The final years of the cold war in the 1970s-1980s were dominated by nuclear issues, including the nuclear arms-race, Trident, the Soviet SS-20 missile and the cruise-missiles deployed at Greenham Common and elsewhere. Within that controversial period there were some remarkable technical developments that have a huge relevance decades later, one of them being the long-range cruise-missile itself.
Many of these were nuclear-armed, but even more were conventionally-armed. A great number was used in the attacks of January-February 1991 against the Iraqi forces that had occupied Kuwait. The crucial element was the production of small, super-efficient turbo-fan engines that could propel the craft over 1,500 kilometres or more. These also had advanced-guidance systems, including Tercom (terrain-contour-matching) that enabled remarkable accuracy of less than twenty metres over that range. They were, however, self-contained – their pre-programmed onboard computers did all the work, so the target coordinates could not be changed after launch.
That has all been transformed with the development since the early 1990s of the armed-drone. But something else has changed: the much greater frequency of suicide- (or martyr-) bombing – people prepared to give their own lives in often obliterating attacks in pursuit of a cause. What is rarely recognised, though, is that in one important sense there is no difference between a suicide-bomber and a drone.
The evolution of combat
Suicide-bombing allows explosives to be placed at or very close to a target, with the deliverer having considerable real-time initiative and scope for concealment. He or she can adapt to circumstances in matters of timing as well as any movement of and even the precise location of the target. Countermeasures such as blast-walls and surveillance systems can be circumvented or fooled.
At the core of the attack is almost always a volunteer who is dedicated, intelligent and knowledgeable of the objective and the vicinity. The commitment may stem from political, religious or ethnic identity – and the determination to complete the mission may be extremely high once the operation started. The huge impact of suicide-bombs has been well-known at least since 9/11, but major incidents occurred long before then.
A specific assault on Rajiv Gandhi by a member of the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) guerrilla group killed India’s former prime minister and fourteen other people on 21 May 1991. The assassin, Thenmozhi Rajaratnam, had got close enough to garland Gandhi with flowers before activating his device.
In October 1995, the Sri Lankan army dislodged the LTTE from its core city of Jaffna in a costly and brutal campaign. A devastating response followed on 31 January 1996, when a suicide-bomber detonated a truck-bomb at the entrance to the central bank right in the heart of Colombo’s business district. Many important buildings were destroyed or damaged, and almost 100 people were killed; flying debris took a huge toll of injuries, with around 1,400 affected (see “The asymmetry of economic war“, 14 February 2008)
In the past ten years, most such attacks have been across the middle east and south Asia, but they almost all have those characteristics listed above. They are repeatedly effective and difficult to counter without very considerable resources.
The similarity with armed-drones is striking. Drones such as the Reaper have multiple air-to-surface missiles, can loiter for hours and are “flown” in real time by operators thousands of miles away. There is no risk to these people, no suicide factor. Drones may not have quite the precision potential of a suicide-bomber, and in the very final seconds before impact the missiles that are fired cannot be diverted or halted. They are also dependent on previous intelligence which may be faulty and, as with suicide-attacks, a target person may be accompanied by many others, including family members. Yet they are increasingly the weapons of choice (see “Drone warfare: cost and challenge“, 23 June 2011).
The majority of armed-drone developments in the past decades has been American or Israeli but the degree of proliferation is quite remarkable, not least across Nato. Apart from extensive Israeli use, the main proponents in current conflicts have been the United States, with drones “flown” from Creech air-force base near Las Vegas, and the United Kingdom, with the operating base in the process of moving from Creech to RAF Waddington, south of Lincoln in eastern England, one of the main bases for the RAF’s air-warfare centre (AWC).
The blowback effect
At present the “balance” between suicide-targeting and drone-targeting is more or less equal. In 2007-08, suicide-bombing was more prominent but armed-drones have caught up (see Michael Hastings, “The Rise of the Killer Drones: How America Goes to War in Secret“, Rolling Stone, 12 April 2012). The conflict is moving from expeditionary warfare, with tens of thousands of “boots on the ground”, towards the “remote control” of threats using armed-drones, special forces, privatised military contractors and possibly even “Prompt Global Strike” with conventionally-armed ballistic-missiles. Armed-drones are likely to be central to this, with much more research, development, production, deployment and use still to come (see “America’s global shift: drone wars, base politics“, 3 May 2012).
Then comes the blowback.
As paramilitary movements learn to respond, their range of options starts with the utilisation of many readily available technologies. They may be aided by support from a sympathetic regime – witness the unarmed TV-guided drones from Hizbollah, deploying Iranian technology, that have caused the Israelis such concern (see “Hizbollah’s warning flight“, 5 May 2005). Even short of that, the fusion of so many available dual-use technologies and the abilities of skilled engineers and technicians working within radical movements means that armed-drones from non-state actors will be a feature of asymmetrical, transnational war very soon (see “An asymmetrical drone war“, 19 August 2010)
In addition, and even without using drones, paramilitary movements should be expected to target the drone-war centres such as the Creech and Waddington bases – if not the bases themselves, then soft targets in their vicinity.
What military planners and policy-formers in the west realise least of all is that while the results of drone-warfare rarely make the western media in any depth, they are extensively reported on regional and satellite TV stations across the middle east and into Asia. Even more pertinent is the pervasive coverage of drone-attacks on the worldwide jihadist social media. Moreover, the graphic images of death and suffering on both these kinds of outlets are far grimmer than anything seen in the west (see “Every casualty: the human face of war“, 15 September 2011).
For now, the drones hold sway – but it is no more than a temporary phenomenon, a transient phase. Within a very few years, and maybe even only months, the next phase will commence as paramilitary groups respond. As with other elements of the “war on terror”, the seduction of short-term advantage disguises damaging longer-term consequences.