Drones, warfare, and policing

Up to late 2011, there was relatively little discussion of drone policy and its political implications in the American popular press. Perhaps the best exception is Jane Mayer’s 2009 article in the New Yorker. However, scholars and policy analysts paid close attention to the political and legal implications of the new technology: Bergen & Tiedmann (2009), Singer (2010), O’Connell (2010), Royakkers and van Est (2010), and Kanwar (2011). As of March 2010, the Obama Administration’s policy on drone strikes provoked little public reaction.

On September 30, 2011, the Obama Administration killed the U.S. Citizen Anwar al-Awlaki via a drone strike in Yemen. Officially, Yemen has never agreed to allowing U.S. military operations within its borders. Therefore the operation was conducted by the Central Intelligence Agency. Since the CIA is not under the Department of Defense, the CIA’s use of a weaponized drone was not a military operation. Thus, Yemeni and American officials can maintain a (very dubious) claim that the U.S. is not conducting military operations in Yemen. This has also been true for more than a decade of drone operations and the killing of several thousand people by drone-strikes in the “tribal areas” of Pakistan. However the extrajudicial killing of an American citizen posed a new problem in the U.S. and triggered much closer public scrutiny of the U.S. military and nonmilitary use of armed drones.

Changes in technology, dilemmas in ethics and policy, practices of policing and warfare all intersect in the rise of new drone systems since the 1990s. Here is some information the hardware: USAF factsheets of MQ-1B “Predator” and MQ-9 “Reaper” compared to F-16 fighter. The Department of Defense (DoD) began replacing F-16s with drones in 2008, including a whole Air National Guard Fighter Wing in 2009. The DoD stopped ordering next-generation F-22 fighters and limited its orders for F-35 Joint Strike fighter jets at the same time that it maximized purchases of drones. This also meant replacing fighter pilots with drone operators, based at Clark Air Force Base near Las Vegas (for military operations) and Langley, Virgina (for CIA operations). In March of 2011 Secretary of Defense LeGates had to defend this highly unpopular policy to USAF cadets. In addition to the elimination of risk to American pilots, a huge advantage of drones is fuel efficiency.

It is worth looking at the distinction between drones–which are under direct human control–and robotic weapons-systems. In some ways, drones may be more ethical than the old fire-and-forget systems of the VietNam war (1965-1973), and the cruise missiles of the 1990s. But there is a new problem: if a drone loses radio contact with the human controller, what should happen? Initially the U.S. designed the drones to auto-land; but I think that policy changed after the Iranian military captured an RQ-170 “Sentinel” in December 2011. The other option is that the drone could switch to autonomous robot function and complete the mission. So…a lethally-armed machine pursuing its target without human-operator involvement? Killer robots? Since at least 2005 Ronald Arkin at Georgia Tech has been working on the programming an autonomous robots with ethical behavior (2007, 2008, 2009a, 2009b). I am glad Arkin is doing this research. But before we deploy autonomous, killer robots, the American public should carefully deliberate about what we are doing.

Drone controversy goes mainstream

On March 6/7, 2013, Rand Paul’s political filibuster brought national attention to our vague, poorly-formed policies surrounding drones and the extrajudicial killings of American citizens. No longer bound by the partisan need to defend their own president, Republicans have returned to a more classic conservative opposition to the violation of individual liberties. Paul’s speech resonated with the longstanding, bipartisan American suspicion of creeping governmental invasiveness into our lives and rights.

What remains under-discussed is the way that drones affect contemporary urbanism. Drone-technology is used by realtors, police agencies, the CIA, and the Department of Defense for actions ranging from helicopter-like videos to sell houses, to close-support of troops on the battlefield. The difference between the hardware used for these different actions is disturbingly subtle. U.S. Customs and Border Patrol uses the General Atomics “Reaper” to patrol the U.S.-Mexico border; this is exactly the same vehicle used by the CIA, the U.S. Army, and the U.S. Air Force. With the ability to carry 14 of the AGM-114 “Hellfire” anti-tank missiles, the Reaper has begun to replace the F-16 and the A-10 in close air support in Afghanistan. George W. Bush obtained tacit permission from Pakistan’s generalissimo, Pervez Musharraf, to allow the CIA to operate drones for surveillance and lethal operations in the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan, just across the Afghan border. Since the CIA is a civilian agency (it is under the Executive Branch, but not the Department of Defense), Bush and Musharraf could assert that the U.S. respected Pakistani authority by never conducting military operations in Pakistan. Hundreds of drone strikes, massive destruction, thousands killed–but no ‘military’ operations.

In practice, the rise of drone-technology since the 1990s has meant that the distinction between military and nonmilitary operations has disappeared. With the evaporation of that distinction, all spaces are now effectively militarized spaces.

This corresponds with the shifting politics of other technologies as well. John Arquilla has argued about the advent of cybernetic warfare since the mid-1990s. The production of myriad security-breaching programs by a particular military unit in China was first regarded as a problem of trade-secret theft. But the revelation of the STUXNET virus showed how the U.S. and Israel were using software to directly attack Iran’s nuclear program. The physical spaces and materials involved in that attack were prosaic: USB drives, laptops, driver-software. The device that you are using to read this post might be infected with STUXNET or other software with the same political-military purpose. Again, the distinction between military space and the spaces of our daily lives is somewhere between subtle and nonexistent. This is particularly true for cities. Whereas military commanders once preferred the open space of the rural ‘field’ for battle, the locus of tech-warfare is inherently urban; the new medium for conflict is most dense in cities, and the opponent (other tech developers) also tends to concentrate in cities–in places of highly-educated urbanites, what Richard Florida calls the ‘creative class.’

The urban geographer who has focused most consistently, and in depth, on the militarization of urban spaces is Stephen Graham. Appropriately, Graham began by looking at the fragmentation of infrastructure as a representation, and a manifestation, of the ‘splintering’ of urbanism (2003). Immediately after publishing this research, Graham began to write about how the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) was attacking the infrastructure of the Palestinian Authority under the mask of the ‘global war on terror’ (GWoT–or more sarcastically: “gee, what?”). The IDF did not just go after bomb-making sites in the West Bank: it also destroyed the archives of the Palestinian Authority. It did not just attack the militarized spaces and peoples of the West Bank; it attacked the Palestinians as a whole–and especially their urban centers.

What Graham was learning from this behavior he called “Lessons in Urbicide.” It is a pun, but also a disturbing observation: political regimes are increasingly targeting of urban space, and the urbanity within it, to demoralize and defeat whole populations. Serbians attacked the cosmopolitan tolerance-space of Sarajevo; and from my interviews in Kabul I am convinced that the Taliban were consciously deploying the same policy in Kabul after 1996. In 2004, the U.S. would engage in similar tactics in the assault on Fallujah, Iraq. Since 2003, an increasing number of scholars have tried to make sense of how militarization affects urbanism. Graham continues this effort, and his 2009 article “Cities as battlespace: the new military urbanism” has played a major role in framing this debate.

I remain concerned about the assumptions and terms of this debate. In reading Graham, I am left with the impression that a creeping, depersonalized evil is trying to enter the world through an unexamined militarization of urban space. The people who develop and deploy drones remain a depersonalized “Other” against whom Graham disavows any shared identity. In fact, as a member of academia, he is precisely part of the same class of people who conceive of drones and decide their use (and most likely, so are you). To get a better understanding of the politics of this technology, we first have to put ourselves back into this picture. Rather than an us-and-them binary construction of political power, we need to use Foucault’s much more decentered and distributed understanding of how power works. If nothing else, the emergence of drone-technology affirms Foucault’s theory of power as a non-centric, transactive set of processes. Most of the technologies that make armed drones possible are the same technologies that enable you to read this, and you and your colleagues vigorously endorse the internet, graphic-display operating systems, and the interactive hardware and software of video games. Social-business networking, distributed decisionmaking, and online research all rely on the “inter-network” protocols of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)–what we now call the internet.

But how to we adapt both cultural practices and legal principles to a world in which emergent technologies have just erased the distinction between the battlefield and the urban street? What does this mean for urban society, and urbanism more generally? I ask, not because I have any answers yet, but because I think these are overwhelmingly important questions that urbanists need to be struggling with. I think there are few easy answers to these questions, but whatever progress we can make will be worthwhile.