Ayoub and the Drone Revolution Reply

How should Hezbollah’s drone flight over Israel fit in the proliferation of unmanned aerial technology?

By Carlos Rafael Colon

The recent breach of Israeli airspace by a Hezbollah reconnaissance drone has prompted a debate about the proliferation of drone technology and the unprecedented technological capabilities, deterrent power, and war provocation this entails. On October 6, 2012, the unmanned aircraft flew “tens of kilometers” over sensitive areas like gas and oil facilities undetected until being shot down near the Dimona nuclear reactor. Hezbollah not only claimed responsibility for this provocative flight, but said that it was their natural right, naming the reconnaissance drone Ayoub, in honor of a deceased Hezbollah party member who helped pioneer their drone technology. Following this incident, Lebanese politicians accused their government of being an Iranian proxy, Israeli policymakers questioned their national security, and Iran threatened Israel with a fleet of (they claim) hundreds of other drones in twenty-five different models. The incident itself, however, is not the first of its kind.

In 2010, an Israeli warplane shot down an unmanned balloon that flew over the Dimona nuclear reactor, while numerous drones were shot down during the 2006 war with Hezbollah. With Syria’s civil war, Iran’s controversial nuclear program, and Israel’s consideration of preemptive action, the Ayoub operation clearly threatens the delicate balance of interstate peace in the region. But, it is also important to momentarily step back and try to look at the broader implications of the operation.  The Ayoub incident, for better or worse, is part of a greater movement which has been described as the “drone revolution.” Among both advocates and critics of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), none can deny the ongoing effect this technology is having on modern warfare and espionage. Brian Glyn Williams of the University of Massachusetts presented facts that make this phenomenon clear:

“More than 50 countries have built or bought drones….Over the next decade more than $94 billion is expected to be spent globally on drone research and procurement. In 2000, the United States had just 50 drones. Today almost one in three U.S. warplanes is a drone. That translates to approximately 7,500 drones in the U.S. fleet. Since 2005, there has been a 1200% increase in patrols by drones. The U.S. Air Force trained more drone pilots in 2011 than pilots for fighter and bomber aircraft combined.”

When discussing drones, we must consider not only the strategic gains and losses, but the long term consequences of this “revolution.” What does drone proliferation entail for the future — both in the near- and long-term? Looking at the covert campaigns in Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen, the apparent shift to targeting individuals based on their behavior (called “signature strikes”) is extremely foreboding. The precedent being set by the United States may be used as a justification by other states to execute similar attacks once their technology matures. These operations also tend to rely on local sources for intelligence, and in some parts these “local partners” may actually be providing inaccurate intelligence to satisfy their own objectives. These methods in life and death decisions lead to executions by drones without direct confirmation of whom the targets actually are. Congressman Dennis Kucinich, in an interview with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, said that the drone program “bespeaks an approach which depraves moral law, the constitution, and international law. That sets us into an endless cycle of violence.” If the Obama administration currently “counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants…unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent” (emphasis added), can we assume other nations will follow higher standards?

Responsibility for the standard operating procedure for drones will not be the only issue, but also determining who should be held accountable for unjust actions. Before it was Ayoub, it was a mystery drone with reports calling it “foreign.” One of the benefits of unmanned machines is that it provides some culpable deniability to its user. Today, of course, this isn’t much of an issue, but we can’t presume that America will hold such a near-monopoly on unmanned systems forever. Policymakers have to ask themselves what precedents the United States is setting. How will access to drones affect the Middle East’s regional security — or other regions, for that matter? We may not be able to predict the future, but given what has happened so far, avoiding proper policy discussions that can enable greater transparency and accountability is just as dire for the years ahead.

Carlos Rafael Colon is part of the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth Honors program and currently co-manages umassdrone.org, a targeted killing database focused on exploring the casualties inflicted by U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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