In times of economic austerity, the recent debates on defence capabilities have centred on Europe’s clear development and innovation lag, warned against the cuts in national defence budgets, and called for ‘pooling & sharing’ strategies for enhanced defence cooperation at the EU level. The EU is currently faced with clear tactical choices in this field, by pursuing defence capacity build-up strategies in unmanned aerial programmes and by extensively funding for military-grade drone research and ‘dual-use technologies’, in order to strengthen its defence industrial base and to preserve its security autonomy in the future.
Unmanned vehicles or so-called ‘drones’ have recently become major force multipliers in conducting ‘smart’ warfare, surveillance missions, and more generally intelligence gathering. By both reducing boots on the ground in civil and military operations and by providing reliable data through competitive surveillance capacities at affordable costs, drones have caught the attention of political decision-makers and military planners alike, as the next step in revolutionizing 21st century security-making. In recent years, drones have arguably enjoyed significant successes in effectively countering terrorist threats by protecting soldiers and limiting the number of civilian deaths in theatres of action. Nevertheless, the use of drones has also triggered a number of ethical and jus in bello concerns[i], especially in instances where chain-of-command decisions on drone strikes raise questions of transparency, discrimination, and proportionality.
The use of weaponized military drones or armed unmanned aerial vehicles – ‘hunter-killer drones’[ii] in contemporary conflicts is argued to have changed the style of warfare, the employ of robotic technology in combat situations calling for a new ethical framework for conducting war. As well, the surveillance capability of unarmed and camera-equipped aerial drones allows for a wide range of both military and civilian tasks: data gathering, ‘border monitoring, assessing damage to critical infrastructure (e.g. nuclear power plants), guiding search and rescue workers at natural disaster sites, monitoring weather patterns, searching for persons missing in difficult terrain, and tracking the spread of large-scale fires’[iii].
Weaponized Drones and Just War
Drone fighting, like other long-range fighting, needs to take into account several ethical implications: this practice is conducive to easier kills by creating both physical and moral distance[iv] when engaging opponents in conflict situations. This double-distance is translated in the so-called ‘screenfighting’[v] and the bureaucratization of killing[vi], which imply the lack of human empathy and the removal of moral and psychological barriers to killing. While drone technology can be employed with little risks and costs, the fighting process involves worrying de-humanising practices redolent of computer war games. Moreover, questions arise concerning the accuracy and reliability of such technologies to identify an appropriate target, further complicated by public trust issues in government and military officials responsible with drone strikes decisions.
To address such concerns, several principles inherent to jus in bello need to be codified[vii]: the principle of military necessity, the principle of distinction (between soldiers and civilians), the principle of proportionality (the use of force must be proportional to the military objectives to be achieved), and lastly and probably the most important one, the principle of humanity (the military force must avoid civilian suffering and casualties, and the destruction of propriety). The legal issues associated with drone strikes generally refer to the United Nations Security Council Resolutions 1373 and 1973, the former centred on post September 11 counter-terrorist operations, and the latter on military operations and interventions in Libya during the Gaddafi regime overthrow.
Drones and Civil-Military Relations
The defence development in the EU will need to draw from the broadening flood of the civilian technological progress, thus reversing the traditional logic of an outflow from military technological innovation into the civilian realm. Such spill-overs, spin-offs or spin-ins in the realm of civilian technological Research & Development (R&D) will allegedly contribute to the creation of cutting-edge and competitive EU defence technologies on the international market. A hybrid civilian-military industrial basecould be the much needed solution for the current economic crisis and the EU’s ‘capabilities-development gap’ as regards security and defence, but there are still risks attached to dual-use research, such as differing strategic goals for product design and profit. Interoperability is the key word concerning the advance ofhybrid unmanned vehicles within the EU, priority being given to the development of low-cost multi-use technologies for civilian and military purposes.
The EU institutions have also been working on streamlining regulatory and technological barriers limiting the flight of drones in civilian airspace – the European Commission published in June 2013 a roadmap[viii], ‘Roadmap for the integration of civil RPAS into the European Aviation System’, thus paving the way for the safe integration of RPAS into the European airspace starting in 2016. Prioritizing Remote Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS) by integrating them into civil European airspace has become a key matter on the Brussels-based European Defence Agency’s (EDA) agenda. The main selling point put forward by the EDA is that such cross-fertilizations between civilian and military R&D are economically profitable and that the military and the defence sectors dedicated to drone development can become a stimulating force to the civilian industry and market – for instance by employing labour force or by just prompting technological spin-offs in both the military and the civilian dimensions.
Eurodrones – a Solution Creating Further Problems
While Eurocrats, governmental officials, and the industry at large have all warned against the current sorry state of the European defence, rules prohibit the EU to tap research grants under the ‘Horizon 2020’ or the FP7 schemes for specifically funding military and defence projects. Nevertheless, the concept of ‘dual use technologies’ manages to circumvent such rules, covering equipment development for both civilian and military objectives. EU defence companies have benefitted from hundreds of millions in EU research grants[ix] for the research and development of drones, in spite of regulation against using such grants for military purposes and projects. Far from being a victim of the economic crisis, the European arms industry has benefitted from lucrative deals and EU-funded subsidies. Statewatch, a London-based civil liberties watchdog, outlined in a report that over €315 millions of EU research money has been directed in the past years for major European military projects.
The defence industry and major weapons manufactures such as Selex, EADS, Dassault Aviation, Finmeccanica Thales, and Sagem are among the main beneficiaries of such EU funding. With dual-use technologies, the EDA has now access to the EU’s massive Structural Funds (SF) to boost the European defence industry. Reaping the benefits of dual-use technologies and dual-use research and production projects seems to be the way ahead. The EU also needs to put forward targeted regulation for the use of drones in civilian airspace, especially when their previous use was for militarized and repressive purposes, with clear implications for privacy, civil liberties, and human rights. It appears that investment in drone research and technology has become an EU-level, politically-driven policy, without engendering substantive democratic debate on the topic.
Several examples of EU-funded projects for drone development:
In November 2013, defence ministers from a drone-using club of seven[xiv] EU member states (France, Germany, Italy, Greece, Poland, Spain, and The Netherlands) tasked the EDA to draft a study on joint production of Medium Altitude Long Endurance (Male) vehicles. Male aims to manufacture drones from 2020 onwards, which can be employed to strike military targets and for the surveillance of migrant boats in the Mediterranean Sea. A select number of EU member states have initiated cooperation frameworks[xv] for the joint development of drones: France and the UK are developing a ‘stealth’ drone named Telemos to fly in 2018; France, Italy, Greece, Spain, Switzerland, and Sweden are working on a ‘euro-Ucav’ or unmanned combat air vehicle, the nEUROn[xvi].
An EDA meeting of eight countries back in November 2013 (Belgium, Austria, the Czech Republic, Germany, France, Italy, plus the US and Israel) advanced the scheme, ‘Joint Investment Programme on RPAS for Air Traffic Insertion’[xvii], to enable drones to fly alongside civilian planes. The European Commission in collaboration with Israel Aerospace Industries and the Austrian Diamond Airborne Sensing is also developing drones to be employed for civilian purposes and the surveillance of the EU civilian airspace. Hybrid aerial surveillance drones[xviii] for maritime surveillance and for combating illegal migration are being considered by FRONTEX, the EU border agency, due to the fact that they circumvent the EU laws prohibiting unmanned drones from flying in civilian airspace.
All of the above-mentioned examples are indicative of a pan-European hybrid drone development trend, favouring large security and defence companies and a club of select and powerful EU member states. Issues pertaining to democratic accountability and oversight come up in the discussion, especially when the European Parliament is not involved in the debate and the EU institutions are under lobbying pressure by the European defence industry to put forward favourable policy initiatives. The main issue is that the agenda seems to be set by the defence industry and big drone manufacturers. Secondly, there is increased concern that decisions are being taken at the EU level in the absence of genuine democratic control over the EU institutions and agencies responsible with drones development and their impact upon civil liberties.
Further reflection about irresponsible innovation and research as regards the development of hybrid unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) is long overdue at the EU level – a proper debate should address checks and balances mechanisms in this evolving policy realm and for the defence industry. The 86-page Statewatch study, Eurodrones Inc[xix], from February 2014 concludes that the EU ‘has substituted the democratic process for a technocratic one’, the watchdog warning that the potential of drones for social control in Europe needs more democratic and public scrutiny. The use of drones in the civilian airspace and for border surveillance purposes requires further public debate in an open and democratic manner and not through convoluted EU backdoors and secretive working groups of a select few from either the EU institutions, national governments, or the defence industry.
Drones have become the iconic weapon of the 21st century, introducing radical changes in high-tech warfare and the business of surveillance and killing. By facing stiff competition from international arms manufactures such as the US and Israel, the EU has got on the drone development bandwagon, hoping that investment schemes in the defence industry will revitalize Europe’s military-industrial complex. The EU’s interest in drones is double-folded: on the one hand, drones could be used as cheap and effective means to ensure internal security through border management, surveillance, and counter-terrorism; and on the other hand they could be employed as a military tool to support the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy missions and operations in theatres of action abroad.
The creation of hybrid drones poses the problem of siphoning off an increased segment of civilian technical resources and skills for military use as well as establishing general legal standards for civilian airspace surveillance or patterns of technology transfer from civilian to military applications or vice-versa. Drone technology is being put forward as the solution to more complex internal and external security challenges, broader cultural and economic arguments being used by proponents of hybrid drone development to justify and legitimise expensive and controversial defence programs. Nevertheless, the undeveloped relationship between security, technology, law, culture, and human action is called into question, especially when considering the potential advantages and drawbacks of weapons technologies and their use in the civilian realm and airspace.
[i] Danuel Brunstetter and Megan Braun, ‘The Implications of Drones on the Just War Tradition’ in Ethics & International Affairs, Volume 25, Issue 03, Fall 2011, 337-358.
[ii] Christian Enemark, Armed Drones and the Ethics of War: Military Virtue in a Post-heroic Age, Routledge, 2013
[iii] Ibidem, 2.
[iv] Mark Coeckelbergh, ‘Drones, information technology, and distance: mapping the moral epistemology of remote fighting’ in Ethics and Information Technology, Volume 15, Issue 2, June 2013, 87-98.
[vi] Peter M. Asaro, ‘The labour of surveillance and bureaucratized killing: new subjectivities of military drone operators’ in Social Semiotics Special Issue: Charting, Tracking, and Mapping, Volume 23, Issue 2, 2013, 196-224.
[vii] Erich Freiberger, Just War Theory and the Ethics of Drone Warfare, 18 July 2013, E-International Relations, http://www.e-ir.info/2013/07/18/just-war-theory-and-the-ethics-of-drone-warfare/ (accessed on 24 June 2014)
[viii] http://ec.europa.eu/enterprise/sectors/aerospace/uas/ (accessed on 24 June 2014)
[xvi] http://www.airforce-technology.com/projects/neuron/ (accessed on 24 June 2014)
[xvii] http://www.eda.europa.eu/info-hub/news/2013/11/19/defence-ministers-commit-to-capability-programmes (accessed on 24 June 2014)
[xix] Statewatch Report, ‘Eurodrones Inc.’, http://www.statewatch.org/news/2014/feb/sw-tni-eurodrones-inc-feb-2014.pdf (accessed on 24 June 2014)