Drone War Is Coming Home: A View from across the Ocean

by Volker Eick*


Since Nobel Peace Prize laureate and US president Barack Obama began targeted killings of supposed Islamic terrorists using Special Forces and the CIA in Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia,(1) an envious German government has sought to catch up with its Atlantic partner in the adoption of Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAVs), or drones.

Whereas President Obama signs killing lists on “Terror Tuesdays” against “adversaries” — either with or without American passports, and in any event without normal procedural guarantees such as an indictment, trial, or verdict (2) — to date the German army has not had the armed drones at its disposal (3) needed to carry out what US-based “combat commuters”(4) call “bug splats.”(5)

The number of armed Predator drones and the larger Reapers in the US arsenal grew from roughly 170 in 2002 to over 7,000 in 2012.(6) For its part, the German air force currently employs only 335 unarmed drones and frequently relies on the US army for support in killing “enemies” in Afghanistan. The latter relationship is revealed in a recent report by Der Spiegel,a German news magazine, which draws upon government documents.(7)

The use of armed drones in Pakistan and beyond is detailed in two recent studies. The first,Living under Drones,(8) was published jointly by the Stanford Law School and New York University’s School of Law in September 2012, and the second, Losing Humanity,(9) was issued by Human Rights Watch in November 2012. Together, they highlight recent developments in the deployment of automatic “killing robots.” According to The Bureau of Investigative Journalism,(10) the number of people reportedly killed between 2004 and 2012 in Pakistan alone ranges from 2,537 to 3,581. Among them are 411 to 884 civilians, including 168 to 197 children.(11) The latest report, published in March 2013 by Reprieve, a London-based nongovernmental organization, called the drone program — which uses robotic aircraft armed with Hellfire missiles outside declared war zones — a violation of “a range of rights enshrined in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child,” including the rights to life, health, and education.(12)

Almost ten years after the first strikes took place, Ben Emmerson, the UN terrorism and human rights envoy, issued his March 2013 statement in which he characterized US drone strikes in Pakistan as violations of international law.(13) The German attorney general required over 20 months simply to decide whether his office had jurisdiction to investigate(14) the killing of a German citizen by US drones in Pakistan in 2010.(15)

Such targeted killings, including “signature strikes,”(16) are contested, but they will not end soon. Instead, the German government announced plans for Germany to become an ally of the armed high-tech “coalition of the willing,” which includes Israel, the UK, and the USA, the only three countries currently known to deploy armed drones.

In the spring of 2013, the German administration, while failing to give a meaningful justification for deploying armed UAVs, announced that it would buy armed MALE drones (medium-altitude, long-endurance) in early 2015 at the latest.(17) It also revealed that the first flight of a HALE drone system (EuroHawk) over Germany had been successful and will be ready for deployment by September 2013.(18) The German administration is still deciding whether to develop a combined drone system at the level of the European Union (with the UK and France) or to buy them from the US or Israel (from which it leases the Heron drones it uses in Afghanistan). Regardless, it is clear that the German government wishes to employ armed drones.

In Germany, the response of an alliance of antiwar, peace, and human rights groups has been to launch a “No combat drones!” initiative and to demand that the government neither develop nor buy UAVs. They seek a ban on “killing drones,” while opposing any drone technology that might be used for surveillance and repressive purposes.(19) The alliance’s website is under construction and information is available only in German.(20) However, it is extremely important that the issues of “surveillance” and “repression” are being raised in relation to drone technology and its deployment, not the least because the US administration has been reluctant to clarify whether the assassination option also extends to homeland soil(21) and because police departments are preparing to install less-lethal weapons on drones to carry out surveillance and crowd-control.(22a) (22b) (22c) This is true in the US and is also on the agenda in Europe.

Such “civil” uses of drones in Western Europe and Germany transfer technology to the home front that was originally developed for military purposes abroad. Police deployment of drones encompasses the following functions: surveillance and intelligence gathering (at events, inside and outside buildings, during raids, for border and water control), gathering evidence (prosecuting crimes, documenting crime scenes), keeping tabs on troublemakers, carrying out searches (in threat scenarios or for missing persons), observations (of objects and persons), surveillance of VIPs and buildings, traffic-control measures, as well as transport missions and technical support.(23)

The UAV CannaChopper is deployed to police cannabis smokers and their outdoor plantations in The Netherlands and in Switzerland. Since November 2007, and especially during the European football championship in June 2008, a military drone has controlled football fans (this was also the case during the 2012 Olympics in London).(24) At the NATO summit in April 2009, the machine was used to intercept “troublemakers” at the French border. In the United Kingdom, the police have employed drones since mid-2007, targeting, among others, rock fans, as well as enforcing Anti-Social Behaviour Orders.(25) In The Netherlands, a UAV supported the police during evictions at a squatted building in February 2008. Belgium, France, Italy, and the UK have used drones to target undocumented workers, demonstrations (“crowd control”), waste collection, illegalized migrants,(26) and other marginalized groups and their habitats. Austria controls its eastern borders with drones.

The German police have acquired Aladin and FanCopter UAVs for the surveillance of urban areas, and the regional police forces of Saxony and North-Rhine Westphalia deploy the AirRobot. Since early 2008 in Saxony, UAVs have carried out surveillance on alleged hooligans, while Lower-Saxony has used them to control protesters rallying against atomic waste transports. In other words, hardly any marginalized and/or criminalized group has escaped the attention of UAVs. And more groups (and drones) are to come.

To legitimize the use of drones in Germany, the government has claimed that drones are “ethically unproblematic” and will be “first utilized in the coastal areas…for example, to search for castaways.” That justification stretches credulity, since in the last twenty years fewer castaways have died in German waters than perished during the twenty minutes it took Colonel Georg Klein to massacre some 91 Afghans during a 2009 air strike in Kunduz.(27)

To date, shipwrecked al Qaeda members are unknown in the Baltic Sea and it therefore makes more sense to focus on the administration’s second argument for procuring drones, that is, to “control the coast,” or as Die Welt, the conservative daily newspaper, correctly frames the official standpoint, “to watch refugee streams.”(28) Thus, the impression is created that without the deployment of drones Germany will sooner or later be overrun by a migrant tsunami.

The “3-D missions,” described by former Air Force Inspector Lieutenant General Klaus-Peter Stieglitz in 2007 as the “dull, dirty, and dangerous ones,”(29) began to intensify with the advent of the hunter-killer UAVs. Now they are coming home — unmanned, but not uncontested.

* Volker Eick, Department of Social Sciences, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, was guest editor with Kendra Briken of a recent issue of Social Justice entitled Policing the Crisis: Policing in Crisis (Vol. 38: 1-2).

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