Chris Woods on Drone Warfare: Advantages and Liabilities

Chris Wood, investigative journalist and former BBC producer, speaking at the Council

Drones have become a fundamental part of warfare in a very short period of time, but the guidelines on when and how to use them are still hotly contested, even in the heart of the US government, according to Chris Woods. "We aren't going to have war without drones any more," said Woods, a former BBC television producer who has written a book on drones, Sudden Justice. "Targeted killing by drones has really become part of US foreign policy - but how comfortable are we going to be when Iran, Russia or North Korea start doing it?"

Woods told a Global Café breakfast meeting of LAWAC that drones have enormous tactical advantages over more conventional aerial bombing, which is much less discriminating - "Drones allow the pilot to slow war down - he can see something on the video and go back and replay it before deciding on a reaction." The Hellfire missiles generally fired from drones weigh 100 lbs, of which 20 lbs are explosive, much less destructive than the standard 500 lb bombs dropped from airplanes. "They even have a missile variant with no explosive at all, just concrete, that can be used to kill a passenger in a car or on a motorbike without any other damage." In the past 10 years, there have been about 500 drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, which have killed some 2,500 militants and about 500 civilians. Even 1 dead civilian is too much, but Woods pointed out that during the Vietnam war the bombing of Cambodia and Laos killed 100,000 civilians.

Drone operators now have access to sophisticated blast modelling software, the so-called "bugsplat" model, "which sounds unsavory but turns out to be something else". When contemplating a strike, the drone operator can highlight the target, and the software will show three patches of color - a red zone in which it is likely everyone will be killed, a yellow zone where people are likely to get injured, and a green zone where people will remain unharmed. This "bugsplat" outline can be altered by changing the angle and direction of approach of the missile to minimize the risk of hitting civilians. And before any decision to fire a Hellfire, the targeters designate a safe detonation area away from any people in case the decision is taken to abort the mission while the Hellfire is in flight, which can be 15 to 20 seconds in duration.

Woods said that based on the multiple interviews he has done with drone pilots, the stereotype of cavalier drone operators with a "Playstation gamer mentality" is not accurate. "The pilots take the business of killing very seriously indeed - one pilot said 'our starting point is that everyone is a civilian until we determine otherwise.'" And although they may be 7,000 miles away from their target, the drone operators are frequently quite traumatized from their killings. Like snipers, they get to see their targets, often quite intimately for an extended period of time, before pulling the trigger.

But for all the safeguards and care to minimize civilian casualties by the operators, the biggest problem according to Woods is that drones "have become like catnip to politicians - they get addicted to them." This is particularly problematic when drones are used in countries where the US is not technically at war - eg Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. "For 198 out of 200 nations, targeted killings away from the battlefield are unlawful." [The other country is Israel, and they have taken the issue all the way to their Supreme Court.] After the long and costly ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US public has little enthusiasm for more boots on the ground, and so drones seem an easy alternative. "The war on terror is fought a long way away in difficult-to-access places - drones give us tangible results showing us that we can do something."

Under President Obama there have been eight times the number of drone strikes on Pakistan as under President Bush. "But who gets to say the targets are guilty? This is a very uncomfortable area," said Woods. "This needs to go through the court system, possibly as far as the Supreme Court - otherwise you have the executive acting as judge, jury and executioner." Woods said that the US Congress had exercised almost no oversight over the drone program - "Congress has bought into this drone program - in practice they are not much better than cheerleaders."

Even as drones become widespread, both in the military and in a myriad of forms and applications in the civilian world, the use of drones is still "hugely unpopular amongst air force personnel - they treat drone operators like second class citizens." Even though drone operators are at the forefront of battle, they are not eligible for combat medals, and struggle to get promotions. Many leave early - for that reason the Air Force is now offering $25,000 to drone pilots to stay in their jobs.

"Nobody knows how to turn the conveyor belt [of drone strikes] off," said Woods. "There is a raging debate within the US government, and the next President will face a fundamental decision on whether the first order effects [of killing terrorists] will outweigh the second order effects [of alienating US allies who dislike working with us on assassination programs] and the third order effects [of creating more enemies through resentment at the drone strikes]." Drones may be able to "slow down war" and provide the intelligence community with the fabled "persistent stare" as they loiter over a target, but the legal precedents also need to be subjected to a "persistent stare", particularly as this technology spreads to other nations.