The Menace of Present & Future Drone Warfare

12 Feb


            After the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the colossal scale of devastation disclosed, there was a momentary embrace of sanity and rationality by world leaders and cultural commentators. There was a realization that living with such weaponry was at best a precarious journey into the future, and far more likely, an appointment with unprecedented human catastrophe if not apocalypse. This dark mood of foreboding did produce some gestures toward nuclear disarmament tabled initially by the U.S. Government, but in a form that reasonably struck others at the time, especially the Soviet Union, as a bad bargain—the U.S. was proposing getting rid of the weapons for the present, but retaining the materials, the technology, and the experience needed to win handily any nuclear rearmament race. In other words, the United States offered the world a Faustian Bargain that rested on bestowing trust upon the dominant geopolitical actor on the global stage, and depended crucially on Soviet willingness to go along on such a basis, an option that never seriously tempted the Stalinist approach to world order.


            It should not seem surprising then or now that given the political consciousness of those running the strongest and richest modern states, that this kind of one-sided deal was not an attractive response to nuclear weaponry. Even the governments most closely allied with the United States in World War II, the United Kingdom and France, were unwilling to forego the status and claimed security benefits of becoming second tier nuclear weapons state. And of course, America’s rivals, first, the Soviet Union and later China, never hesitated to develop their own nuclear weapons capability, interpreting security and global stature through the universal geopolitical optic of countervailing hard power, that is, maximizing military capabilities to defend and attack. Thus disarmament faded into the obscurity of wishful thinking, and in its place a costly and unstable nuclear arms race ensued during the whole of the Cold War, with an array of situations that came close to subjecting humanity to the specter of a nuclear war. That this worst of all nightmares never materialized provides little reassurance about the future, especially if public and elite complacency about the risk of nuclear warfare persists.


            What is less appreciated than this failure to eliminate the weaponry in the immediate aftermath of World War II was the adoption and implementation of a Plan B.  The United States pushed hard for the negotiations that led in 1968 to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which was successfully marketed to most states in the world. The NPT represented a one-sided bargain in which non-weapons states agreed to give up their weapons option in exchange for two commitments by nuclear weapons states: to share fully the non-military benefits of nuclear technology, especially relating to producing energy that was early on expected to be both clean and cheap; and to undertake in good faith efforts to achieve nuclear disarmament as the earliest possible time, and even to go further, and to work toward the negotiation of general and complete disarmament. This nonproliferation agreement over the years, although a success in Western realist circles, has experienced a number of discrediting setbacks: a few countries with nuclear weapons ambitions stayed outside the treaty and managed to acquire the weaponry without adverse consequences to themselves (India, Pakistan, Israel), while others (Iraq, Iran) have been attacked or threatened because they were suspected of seeking nuclear weapons; there has been a virtual failure of will to seek nuclear disarmament despite a unanimous World Court reaffirmation of the NPT obligations in its 1996 Advisory Opinion on The Legality of Nuclear Weapons; and there has been a discriminatory pattern of geopolitical management of the NPT, most notably ignoring Israel’s nuclear weapons program while treating Iran’s alleged pursuit of a breakout capability as justifying recourse to war.


            This nonproliferation approach has been accompanying by three massive forms of deception that continues to mislead public opinion and discourage serious debate about the benefits of nuclear disarmament even at this late stage: First, the fallacious implication that the states that do not possess nuclear weapons are currently more dangerous for world peace than the states that possess, develop, and deploy these weapons of mass destruction, and have used them in the past; secondly, that periodic managerial moves among nuclear weapons states, in the name of arms control, are steps in the direction of nuclear disarmament—nothing could be further from the truth as arms control aims to save money and stabilize reliance on nuclear weaponry by way of deterrence, and is generally averse to getting rid of the weaponry; thirdly, the phony claim, endorsed by Barack Obama in his Prague speech of 2009 on the theme, that obtaining a world without nuclear weapons is to be sure an ‘ultimate’ goal to be affirmed, but that it is not a political project that can be achieved in real time by way of a phased and verified nuclear disarmament treaty. In actuality, there is no genuine obstacle to prudently phasing out these weapons over the course of a decade or so. What blocks the elimination of nuclear weapons is only the dysfunctional refusal of the nine nuclear weapons states to give up the weaponry.


            It should be appreciated that this two-tier approach to nuclear weaponry is a departure from the approach taken to other weapons of mass destruction—that is, either prohibiting a weapon altogether or allowing its use in a manner consistent with the principles of customary international law bearing on the conduct of war (proportionality, discrimination, necessity, and humanity). Regimes of unconditional prohibition exist with respect to biological and chemical weapons, and are respected, at least outwardly, by the main global geopolitical actors. Why the difference? The atom bombs dropped on Japan were to a degree, despite the havoc, legitimized because used by the prevailing side in what was claimed to be military necessity and perceived as a just war. The contrast with the prohibition of chemical weapons widely used by the German losing side in World War I illustrates the lawmaking role of geopolitically dominant political actors that impose their will on the evolution of international law, especially in the security domain.


            The U.S. reliance on attack drones to engage in targeted killing, especially in third countries (Yemen, Somalia, Ethiopia, Pakistan) has raised controversial international law issues of sovereign rights in interaction with lethal acts of war, especially those far removed from the zone of live combat. The increasing reliance on drones during the Obama presidency has produced unintended deaths, civilians in the vicinity of the target and attacks directed at the wrong personnel, as with the NATO helicopter attack that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers who had been deployed near the Afghan border on November 25, 2011, provoking a major international incident (although not a drone attack, it was linked by angered Palistani officials to similar mis-targeting by drones). There are also unconfirmed reports of drone follow up raids at sites of targeted killing that seem directed at those who mount rescue operations or arrange funerals for prior victims. As with the Bush torture debate the political leadership in Washington has turned for justifications to government lawyers who have responded by developing drone legal briefs that seem somewhat analogous to the notorious Yoo ‘torture memos.’ There are, however, some differences in the two contexts that work against equating the two controversies about post-9/11 war making.


            For one thing, torture has a long history, having been practiced by governments for centuries, and its relatively recent prohibition is embedded in a clear norm criminalizing torture that is contained in the International Torture Convention of 1984. Torture is also enumerated as one of the Crimes Against Humanity in the statute of the International Criminal Court. Drone technology adapted to serve as a battlefield weapon is, in contrast, of extremely recent origin. Nothing in international law exists that is comparably specific with respect to drone attacks to the legal repudiation of torture. There is some resemblance between efforts by Obama law officials to stretch the conception of self-defense beyond previously understood limits to justify targeted killing and the Bush lawyers who claimed that water boarding was not torture. Expanding the prior understanding of the legal right of self-defense represents a self-serving reinterpretation of this core international legal norm by the U.S. Government. It seems opportunistic and unpersuasive and seems unlikely to be generally accepted as a reframing of the right of self-defense under international law.


            Perhaps, the most important difference between the torture and drone debates has to do with future implications. Although there are some loopholes involving extraordinary rendition and secret CIA operated overseas black sites, torture has been credibly prohibited by President Obama. Beyond this, the repudiation of torture has been understood in a manner that conforms to the general international consensus rather than the narrowed conception insisted upon by the Bush-era legalists. In contrast, drones seem destined to be central to operational planning for future military undertakings of the United States, with sharply escalating appropriations to support both the purchase of increasing numbers and varieties of drone. The government is  engaging in a major research program designed to make drones available for an expanding range of military missions and to serve as the foundation of a revolutionary transformation of the way America will fight future wars. Some of these revolutionary features are already evident: casualty-free military missions; subversion of territorial sovereignty; absence of transparency and accountability; further weakening of political constraints on recourse to war.


            Future war scenarios involve attacks by drones swarms, interactive squadrons of drones re-targeting while in a combat zone without human participation, and covert attacks using mini-drones. A further serious concern is the almost certain access to drone technology by private sectors actors. These musings are not science fiction, but well financed undertakings at  or beyond the development stage. It is in these settings of fhere, especially, where the analogy to nuclear weapons seems most pertinent, and discouraging. Given the amount invested and the anticipated profitability and utility of drones, it may already be too late to interrupt their development, deployment, and expanding sphere of use. Unlike nuclear weaponry, already some 50 countries reportedly possess drones, mainly adapted to surveillance. As with nuclear weaponry, the United States, and other leading political actors, will not agree to comprehensive prohibitions on the use of drones for lethal purposes.


            If this line of reasoning is generally correct, there are two likely futures for attack drones: an unregulated dispersion of the weaponry to public and private actors with likely strategic roles undermining traditional international law limits on war making and public order; or a new non-proliferation regime for drones that permits all states to possess and use surveillance drones within sovereign space and allows some states to make discretionary use of drones globally and for attack purposes until a set on constraining regulations can be agreed upon by a list of designated states. That is, drone military technology will perpetuate the two-tier concept of world order that has taken shape in relation to nuclear weapons, and reflects the consensus that both nuclear disarmament and unrestricted proliferation of nuclear weaponry are unacceptable. In this regard, a counter-proliferation regime for drones is a lesser evil, but still an evil.


            The technological momentum that has built up in relation to drones is probably too strong to be challenged politically. The military applications are too attractive, the technology is of a cutting edge fantasy quality, the political appeal of war fighting that involves minimum human risk is too great. At the same time, for much of the world this kind of unfolding future delivers a somber message of a terrifying unfolding vulnerability. At present, there seems to be no way to insulate societies from either intrusive and perpetual surveillance or the prospect of targeted killing and devastation conducted from a remote location. It may be contended that such an indictment of drones exaggerates their novelty. Has not the world lived for decades with weapons of mass destruction possessed by a small number of non-accountable governments and deliverable anywhere on the planet in a matter of minutes? This is superficially true, and frightening enough, but the catastrophic quality of nuclear weaponry and its release of atmospheric radioactivity operates as an inhibitor of uncertain reliability, while with drone their comparative inexpensiveness and non-apocalyptic character makes it much easier to drift mindlessly until an unanticipated day of reckoning occurs by which time all possibilities of control will have been long lost.


            As with nuclear weaponry, climate change, and respect for the carrying capacity of the earth, we who are alive at present may be the last who have even the possibility of upholding the life prospects of future generations. It seems late, but still not too late to act responsibly, but we will not be able to make such claims very much longer. Part of the challenge is undoubtedly structural. For most purposes, global governance depends on cooperation among sovereign states, but in matters of war and peace the world order system remains resolutely vertical and under the control of geopolitical actors, perhaps as few as one, who are unwilling to restrict their military activities to the confines of territorial boundaries, but insist on their prerogative to manage coercively the planet as a whole. When it comes to drones the fate of humanity is squeezed between the impotence of state-centric logic and the grandiose schemes of the geopolitical mentality. 

23 Responses to “The Menace of Present & Future Drone Warfare”

  1. deepaktripathi February 12, 2012 at 1:22 am #

    Thank you, Richard, for this comprehensive article. What has particularly started to disturb me in recent months is the United States’s determination, with allies, to impose domestic law passed in Congress by two legislative chambers totally dominated by a war-mongering mindset and the Israel lobby. Consequently in crucial policy areas U.S. domestic law is increasingly prevailing over laws of other countries and international treaties. This may not be the first precedent in modern times, but perhaps the most vigorously enforced. Russia, China and in a way India are trying to resist. But it is very difficult for the rest of the world.

    For decades since the Second World War, international law evolved through treaties and conventions painfully negotiated and then adopted by nation-states in their domestic laws. The new trend in US behavior is clearly very dangerous. As a result, the current arrangements in international law, though not perfect but intended to contain crises, are losing legitimacy. And in a perverse way opposition by other means seems to be gaining legitimacy.


    • Richard Falk February 12, 2012 at 9:05 am #

      Dear Deepak:

      Always welcome your comments, but I am not clear what you specifically have in mind with respect to domestic law overriding international law. I share the general concern you express, but if you have examples of the phenomenon you decry, I would welcome that.

      I am writing from Cairo stranded on a UN mission that was seeking to visit Gaza. Let me know how you are doing with your thesis, etc..

      warm greetings,


      • deepaktripathi February 12, 2012 at 11:47 am #

        I hope your Gaza mission is a success.

        I should be more clear about what I was alluding to:

        1. Sanctions, for instance, against Iran, Syria, indeed others imposed by the United States Congress and the Executive (under its own legislation, well beyond the UN sanctions regime) which then demands other countries to follow them. If they don’t, then there are threats of retaliation against those countries’ interests (of course, full-scale sanctions against others’ for not obeying U.S. sanctions have a cost to the US if imposed against major states, but the expectation is to follow US law).

        2. The United States acts in other countries (for example, drone attacks) under its own definitions of terrorism and self-defense. The UK, too, has followed the US in defining terrorism and its right to act anywhere in the world after a hostile act or intent by an entity. This right originates from legislation passed in the US and UK legislatures, but is implemented in other jurisdictions. Examples are as follows:

        Premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by sub-national groups or clandestine agents.
        – US State Department

        Violent acts or acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States.

        – FBI

        Designed to influence the government, or an international governmental organization; against a person, property; action in and outside the UK.
        – UK Terrorism Act 2000, Section I

        Back in 1989, I recall that Manuel Noriega was captured and brought to Florida in the invasion of Panama in 1989, kept as a prisoner of war, but then tried and sentenced under US law on charges of drug trafficking and money laundering in 1992 in the US. As it is a long time ago, my memory is vague, but I suspect that international treaties to try the accused in such cases were not firmly in place. In any case, my view is that from a ‘prisoner of war’ to a ‘drug trafficker and money launderer’ is quite a leap, although he was an unsavory character.

        Such practices have multiplied in the post-9/11 era.

        I had a meeting with Martin Shaw about the final draft of my paper to be submitted with my thesis portfolio. Submission looks imminent. I am waiting for a word from Martin.

        Kind regards,


  2. Ray Joseph Cormier February 12, 2012 at 5:46 am #

    What I find very disturbing is the increasing number of commentators in The Jerusalem Post calling for the use of nuclear weapons in a 1st strike against Iran.

    • Richard Falk February 12, 2012 at 9:07 am #

      More than disturbing, it is truly alarming, what should be the reddest of red lines of prohibition. Can you point me to any particulars? I have not been reading the JP. With my best wishes.

      • Ray Joseph Cormier February 12, 2012 at 11:30 am #

        Professor, The Jerusalem Post is my Homepage when I start my PC. Knowing Armageddon is derived from Har Megiddo now located in Israel, I want to know the steps leading to it and be prepared Spiritually, psychologically, emotionally and with some material provisions.

        I comment often on the Israeli-Palestinian-Iranian conflict. The following are a few comments from 2 different articles:

        Great ! Time to give up the idea of pin point strikes and go for the total annihilation of Iran.

        even hitler was nothing compared to these freaks.
        nuke em while you still can
        Fist shaking and saber rattling from a gov’t of international criminals. NUKE FREE IRAN or nuke Iran for free. Nuke their nuke sites and take away their income with drone strikes on the oil terminals. They’ve been fippin off the whole planet since 1979 and that’s because they never paid any kind of price.
        so iran want’s to threaten the Jewish Worldwide Community. If this is what the wan’t and if I would be the Defense Minister of Israel. I would nuke the shit out of iran. So that antisemitic, antizionist, islamist and terrorcountry will be gone in less than a day. I would after that become the world’s most greatest Defense Minister in the history of Israel. Bigger than any of the kings in it’s early history.

        The time is fast approaching to utterly destroy Iran. This cannot go on for ant length of time.Bombing them is the only option.

        It can’t happen fast enough. Nuke their nuke sites and take out the oil terminals with drones.That will set back this gov’t of criminals and goat herders back toward the 7th century where they’ll feel at home
        amen and amen to that.

  3. Albert Guillaume February 12, 2012 at 6:35 am #

    “……but in matters of war and peace the world order system remains resolutely vertical and under the control of geopolitical actors, perhaps as few as one, who are unwilling to restrict their military activities to the confines of territorial boundaries, but insist on their prerogative to manage coercively the planet as a whole”.
    What puzzles me is the general fear, to put a nametag on the “as few as one”. Of course by now we all know, that this is not the president of the US, China or Russia. Has that name become synonymous for a lot of people with their way of referring to God as ‘G*D’, because writing the full name seems blasphemous to them?
    Next thing, will be drones filled with chemical and/or biological weapons, to kill masses of people, after which countries can safely be taken over with all their real estate still intact and no globe-circling radioactive clouds to worry about and without loss of life on the attackers side. Without our protests, this can very well become the legalized form of genocide in the 21st century. The west has to acquire a different mindset, than the one it is possessed by today, because it is sliding down towards total immorality. When we allowed morality to become a relative concept, rather than keeping it what it really is, an absolute, we actually lost all morality right there. Finding legalese terminology to justify some forms of torture is a good example of it. With morality it is just like with pregnancy, one cannot be ‘a little bit pregnant’. You either are or are not.
    Why are we inundated with all this talk of freedom and democracy, while the drive is clearly towards the total elimination of both? Has somebody maybe a religious explanation and justification for gradated morality?

    • Richard Falk February 12, 2012 at 9:11 am #

      Thanks for this chillingly perceptive comment with which I agree. It is not only the moral decline that is central to the geopolitical decline, but the loss of contact with ancient wisdom relating to security and survival that threatens not only to generate catastrophic behavior but endangers the survival of the human species.

  4. monalisa February 12, 2012 at 11:27 am #

    Dear Richard,

    thank you for your essay on present situations with a review about the past.

    Worst primitive behaviour has been shown by USA as well as some NATO countries within the last twenty years: no development in so-called developed countries, no real difference to Roman times and its behaviours and “war crimes” with its “propaganda writings” as well as “just wars” rhetoric which was more than twothousand years ago.

    When politicans obey the dictate of big companies and therefore the money of tax payers misused for the benefit of only a handful big companies, when a country wants to play the big game of world dictatorship/rule but at the same time is unable to take care of its own citizen in its homeland what could be expected ? When even their own people don’t really matter to them ?

    It could backfire – even to the point of annihilation of mankind on earth.

    Their greed could open the Pandora’s Box. For example when some sort of virus are put into the air …. or some chemicals ….
    Lacking wisdom together with responsibility for actions and done crimes go usually hand in hand with some sort of arrogance.
    This kind of arrogance doesn’t respect other cultures nor boundaries.
    And even it shows nowadays some sort of an ideology reminding on Nazi times as it works within the same scheme and doctrine: religious belief with its cultures are being pilloried whereas at the same time these countries are invaded, people murdered, expelled and soil and air polluted for approx. the next two and half million years at least. Pollution of air does affect all of us !! The soil pollution led already to miscarriages and thus it can be assumed to the “pretext” of an “ordered” genozide.

    Its a shame. Nothing has been learned from the history of the last century. Nothing at all !

    I can just hope that the worst will not come true – but who is going to stop this excessive greed for power ???

    Take care of yourself,

  5. pabelmont February 12, 2012 at 11:32 am #

    Not just the use but he threat of war (or military force) is supposed to be contrary to the UN Charter (aka illegal). It is now common. Israel and the USA make threats constantly agasint Iran. Israel’s attacks on Gaza and Lebanon appeared to be contrary to teh international law of attack or of carrying-on warfare. The settlements and wall are illegal. In these ways (and not only Israel’s but also the USA’s together with its support for Israel’s) the USA and Israel weaken or destroy the international law. “The law is a prediction of what the courts will do.” The international community will not — in these dark days — run counter to the SUA or Israel. In this sense, the law is broken.

    • Richard Falk February 12, 2012 at 1:37 pm #

      I agree with your line of with the ICJ Advisory Opinion on the Israeli separation wall, the judicial assessment is trumped by the geopolitical imposed outcome.

  6. iranuclear February 13, 2012 at 4:47 am #

    The only people who know for sure whether Iran is dangerous or not are its leaders, but it is not easy to understand what they believe, know and intend.

    Does Iran mean nuclear peace of nuclear war?
    You decide., #nuclearpeace or #nuclearwar.

  7. Chris Cole February 13, 2012 at 1:58 pm #

    Richard, really great piece setting the drone wars in historical and political context. May we re-publish on our website Chris Cole

    • Richard Falk February 14, 2012 at 7:58 am #

      Chris: Thanks for the encouragement. Yes, I will be glad to have my drone piece re-posted on you website.

      Is your website devoted to the drone debate? Is it easy to find?



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