Why is this interesting? - The Drone Edition

On drones, Saudi Arabia, and the direction of warfare

A programming note. If you read WITI in Gmail, kindly drag the email out of “promotions” if our humble letter is landing there, and drag it to “primary.” Also, it pains me to make this ask but adding the address you receive this from to your contacts would help avoid the purgatory of the spam folder. We are trying hard, and would like to not have algos dictate where we land. Thank you. (CJN)

Colin here. Drones have been shaping modern warfare, and increasingly geopolitics, since the first documented use by the US in Pakistan fifteen years ago. The Obama administration deployed them aggressively on hunt/kill missions, using legal loopholes and ambiguity to target suspected terrorists remotely. At the time, there were many questions that came up: Who is doing the targeting and with what criteria? What about the innocent people who are being killed? And are these targeted killings assassinations? Of course, this extrajudicial judge/jury/executioner strategy was not without its consequences. How many people became radicals after, say, the wedding party was bombed? The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer, who wrote extensively on the topic back in 2009, mentioned in an NPR interview with Terry Gross, “you just basically also become morally insulated to a kind of a horrific thing that's going on, and eventually I think it's going to cause blowback, that basically that's been the experience historically.”

One of the most important points in her prescient piece The Predator War was how the rise of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) also took out a very important piece of calculus in military decision-making: Is this target (and the underlying intelligence) worth potentially putting the life of a pilot on the line for? By reducing a serious thing to something more akin to a video game, particularly when flown by remote pilots in the US, you’ve removed a large amount of the perceived cost and consequence.

Here’s how Mayer described the calculus in 2009:

Peter W. Singer, the author of “Wired for War,” a recent book about the robotics revolution in modern combat, argues that the drone technology is worryingly “seductive,” because it creates the perception that war can be “costless.” Cut off from the realities of the bombings in Pakistan, Americans have been insulated from the human toll, as well as from the political and the moral consequences. Nearly all the victims have remained faceless, and the damage caused by the bombings has remained unseen. In contrast to Gaza, where the targeted killing of Hamas fighters by the Israeli military has been extensively documented—making clear that the collateral damage, and the loss of civilian life, can be severe—Pakistan’s tribal areas have become largely forbidden territory for media organizations. As a result, no videos of a drone attack in progress have been released, and only a few photographs of the immediate aftermath of a Predator strike have been published.

Why is this interesting? 

Recently, a series of small drones attacked oil pipelines in Saudi Arabia, triggering price panic and quite a few other knock-on effects that made the front page of the financial papers. What is interesting about this is that these are not the types of drones that we are used to talking about in warfare, instead, they are light, cheap, relatives of commercial drones that have been retrofitted for battle. 

According to a Times piece on the strikes:

The attacks not only exposed a Saudi vulnerability in the war against the Houthis, but also demonstrated how relatively cheap it has become to stage such high-profile strikes. The drones used may have cost $15,000 or less to build, said Wim Zwijnenburg, a senior researcher on drones at PAX, a Dutch peace organization.

The strikes illustrate how David-and-Goliath tactics using cheap drones are adding a new layer of volatility to the Middle East. Such attacks not only damage vital economic infrastructure, but can also increase security costs, disrupt markets and spread fear.

While the Houthis do not have significant financial resources, drones give them a way to hurt Saudi Arabia, which was the world’s third-highest spender on military equipment in 2018, investing an estimated $67.6 billion.

So, just as the advent of drone warfare changed the calculus of how America executes foreign and counterterrorism policy, the future iterations of these drones, especially when in the hands of rebel groups, indeed do constitute a true force multiplier and create, as the Times mentioned, a David and Goliath effect. For $15,000 dollars and some ambition, you can disrupt the global oil markets and land yourself in the Presidential Daily Briefing. And this is just the tip of the iceberg: According to a recent piece in the Financial Times, a commentator suggested, “[the militias] are only just scratching the surface of what drones can do.” He warned of drone swarms, techniques to manipulate flight paths, and masking of radar signals. “Expect more of those,” he said.

Now, guerilla warfare and the idea of small forces fighting bigger, better-armed ones have always existed, but in this case, technology is flattening things faster than most people have understood. Expect the idea of drone defense to continue being a growing industry, and expect that this is not the first of these types of tactics, not only from warring parties but also as tools of protestors. An activist was recently charged in a plan to stop Heathrow airport with drones. (CJN)

Graveyard of the Day:

These photos by Finbarr Fallon of Hong Kong’s vertical graveyards are amazing. From My Modern Met: “With space at a premium in the densely packed city, these cemeteries built into the surrounding mountains loom ominously over Hong Kong. Many of these terraced burial sites were built in the 1980s as a last-ditch effort to create more space in a city that is running out of places to bury the dead.” (NRB)

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Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN)

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