Touchdown, Jackpot

Tom Stevenson

A spate of recent conflicts are said to have been decided by the use of drones. In November last year, Tigrayan forces were advancing on Addis Ababa. When Ethiopian security forces pushed them back, the Tigrayans credited the army’s use of drones with turning the tide. In Libya, drones were used by the forces of the UN-backed Government of National Accord against Khalifa Haftar’s ‘Libyan National Army’. In Nagorno-Karabakh in the autumn of 2020, the Armenian side lost around half of its artillery and air defence systems to drone strikes in the first hours of the war. Videos of low-cost drones operated by Azerbaijan’s armed forces destroying Armenian tanks and motorised infantry units impressed military analysts.

In 2018, a US Army major argued that the United States should use more small and expendable ‘tactical drones’ in its military operations. Something like this advice has been taken up by smaller states. Drones are popular because they offer air power on the cheap. Some armed drones can be bought for under $2 million. The American MQ-9 Reaper is much more expensive but still less than an F-16, even before you count the expense of training a pilot who might be killed.

This is just as well, since drones get shot down all the time. In 2011, Iranian forces downed an RQ-170 stealth drone operated by the CIA. In the Ukraine conflict between 2014 and 2016 so many OSCE reconnaissance drones were brought down over the Donbass that they were withdrawn entirely.

The US military has used reconnaissance drones in wars since the 1960s. The armed drone is a more recent development. The first drone to fire a missile in flight was a Predator (tailfin no. 3034) on a test range in California in early 2001. The Hellfire missiles it carried were designed as anti-tank weapons to be fired from helicopters. Predator 3034 was also used in the first attempt at a drone assassination. The target was the Taliban leader Mullah Omar in October 2001. The attempt failed, but it marked the beginning of a drone boom. By 2016, the US was killing four thousand people a year using drones, most of them away from traditional battlefields.

The combination of the unprecedented global surveillance system built by the NSA and remotely piloted aircraft produced the most widespread assassination campaign in human history. A drone operator sitting at a computer terminal in Creech Air Force base in Nevada can control a drone taking off from an airfield in Qatar or Djibouti that flies a thousand miles to assassinate someone in Yemen, Pakistan or Syria. The process is full of euphemism. Drones are ‘birds’. The people targeted for death are ‘objectives’. Missile attacks are ‘kinetic strikes’. They use the language of games: kills are ‘touchdowns’, target fact sheets are ‘baseball cards’, a successful assassination is a ‘jackpot’.

The US is not the only country to conduct drone assassinations. France has carried them out in Mali, the UK in Syria, and Israel has used drones to kill Palestinians in Gaza. But the US remains the only state to use drones in warfare at scale.

In December, a New York Times investigation based on a cache of Pentagon documents found that claims of precision in the US air war in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria are delusional. Drone operators and airstrike targeters do not know what they are hitting. Decisions are made on the basis of a few seconds of footage captured from above. Misidentification is rampant: a cotton gin, say, mistaken for an explosives factory. And when drone operators and pilots can correctly identify someone they want to shoot at, their targets are usually close to bystanders.

A straight line can be drawn between celebrations of ‘precision’ air weaponry and airstrikes in civilian areas. The inability of US drone operators and targeters to find and identify individuals accurately has led to a strategy based on volume. Drop a lot of bombs, accept that many civilians will die, and occasionally you will kill someone you meant to.

The spread of drone warfare to minor states is likely to mean an extension of the basic cruelty of air campaigns. Earlier this month, an Ethiopian drone strike hit a flour mill in Tselemti, north of the Simien mountains. Seventeen people were killed, most of them women.


  • 19 January 2022 at 9:21am
    Camus says:
    Every new weapon has been greeted with the approval of military strategists who usually told us that now wars would be over faster with fewer casualties on our side. Dynamite, the Dreadnought battle ships, submarines, machine guns, land mines, hand grenades, poison gas, and of course nuclear weapons have all received the accolades of the armchair experts as great new weapons to win our wars so there is nothing new about the claims made for drones .
    Drones need electronic guidance and war ministries everywhere will be recruiting computer nerds who will be the frontline killers in future conflicts. The thousands of young people who have just had their first experience of working with a computer will be potential drone pilots ready to search out and kill any opponent on their target files without any support or evidence of any kind. I hope that the NGOs are working out their counterstrategies.

  • 26 January 2022 at 4:56pm
    david maclagan says:
    check out Elenore Weber's 'There will be no more night' (2020) for actual footage and a real feel of the split-second confusions.