Two Iranian fighter aircraft fired on a US Predator drone over the Persian Gulf. Political party-cum-militant group Hezbollah sends a drone over Israel. A Khan is basing a political career on denouncing drone attacks on Pakistan. All of this highlights that drones, also called unmanned aerial vehicles, are ubiquitous in the international system and that the problems regarding their use are multiplying. Those who argue drones should be put back into the box are wasting their breath. A recent study calculated that 35,000 drones would be in operation over the next decade. While the US’s use of drones in the Afghan-Pakistan war theatre receives the most attention, the primary future of drones is in the civilian sphere. Drones are now being used by police to monitor traffic, by coast guards to watch coastlines and engineers to inspect dams and tall buildings for safety purposes.
Drones are here to stay.
Equally false is the idea that militaries will not deploy drones in ever-increasing numbers. As Barack Obama realised, drones are inexpensive, they keep soldiers out of harm’s way and are far more accurate than any existing form of distant warfare. Though estimates vary, studies put civilian casualties at 20% to 30%. This is low given the nature of the war and compared to traditional aerial bombing or strafing. By any standard of just war, drones are morally sound. They are proportionate. Unlike normal bombing or even a special force raid, where fire is often indiscriminate, drones create far less collateral damage. In fact, it can be said they have created a new standard in this area. They have minimal consequences. Drones do not leave radiation or level buildings. Their pilots can sit and operate them thousands of miles away from the battlefield. As Hezbollah has shown, drones will not be a monopoly of the US and Israel — countries which at present make two-thirds of the world’s drones — for long. India is also assembling a fleet.
Nonetheless, drones are revolutionary in many ways. Automatic targeting is just a few steps away, a capacity that would take direct human control out of the loop. Which is why they need rules. At present, drones are treated as small helicopters or airplanes. But they are much more than that — the next generation will be carried in backpacks and follow individual soldiers. It is unclear who would be legally responsible for a non-guided drone. The Persian Gulf incident raised the question of rules of engagement between men and machine. The list goes on. It is a debate that needs to be taken up more seriously and one that India should not remain passive about.