The ability to assassinate enemies is emerging as the key feature of military strategy. It is widespread policy in the American attacks on Taliban targets in Afghanistan and Pakistan and it has long been the practise of the Israeli military enforcing its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, or attacking its enemies in Lebanon.
What these conflicts have in common is a powerful military force fighting an ‘asymetrical’ battle against a guerilla enemy with widespread support in the local population.
Big battles are avoided by the guerilla enemy, and the western military forces are unwilling to risk their soldiers by having the soldiers seek out the enemy in person in the general population.
Therefore the strategy has emerged of trying to identify the enemy by remote sensing aboard drones through various ‘signatures’ —appearance, behaviour, etc. Drones are emerging as the platform used to carry remote sensing equipment, and often to carry weapons of assassination stealthily within range of the enemy.
Problems with this strategy:
1. When the war is unjust, new strategies for fighting don’t improve the outcome.
2. There isn’t any technology capable of protecting nearby non combatants from armed drone attacks, despite the hype of the military and the arms companies.
3. Remote sensing has proved wildly inaccurate in separating out acceptable ‘targets’ from people who just look like, or behave like the targets, with the result that very often the wrong targets are attacked.
4. This strategy results not from initial successes, but the paucity of success from other strategies.
5. The strategy presents new moral and legal traps. Taking a war to an enemy enmeshed in a local population which supports them has often led to moral challenges. Two armies in full fledged combat can claim that they can’t reasonably protect all nearby non combattants. But an army which claims that it can identify individual combattants for assassination, opens itself up to charges of murder and war crimes when it fails to distinguish between the ‘enemy’ and uninvolved citizens.
(Of course, the killing of nearby noncombattants may be an unspoken but intentional act arising from drone surveillance and attacks, intended as a terror device to cause the local population to reject the insurgent forces as too dangerous to have around).
Despite the limitations of ‘assassination by remote sensing’ there is a strong shift to drones for many reasons. Defence departments see big savings from replacing extremely expensive jet aircraft with drone fleets. They see the opportunity to reduce risk for flyers and foot soldiers, and reduce the cost of highly trained professional pilots and aircraft maintenance personel. Probably they reason that distancing their own combattants from attacks on the enemy will reduce distress and ‘post traumatic stress syndrome’. Fewer traumatised soldiers means less dissatisfaction in the ranks, and lower post discharge medical costs.
But of course cost savings are probably an illusion. Drone fleets beget countermeasures, and ultimately a new weapon like drones simply results in the proliferation of weapons, and a change in tactics by the other side.
(This is an outline article that will be fleshed out in due time)