Military historian Sir Max Hastings has qualms about ‘signature strikes’: drone public executions of our enemies abroad.
A summary of his article to which a Moseley reader has drawn our attention:
The Americans have more drone operators under training than fast jet pilots and though the first drones were Predators designed exclusively for surveillance, by 2001, however, the CIA and US Army were using a version armed with Hellfire missile for targeted killings.
The intelligence community embraced drones as a means of destroying enemies in places where the commitment of human agents, 007s licensed to kill, would be political dynamite.
The fact a US Reaper appears to have been used to eliminate Jihadi John reflects the fact that Parliament has thus far not authorised British troops and aircraft to operate in Syria, to the frustration of Downing Street.
Yet it is not only Jeremy Corbyn who feels uneasy about conceding to the Government an absolute right to determine whom the armed forces should be allowed to kill
At first sight, drones seem an ideal means of destroying our enemies without putting at risk British or American personnel. Our intelligence services are pretty good, but we should never forget that they colluded with Tony Blair in the ghastly 2003 blunders about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, which sent Britain to war under false pretences.
Although Hellfire missile attacks launched from drones inflict less ‘collateral damage’ – civilian casualties – than conventional bombing, there has been a steady stream of innocent victims of US Reaper strikes. Chris Woods (left), the best British historian of drone history, reckons that between 2002 and 2014, such assaults have caused some 500 civilian deaths, most of them in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Moreover, while today only the US, Britain and Israel own effective drone capabilities, it is only a matter of time before others acquire them.
What shall we say if the Russians start killing their identified enemies in Ukraine, or the Chinese beyond their own borders? I suggest we shall not like it. We shall be even less happy when terrorists start using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) against us, as they assuredly will. The technology is relatively unsophisticated, as everyone who buys a model drone in a toyshop can testify.
We cannot uninvent UAVs, which will play an even more critical role in the wars of the future than in those of the present. But we should at least admit, as today our Government does not admit, there are moral and political issues about how they should be used beyond our own frontiers. David Cameron appears to assume an absolute right to order strikes at foes wherever in the world we can identify them. Yet all manner of unintended and unwelcome consequences will follow when others start playing the same game.
It is not enough for the Prime Minister to declare, as he did yesterday, that drone strikes against the likes of Jihadi John represent acts of self-defence. Mr Corbyn said that he would have preferred the dead man to face trial in a court of law. This was an unfulfillable fantasy. But it seems extraordinarily unwise to concede to our rulers an unlimited mandate to carry out public executions of our enemies abroad – which is what such ‘signature strikes’ amount to.
They pose major issues of international law which neither President Obama nor Mr Cameron yet seem ready to acknowledge, far less address. The fact that state killings can now be delegated to machines, rather than performed by a hangman, does not make it any more desirable for them to be determined by the mere wish or whim of Downing Street or the intelligence services, as is happening today.