The United Arab Emirates has this week signed a $1.4 billion contract for US-manufactured military equipment, including surveillance drones valued at $200 million. According to UAE military spokesman Maj.Gen. Obaid Al Ketbi, the aim of the drone acquisition is to match the “surveillance capabilities” of some countries, which claim they have manufactured their own drones.
Maj. Gen. Al Ketbi said the UAE is not planning to buy Predator drones used by the US in its pursuit of “terrorists” and against concentrations of militants in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen.
This defence contract was announced at a military hardware exhibition in Abu Dhabi.
The UAE is not alone in acquiring surveillance drones, which are, essentially, aerial robots known as “unmanned aerial vehicles” or UAVs. The Brazilian air force recently bought two drones with the aim of improving border security and public protection during the FIFA Confederations football cup in June, the 2014 FIFA world cup and the 2016 summer Olympics. The new drones are slated to be in service next month.
Drones are manufactured or operating in more than 50 countries worldwide, including the US, Britain, Brazil, Germany, France, Italy, Turkey, Israel, Iran, India, Russia, Croatia, Serbia, South Korea, and China. The International Institute for Strategic Studies says there are 56 different types of drones. Hundreds are in service in the US which has 18 models, including scores of death-dealing Predators.
While the US confines sales of drones to allies, China, which has developed a range of models, is said to be selling to all-comers and Britain is developing an aggressive drone marketing strategy.
There are many uses for drones outside the military sphere. They can be employed for search and rescue in situations where it is risky for humans to deploy: fighting forest fires, estimating the size of ash clouds thrown up by fires and volcano eruptions, and locating ships in a storm or people lost in a forest or desert or at sea. Drones with night vision can be used after dark when manned aircraft cannot function. Drones can also inspect multi-storied buildings for stress, crops for pests, and power lines for faults as well as count sheep and cattle.
Following the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, a small drone was used to assess damage and radiation at the Fukushima nuclear plant. A Dutch firm builds drones resembling falcons or hawks to scare flocks of birds, notably geese, away from Schiphol airport so they do not get sucked into the jet engines of aircraft.
At present, drones cannot be used in areas where there is heavy commercial air traffic because systems which incorporate the crucial guidance activities of pilots have to be invented and installed in the pilot-less vehicles.
Experts are deeply engrossed in this task. An unmanned vehicle university located in Arizona is already offering training in robotics, drone design, and flight testing. The ultimate goal of developers is commercial aircraft flown by pilots at computer controls on the ground.
There are, of course, many military applications for drones. Technicians are trying, for example, to make camera-equipped espionage drones the size of flying insects and drones resembling birds that can perch on window ledges and phone wires and transmit intelligence gathered at a specific site to a receiver.
Predator drones, the most notorious of the military models, have been given a bad press because of the high profile use of Predators by the US in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen for assassinating al-Qa’ida operatives and Taliban commanders and fighters. Among those slain have been at least two US citizens, both involved with al-Qaeda in Yemen. Legal experts contend that their extrajudicial killing violated their rights under the US Constitution.
Furthermore, hundreds of innocent civilians have been killed and wounded as well as individuals or groups selected for elimination. Consequently, Predators, operated by technicians thousands of miles away from the target area, have become highly controversial.
A memorandum produced by government lawyers holds that the president has the legal authority to kill US citizens “suspected” of having links to al-Qaeda and who present an “imminent” or “continuing” threat to the country. Such killings do not, in the view of the Justice Department, violate a ban on assassinations or the target’s Constitutional rights. This 16-page document is being used by the administration to bolster the nomination for the post of Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) chief of White House counter-terrorism advisor John Brennan, an advocate of drone warfare.
International legal experts have condemned the US programme of “targeted killings,” to use the term invented by Israel for assassinations. More than 2,500 people have been killed by drones deployed during President Barack Obama’s first term in Pakistan alone. Hundreds of men, women and children have become “collatoral” fatalities in strikes on presumed combatants. Christof Heyns, UN investigator of extra judical killings and summary executions, suggested that some of these killings constitute war crimes. The Pakistani authorities reported that in 60 cross-border Predator strikes from January 2006-April 2009, 14 al-Qaeda leaders were killed along with 687 Pakistani civilians. Others have estimated that at least 10 civilians have died in drone hits for every militant. The CIA has responded by claiming attacks conducted since May 2010 have killed more than 600 “terrorists” and no civilians.
However, investigators not only insist that at least as many civilians have died as militants and that deadly follow-up strikes often occur when people rush to aid victims of initial attacks. Furthermore, strikes are mounted on funerals as well as gatherings of mourners - and on weddings. Former US President Jimmy Carter has become an anti-Predator campaigner. He says the US is “abandoning its role as a champion of human rights” and called on the Obama administration “to reverse course and re-gain moral leadership.” The administration has multiplied ten fold the deployment of Predators and their cousins, Reapers, since world warrior George W. Bush left office in 2009. Carter argued that Predators violate human rights, boosting enemies and alienating friends.
Writing in The Guardian on August 3, 2012, Noel Sharkey, argued that advances in Predator technology constitute the “final step in the industrial revolution of war - a clean factory of slaughter with no physical blood on our hands and none of our own side killed.” This will become reality once autonomous drones of war are developed, said Dr. Sharkey, professor of artificial intelligence and robotics at Sheffield University in the UK.
The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East
affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict