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Drone: Remote Control Warfare

·4 mins

The Rocket man had it coming, the old man didn’t.

Drones are unmanned vehicle which are used for aerial surveillance, monitoring and in the case of military, for obliterating targets

  • man or material. These are cheaper than regular aircrafts and can be maneuvered remotely.

Martin Scorsese in each of movies, and heavily in his recent movie Silence, includes an overhead shot which he calls the God’s POV. When reading this book I was immediately reminded of these scenes and imagined the camera panning-out from one of these shots to a video screen showing a bird’s POV to a group of military personnel monitoring the area for insurgents. The super cut or pan will be an apt description of what follows when you read the rest of the book. Drone is inherently a voyeuristic technology. The operators are like the omniscient all-seeing Gods. They watch people from the other side of the world, from thousands of feet above and create mental stories, interpretive leaps and fill in gaps in information.

How does the drone warfare operate? The personnel who fly drones are seated in a trailer, a souped-up shipping container, which is fitted with padded seats, several computer screens and the controls for flying the drone. Usually the personnel comprises a pilot, a sensor operator and an intelligence analyst. The personnel works twelve hour shifts, six days a week. Flying a drone is different than flying a fighter plane - you have to build a three-dimensional picture of the drone’s position using camera, chats and texts, dials and gauges using both overhaed and sideways screens. During a “kill”, the trailer lightens up with myriad texts, radio signal interpreters, chats and commands. The moment of missile impact, the “splash”, which kills people by incinerating them, generating a blast wave that crushes the targets or nearby humans internal organs and unleashes a shower of high-velocity steel sharpnels. The crew then identifies the runaway insurgents, the “squirters”, assesses the damage and does reporting. The drone warfare takes its worst toll on the citizens of the target city. A drone does several rounds before assessing the positions of those on the kill-list. There’s a constant hum in the air. The “psychic imprisonment” by endless flying watchtowers creates a sense of panic. Those who live under the drones are increasingly showing many symptoms of posttraumatic stress, including breakdowns, nightmares, outbursts of anger and irritability, loss of appetite, sleeplessness, physical malaise, and unexplained physical pains. There are three types of drone targeting-

  1. Personality Strikes are directed at individuals who have personalized profiles and are on some kill-list. These are usually high profile insurgents.

  2. Signature Strikes are directed at individuals who have exhibited signature behaviors that are associated with insurgents.

  3. Double Tap Strikes are the strikes where a drone continues to circle over a site after the first strike and launches further attacks on people who come to the aid of the victims of the initial strike. This practice was popular with the Hamas.

As is evident, in each of these strikes there are huge scopes of misjudgements. Over-reliance on the informants poses its own challenge that the informants try to exact revenge on locals for their wrongs.

Then, there is the question of valor. The U.S. Air Force calls the drones - Remotely Piloted Aircrafts, but the drone operators find themselves hard to get promoted despite doing their jobs well. They are often berated as “Cubicle Warriors” or “combatants who do not face any threats”. The drone strikes are widely considered to be cowardly in the middle-east. The drone operators do not share the same camaraderie, the espirit de corps, which naturally develops among the soldiers in a battlefield.

Drones do not evoke severe criticism from the local populace, at least in the U.S. Part of the reason is that the troops do not need to be deployed in a foreign land and the personnel is available in the native country, the psychological torque notwithstanding. The author suggests that because of the asymmetry the drone warfare should not be called a war but torture. Like torture the drone operations involves a unilateral infliction of pain.

Drones are socio-technical apparatus. In a recent uplifting news drones were used in re-seeding an entire forest. Asymmetric drone warfare is the reality of today’s times and this book throws light on the pressing issues.

P.S. I saw the movie often referenced in this book - “Good Kill” where Ethan Hawke plays an drone operator who undergoes the same turmoil and the “psychological torque”. It is a good companion piece to this book.