concept of face-to-face combat that underlies many of our modern-time rules of warfare – after all, the victim hardly shares the attacker’s sense of proximity.

As to the visualization of weapons effects, both the Ottawa Process leading to the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention and the Oslo Process on Cluster Munitions testify to the powerful impact of images on people’s minds. These processes were successful not least because survivors and campaigners effectively and graphically communicated the impact that mines and cluster munitions have on people.

This has led some cynics to observe that only weapons that have recently caused a humanitarian catastrophe can now successfully be banned. The 1995 Protocol on Blinding Laser Weapons (Protocol IV to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons) is evidence to the contrary. Blinding lasers were banned before they were ever deployed.

Hopefully, we will not have to witness with our own eyes the effects of all emerging weapons technologies before we bring ourselves to outlaw at least those that cause superfluous injury, unnecessary suffering or affect civilians and combatants without discrimination.

Maya Brehm

Photo credit: "Help" by lette_applejuice on Flickr.


Ward Wilson said...

Fascinating point. Goes against the trend over the last thousand years. Roman soldiers had to not only watch their enemies die up close, they had to feel the impact in their arm as the blow went home.

I once wrote a piece comparing some of the battle scene descriptions from Homer with talk about "collateral damage."

Reminds me of Roger Fisher's idea that the codes for launching nuclear weapons be buried in a capsule next to the heart of a young volunteer. In the event of a nuclear strike the President would have to take a knife and carve the capsule out of the volunteer's chest, killing him. If you're not willing to kill a guy face-to-face, you shouldn't be willing to kill millions over the horizon.