Drones Over Libya
The US has now deployed armed drones over Libya, according to press reports. Drone systems have been operating as surveillance systems for weeks now, but acting on a NATO request, the US has now put up at least two weaponized drones in the Libya conflict.
The logic of this move is inescapable. NATO countries launch air strikes against Libyan army assets, making tanks and regular military vehicles a death sentence. The Libyan army shifts to “technicals” and eventually to commingling with civilians on the ground to avoid easy identification. The attack aircraft cannot loiter long enough to develop the intelligence necessary to separate the targets from the civilians. Bring in the drones in a surveillance role. However, because the targets move so easily, it makes far more sense to use the drones as both surveillance and weapons platform, and strike directly from them. The precision targeting of the drones is likely to mean that they will be far more discriminating than regular manned aircraft. Of course, none of this is possible without having first suppressed air defense systems. Moreover, the evolution of tit-and-tat tracks one of the essential logics of drones: they are an attempt to use technology to overcome an adversary’s behavioral violations of the laws of war. Lawfare is one of the drivers of drone warfare.
Query whether this deployment of drones in Samantha Power’s War, if that isn’t too snarky, wars of humanitarian altruism, will cement the acceptability of drones and targeted killing in conflict. Likewise the acceptability, and not just utility, of the CIA in using force when political reasons preclude military boots on the ground. If targeted killing and drones and CIA are okay in humanitarian adventures, they are okay in Pakistan and Afghanistan and wars in which the US has interests at stake. It is possible, but not persuasive, that wars of humanitarian intervention support a different set of rules for fighting and “jus in bello” than regular wars, but that would defy the fundamental principle of the conduct rules of armed conflict, viz., that the rules are the rules regardless of the motive for fighting.
But the real shift here is a gradual acceptance among the critics of targeted killing and drone warfare that, in fact, it is more discriminating. I sense a change of heart underway — a recognition that although far from perfect, targeted killing through this technology is, well, targeted. In that case, the focus inevitably shifts from a question of proportionality (being about civilians) to necessity (being about who is targeted) within the framework of ethics and war. I write about these topics in a new, short working paper up on SSRN, on the idea “efficiency” in jus in bello and jus ad bellum.