Armed drones may be prone to targeting errors

1200px-MQ-9_Reaper_-_090609-F-0000M-777We learned on June 7th that Canada intends to acquire armed drones for “precision targeting”. Despite widespread concerns about their misuse both in situations of armed conflict and otherwise, the government has provided no real rationale for why Canada needs them nor any policy framework to guard against their abuse.

The use of armed drones to date has been characterized by a lack of transparency, particularly in relation to the number of civilian casualties and a commensurate lack of accountability for their misuse. For a comprehensive examination of the problem, see the Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s drone warfare database.

Proponents of armed drones argue that they are better than the alternatives — manned aircraft and cruise missiles — but an American military analysis found that:

Drone strikes in Afghanistan were… an order of magnitude more likely to result in civilian casualties per engagement [than manned aircraft]. (page 46)

In trying to understand why this could be so, an analysis published in the International Journal of Human Rights by Canadian law professor Craig Martin examines the unique characteristics of drone systems and the policies and practices surrounding their use. He concludes that both the “means” and “methods” of drone use may contribute to targeting errors.

Paradoxically, the very features that are most likely to make the drone compliant with IHL [International Humanitarian Law] — its ability to linger undetected for protracted periods over potential targets, feeding intelligence back to an operations team that can make targeting decisions in a relatively stress-free environment — may facilitate targeting errors caused by misperception and misinterpretation of the data.

Click here for a summary of the article and here for the full text in PDF format.

In light of these problems, the Rideau Institute and a range of other Canadian civil society organizations have called for:

…. the establishment of an international control regime for armed unmanned aerial vehicles and other armed drones. Canada should actively pursue, preferably through the United Nations, the creation of a tight international regulatory regime for the restricted deployment and use of these weapons. This regime should build on current international law, be rooted in the principles of responsibility, transparency and accountability, and focus on protection of civilian populations and property.

Prime Minister Trudeau says we’ll wait until we’ve acquired the drones and are ready to use them before we develop a policy on their use.

Surely, the innocent civilians that could be mistakenly targeted by Canada’s armed drones deserve far better.


Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons


Tags: Afghanistan, Armed Conflict, Armed drones, Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Canadian defence policy, Civilian casualties, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, International Humanitarian Law (IHL), International Journal of Human Rights, NATO, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Professor Craig Martin, targeting, USA