Playstation warfare

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The military use of unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly known as drones, has risen sharply over the last decade. These remotely piloted killer robots enable operators to launch missiles and bombs on human targets in the combat zone while they remain safe, thousands of miles away in the Nevada desert.



Grim game: a Reaper drone operator

With weapons dispatched at the touch of a joystick, armed drones involve a form of "playstation warfare" that risks creating a culture of convenient killing.

While the majority of drones are used for surveillance purposes, increasingly armed forces are using them to launch attacks. Armed drones have been used by the US military in Afghanistan (since 2001), Iraq (since 2002), and Yemen (since 2002) by the CIA in Pakistan (since 2004), by the British military in Afghanistan (since 2007) and by Israel in Gaza (since 2008).

CIA director Leon Panetta described armed drones as "very effective" and "the only game in town". This alarming viewpoint is backed by significant resources in the US - the budget allocation for drones increased from $1.7 billion in 2006 to $4.2 billion in 2010.

British ministers have launched a review of "defence" spending, but the public is denied access to information on the use of armed drones. Recently leaked war logs reveal that by July 2010 British Reaper drones had fired weapons 97 times in Afghanistan. British forces have three Reaper drones in use in Afghanistan and since July 2007 the government has been renting three Hermes 450 surveillance drones from Elbit Systems of Israel on a "pay by the hour" contract.

In military circles drones are touted as low-cost, low-risk, precision instruments. The reality is very different. Drone strikes are causing high numbers of civilian casualties.

Conservative estimates from the New America Foundation, a US think-tank, suggest that one third of the deaths from drone attacks in Pakistan are civilian. Drones are prone to costly accidents - 79 accidents at $1 million each according to the US Air Force - and are fuelling an angry backlash among the people of Pakistan.

Even the UN is concerned. Philip Alston, the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, has challenged the US and Britain to explain the legal basis of using drones to target and kill individuals.

Perhaps the most frightening aspect of military drones is the "playstation warfare" they encourage. Reducing the physical and mental distance between operator and target is likely to lower the threshold for launching an attack - making it more convenient to kill than capture.

A recent US Air Force report found that 23 civilian deaths in Afghanistan in February were caused by pressure on the pilot of the drone strike - he misrepresented intelligence information in his desire to support the ground troops with a strike. He consequently described children as "possible children" and adolescents as "military-aged males".

British ministers have created an accountability vacuum by refusing to release information about the use of drones or the civilian casualties incurred. This must be rectified.

The growing use of robotic weapons is taking us on a dark trajectory and yet it is happening with almost no public debate. Fellowship of Reconciliation wants a serious, informed and open discussion about the use of armed drones by British forces.

Amy Hailwood works for Fellowship of Reconciliation.

Their latest briefing, "Convenient Killing: Armed Drones and the 'Playstation Mentality'", can be downloaded from the FoR website.