Monday, 8 July 2013

Security, Sovereignty and Strategy - Exploring Unmanned Warfare

MQ-1 Predator in action 

Unmanned aerial vehicles (or as mainstream refer to them as "drones") have received particularly controversy among scholars and thinkers into the conduct of the War on Terror. Whilst George W. Bush initially started the use of UAVs to target-specific individuals in the rocky, mountainous Pak-Afghan border, under the Obama administration the use of UAV as a component in the War against Terror has grown substantially. What, then, is the source for this controversy and how does one answer the questions of target-specific individuals, breaches of national sovereignty and the consequences of this strategy?

The two most prominent UAV aircraft are the MQ-1 Predator and the MQ-9 Reaper which are remotely controlled by a pilot which is typically at a FOB (Forward Operating Base) or can potentially be across the globe. The information the pilot receives are through visual images and flight data via a satellite link to control the aircraft. The munition that the these two aircraft typically possess are the hellfire missile, a precision-guided missile that, when a target has been targeted by the pilot, has a very high likelihood of striking it and are able to cause less collateral damage. Their ability to survey an area by circulating a particular radius around a target gives an advantage in the irregular battlefield, to be able to identify and strike a target with a relatively little window of opportunity. This makes them highly favourable in comparison to cruise-missiles or manned fixed-wing aircraft.

Application in the irregular battlefield 

Whilst the technology for UAV aircraft aren't new, the tactical landscape and their application is and with that, a myriad of controversy has surfaced. The main strategic aspect of the use of unmanned aircraft is their ability to neutralize a target-specific individual. These individuals are the conclusion of intelligence gathering and their influence within the command structure, whether it be al-Qaeda in Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan, Taliban insurgents or any other entity that doesn't identify themselves with a corresponding army insignia and uniform. Those who argue against target-specific killing, where one makes a decision to kill on the basis of an individual's relationships and attaching culpability, this operation alienates legal due process and are thus "summary executions". Perhaps the most relevant example would be Anwar al-Awlaki, a US citizen, who was considered to be the strategic head of media operations of al-Qaeda and regional commander of al-Qaeda Yemen and was killed by a hellfire missile by a MQ-1 Predator. The argument is that this was an assassination and not a target-specific killing. However, the decision to neutralize al-Awlaki relied on the premise of self-defence, and thus the ends of collective security in the region and greater-region took priority.

The strategy, then, is to destabilize the chains of command of the scarcely identified groups by taking out the political centres of mass of these loosely based organizations. Members and particularly the commanders of these transnational groups understand this and have thus isolated themselves from the wider-world and issuing orders and strategy through encrypted, difficult to trace, points of information in cyberspace through various alias or through a small-network of trusted lieutenants. Their strategic location is also of importance, many commanders of these groups rest themselves in areas of very little political unity and workable security apparatus. Transnational non-state actors also have the ability to ignore national boundaries, granting them the agility to become unpredictable and most importantly, survivable.

Morality and strategy 

The United States finds itself in a unique engagement with an enemy which has the ability to "melt" into the atmosphere, being able to makes itself indistinguishable  from a fixed population at will. This methodology has entrenched Coalition forces for more than a decade in Afghanistan in combating an irregular force. One of the controversies attaching itself with such warfare is collateral damage. It has been long been accepted in the theatres of conflict that collateral damage, civilian casualties, are a bi-product of combat but that doesn't mean that the United States has neglected this fact. In fact, the civilian population is a strategic imperative in the success in combating an enemy that relies on the population to recruit and become invisible in the environment it resides. There are two questions to ask, what are the moral and strategic implications?

The Hague Convention of 1907 has a clause which states "that they were at all times a fixed distinctive emblem recognizable at a distance". The primary derivative of such a clause was in reference to the "Fransc-tireurs", which translates to "free shooters" in the Franco-Prussian war whereby French riflemen dressed as civilians, using unconventional tactics, fired upon Germans. As a consequence, it was ruled that the French snipers were responsible for endangering civilian life as they made no effort to distinguish themselves from being a combatant. Thus, there are two paradigms of responsibility in place here: 1) The United States' in ascertaining that each target has substantial intelligence to define himself a transnational non-state actor who is operating to undermine national security and a rules of engagement to minimize civilian life  2) The non-state actors from appropriately distinguishing themselves from the civilian population, in tactical location and uniform, to decrease the risk of civilian life. However, a guerrilla, disorganized group relies on point 2 to have any chance of surviving.

But what are the strategic implications? Are target-specific killings working in favour in the United States' endeavour in combating terror? One thing that is established fact and that is the command structure of al-Qaeda central has been severely weakened as a result of the high-intensity precision air strikes. The enemy, however, does not draw its inspiration from a defined command structure and while al-Qaeda has moved its centre of operations to Yemen, Somalia, the Maghreb and beyond, al-Qaeda has been termed as an ideological concept which encompasses a myriad of different transnational non-state actors. As such, it is becoming more difficult and detrimental to assume that the success of the enemy is purely on the command structure. The primary factor of al-Qaeda's strategy is it's dexterity to ignore national boundaries and call the United States into various geographic regions which reinforce their narrative that the United States is fighting a war against Islam. Therefore, any civilian populace that feels threatened or feels a lack of security from its state will inevitably align with those that shown a degree of physical security presence. This similar phenomenon was observed in post-conflict Iraq between the sectarian factions in Baghdad after a Shi'a government alienated the Sunni populace, which paved way for al-Qaeda in Iraq to exploit the lack of security confidence. Likewise, in Afghanistan, 20% of Taliban fighters are considered to be fighting on ideological grounds, 80% of fighters are fighting on the premise of security and a negative reaction to external intervention.

Security and sovereignty 

Another counterargument to efforts to disturbing the jihadist/takfiri non-state actors from region to region is the issue of illegal military strikes in a country which is not in a state of war.  However, one must consider what sovereignty entails. Firstly, sovereignty possess a degree of responsibility - 1) it must be able to protect its citizens from internal/external threats 2) it must be able to neutralize any entity that are a threat to another state. Thus, any presence of an actor that undermines points 1 and 2 and is of knowledge to the state they are anchored in, they become an enemy. If the state is unable to combat such threats, as what it is mandated to do, then it loses its claim to sovereignty as such a premise includes the prevention of attacks to other states. There is an inversely proportional relationship between the emergence of jihadist groups and the security of a region, the higher the security, the lower the risk of emergence. With the agility that UAV terminals possess, the United States is able to intervene in regions where the claim to sovereignty is up for contention.


Having explored firstly the moral implications of UAV warfare, there isn't a strong case for it nor is their a burden of moral bankruptcy in the United States' case. An overlooking factor in such warfare is that of the enemy and their failure (or reluctance) to protect civilians by moving their tactical and strategic strongholds to areas of little civilian density. However, the collateral damage aids them in their narrative that the West is fighting a war against Islam which further aids the ideological dispositions which attract their political base but also lend hand to further negative security interference and rejection in the future as observed in Iraq and Afghanistan in numerous cases. The success of UAV directed attacks on target-specific individuals has destabilizing the command structure of al-Qaeda have been immeasurable. But as for the grand strategy and neutralizing the sources of ideologically extreme elements of Sunni Wahhabism and takfirism, it will be impossible to do this through unmanned aerial vehicles. If the United States wishes to defeat such a flexible force, it must work in reaffirming security in the fixed populations which transnational non-state actors strive to exploit and use a first-line of defence against hard-power.

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Special thanks to Stratfor Global Intelligence.

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