Closing Lecture: From a view to a kill: drones and late modern war

Prof. Derek Gregory

Click here for a video of this presentation.

This presentation was a part of Closing Lecture, From 2:00 pm until 4:00 pm on Saturday 12th November, 2011, Lower Ground 02, New Academic Building, Goldsmiths


The United States and its allies are presently using drones (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles or UAVs) in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen.  One of the primary purposes of the UAV was originally to enhance the military’s capacity for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance –though it was integrated into a networked system that included the provision for armed attack – but since 2000 successive versions of the Predator and the Reaper have been armed to conduct hunter-killer missions from a single platform.  Most critical attention has focused on the use of UAVs by the CIA to carry out targeted killings in the Pakistan borderlands, and this does raise troubling political, legal and ethical questions.

It is far from clear what legal armature could plausibly sanction such missions, since the United States is not at war with Pakistan, and the predicament is aggravated by the use of a (clandestine) civilian agency; but the attacks have also been widely criticized for being both inaccurate (there is a vigorous debate about the number of civilian casualties) and counter-productive.  These are all important issues, and they bear directly on the deployment of CIA-controlled drones in other places, but they have none the less deflected attention from the way in which the US military uses Predators and Reapers in Afghanistan.  The US Air Force and its counterparts all insist that UAVs enable them to focus on emergent targets of opportunity: a process of ‘dynamic targeting’ of individuals or groups rather than ‘deliberative targeting’ that, as in the combined bombing offensive of the Second World War, is directed against fixed targets and population concentrations.  They thus claim that UAVs enable them to conduct ‘virtuous war’ – war that is surgical, sensitive and scrupulous – whereas critics claim that this confuses virtuality with virtue: that the full motion video feeds from these platforms reduce war to a distant video game for their remote operators (and their political masters).

But this critique may well misunderstand both the nature of video games and the nature of the ‘kill-chain’ in which these aircraft are embedded: the enhanced visual capacity of the Predator and the Reaper may instead increase intimacy and identification with troops on the ground and materially increase the risks for the inhabitants of the conflict-zone.  Although the military kill-chain incorporates a quasi-judicial process that is distinct from conventional bombing, its use of UAVs offers fewer protections for civilians than its protagonists claim.