This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com.
[The following is slightly adapted from chapters two and three of Grégoire Chamayou’s new book, A Theory of the Drone, with special thanks to his publisher, the New Press.]
Initially, the English word “drone” meant both an insect and a sound. It was not until the outbreak of World War II that it began to take on another meaning. At that time, American artillery apprentices used the expression “target drones” to designate the small remotely controlled planes at which they aimed in training. The metaphor did not refer solely to the size of those machines or the brm-brm of their motors. Drones are male bees, without stingers, and eventually the other bees kill them. Classical tradition regarded them as emblems of all that is nongenuine and dispensable. That was precisely what a target drone was: just a dummy, made to be shot down.
However, it was a long time before drones were to be seen cruising above battlefields. To be sure, the idea dates back quite a while: there were the Curtiss-Sperry aerial torpedo and the Kettering Bug at the end of World War I, and then the Nazi V-1s and V-2s unleashed on London in 1944. But those old flying torpedoes may be considered more as the ancestors of cruise missiles than as those of present-day drones. The essential difference lies in the fact that while the former can be used only once, the latter are reusable. The drone is not a projectile, but a projectile-carrying machine.
It was during the Vietnam War that the U.S. Air Force, to counteract the Soviet surface-to-air missiles that had inflicted heavy casualties on it, invested in reconnaissance drones nicknamed “Lightning Bugs,” produced by Ryan Aeronautical. An American official explained that “these RPVs [remotely piloted vehicles] could help prevent aircrews from becoming casualties or prisoners… With RPVs, survival is not the driving factor.”
Once the war was over, those machines were scrapped. By the late 1970s, the development of military drones had been practically abandoned in the United States. However, it continued elsewhere. Israel, which had inherited a few of these machines, recognized their potential tactical advantages.
In 1973, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), facing off against Egypt, ran up against the tactical problem of surface-to-air missiles. After losing around 30 planes in the first hours of the Yom Kippur War, Israeli aviation changed its tactics. They decided to send out a wave of drones in order to mislead enemy defenses: “After the Egyptians fired their initial salvo at the drones, the manned strikes were able to attack while the Egyptians were reloading.” This ruse enabled Israel to assume mastery of the skies. In 1982, similar tactics were employed against the Syrians in the Bekaa Valley. Having first deployed their fleet of Mastiff and Scout drones, the Israelis then sent out decoy planes that were picked up by enemy radar. The Syrians activated their surface-to-air missiles, to no effect whatsoever. The drones, which had been observing the scene from the sky, easily detected the positions of the antiaircraft batteries and relayed them to the Israeli fighter planes, which then proceeded to annihilate them.
The drones were used for other purposes as well:
“Two days after a terrorist bomb destroyed the [U.S.] Marine Barracks in Beirut in October 1983, Marine Commandant Gen. P.X. Kelley secretly flew to the scene. No word of his arrival was leaked. Yet, across the border, Israeli intelligence officers watched live television images of Kelley arriving and inspecting the barracks. They even zoomed the picture in tight, placing cross hairs directly on his head. Hours later, in Tel Aviv, the Israelis played back the tape for the shocked Marine general. The scene, they explained, was transmitted by a Mastiff RPV circling out of sight above the barracks.”
This was just one of a series of minor events that combined to encourage the relaunch of American drone production in the 1980s. “All I did,” confessed Al Ellis, the father of the Israeli drones, “was take a model airplane, put a camera in it, and take the pictures… But that started an industry.”
At this point, however, the drones were simply machines for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. They were just eyes, not weapons. The metamorphosis came about almost by chance, between Kosovo and Afghanistan, as the new millennium began. As early as 1995, General Atomics had invented a new remote-controlled spy plane prototype, the Predator. Despite its disquieting name, the beast was not yet equipped with claws or teeth. In Kosovo, where it was deployed in 1999, the drone limited itself to filming targets and illuminating them by means of lasers, allowing the F-16 planes to strike.
But it would take a “‘different kind of war’ to make the Predator into apredator.” No more than a few months before September 11, 2001, officers who had seen the Predator at work in Kosovo had the idea of experimentally equipping it with an antitank missile. Writes Bill Yenne in his history of the drone, “On February 16, 2001, during tests at Nellis Air Force Base, a Predator successfully fired a Hellfire AGM114C into a target. The notion of turning the Predator into a predator had been realized. No one could imagine that, before the year was out, the Predator would be preying upon live targets in Afghanistan.”
Barely two months after the outbreak of hostilities in Afghanistan, George Bush was in a position to declare: “The conflict in Afghanistan has taught us more about the future of our military than a decade of blue ribbon panels and think-tank symposiums. The Predator is a good example… Now it is clear the military does not have enough unmanned vehicles.”
The Principles of Manhunting
“Individual will research and incorporate current manhunting experiences and procedures in order to provide an educational forum for manhunting issues… Must possess a SECRET level clearance and be able to obtain a TOP SECRET/SCI security clearance.”
— Job description for a special operations manhunting program analyst in an advertisement published by the military contractor SAI in 2006
In 2004, John Lockwood set up a website called Live-Shot.com. The idea was at once simple and innovative. By subscribing online for a few dollars, the Internet surfer could become a “virtual hunter.” Thanks to a camera fixed to a mobile forearm, itself connected to a remote control device, one could, without stirring from home, shoot live animals let loose for the occasion on a ranch in Texas.
When it made the news, there was a rush to condemn it. The editor-in-chief of the magazine Outdoor Life, acknowledging the profound “ethical problems” that such a venture presented, set out a fine definition of what hunting meant for him: “To me, hunting isn’t just about pulling the trigger on an animal. It’s about the total experience… Hunting is about being out there, not about pulling the trigger with the click of a mouse.”
A Wisconsin lawmaker took up the theme, giving the definition a strangely environmentalist twist: “To me, hunting is being out in nature and becoming one with nature.” Even the extremely conservative National Rifle Association expressed its opposition, joining with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in an unusual alliance: “We believe that hunting should be outdoors and that sitting in front of a computer three states away doesn’t qualify as ‘hunting.’” A Houston police officer was even more adamant, saying, “It’s not hunting. It’s killing… Someone gets a computer and pushes a button and something dies for no reason.”
Lockwood protested, claiming that his foremost purpose had been to allow handicapped people who were passionate about hunting to indulge in their favorite pastime and mentioning an American soldier in Iraq who had thanked him for offering such a fine opportunity, saying that he had no idea when he might be able to go hunting again. But it was all in vain. Hunting online was forbidden. Lockwood, disappointed, tried to salvage his scheme by suggesting that his clients should fire at cardboard targets representing Osama bin Laden. However, his intended Internet audience shifted to other, no doubt more exciting, online pleasures, and the little venture that had seemed so promising collapsed.
The triggers of moral indignation are quite mysterious sometimes. While the virtual hunting of animals was almost universally condemned as scandalous, the remote-controlled hunting of human beings was at the same moment taking off without any of those same people making any objections.
In the immediate aftermath of September 11th, George W. Bush had predicted that the United States would embark upon a new kind of warfare, “a war that requires us to be on an international manhunt.” Something that initially sounded like nothing more than a catchy Texas cowboy slogan has since been converted into state doctrine, complete with experts, plans, and weapons. A single decade has seen the establishment of an unconventional form of state violence that combines the disparate characteristics of warfare and policing without really corresponding to either, finding conceptual and practical unity in the notion of a militarized manhunt.
Reaping the (Human) Prey
In 2001, U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had become convinced that “the techniques used by the Israelis against the Palestinians could quite simply be deployed on a larger scale.” What he had in mind was Israel’s programs of “targeted assassinations,” the existence of which had recently been recognized by the Israeli leadership. As Eyal Weizman explains, the occupied territories had become “the world’s largest laboratory for airborne thanatotactics,” so it was not surprising that they would eventually be exported.
But one problem remained. “How do we organize the Department of Defense for manhunts?” Rumsfeld asked. “We are obviously not well organized at the present time.” In the early 2000s, the U.S. military apparatus was not yet ready to roll out on a worldwide scale the sort of missions that normally are assigned to the police within a domestic framework: namely, the identification, tracking, location, and capture (but in actual fact the physical elimination) of suspect individuals.
Within the United States, not all the high-ranking officers who were informed of these plans greeted them with enthusiasm. At the time, journalist Seymour Hersh noted that many feared that the proposed type of operation—what one advisor to the Pentagon called “preemptive manhunting”—had the potential to turn into another Phoenix Program, the sinister secret program of murder and torture that had once been unleashed in Vietnam.
Of course, there was the additional problem of how to legally justify these hybrid operations, the enfants terribles of the police and the army. At the levels of both warfare theory and international law, they seemed to be conceptual monstrosities. But we shall be returning to this point.
In any case, a new strategic doctrine became necessary. Researchers set about defining the “manhunting theoretical principles” that could provide a framework for such operations. George A. Crawford produced a summary of these in a report published in 2009 by the Joint Special Operations University. This text, which set out to make “manhunting a foundation of U.S. national strategies,” in particular called for the creation of a “national manhunting agency,” which would be an indispensable instrument for “building a manhunting force for the future.”
The contemporary doctrine of hunting warfare breaks with the model of conventional warfare based on concepts of fronts and opposed battle lines facing up to each other. In 1916, General John J. Pershing launched a vast military offensive in Mexico in an unsuccessful attempt to lay hands on the revolutionary Pancho Villa. For American strategists who cite this historical precedent as a counterexample, it was a matter of reversing polarity: faced with the “asymmetrical threats” posed by small mobile groups of “nonstate actors,” they should use small, flexible units, either human or—preferably—remotely controlled, in a pattern of targeted attacks.
Contrary to Carl von Clausewitz’s classical definition, the fundamental structure of this type of warfare is no longer that of a duel, of two fighters facing each other. The paradigm is quite different: a hunter advancing on a prey that flees or hides from him. The rules of the game are not the same. “In the competition between two enemy combatants,” wrote Crawford, “the goal is to win the battle by defeating the adversary: both combatants must confront to win. However, a manhunt scenario differs in that each player’s strategy is different. The fugitive always wants to avoid capture; the pursuer must confront to win, whereas the fugitive must evade to win.” The hostile relationship now boils down, as in a game of hide-and-seek, to “a competition between the hiders and the seekers.”
The primary task is no longer to immobilize the enemy but to identify and locate it. This implies all the labor of detection. The modern art of tracking is based on an intensive use of new technologies, combining aerial video surveillance, the interception of signals, and cartographic tracking. The profession of manhunters now has its own technocratic jargon: “Nexus Topography is an extension of the common practice of Social Network Analysis (SNA) used to develop profiles of HVIs… Nexus Topography maps social forums or environments, which bind individuals together.”
In this model the enemy individual is no longer seen as a link in a hierarchical chain of command: he is a knot or “node” inserted into a number of social networks. Based on the concepts of “network-centric warfare” and “effects-based operations,” the idea is that by successfully targeting its key nodes, an enemy network can be disorganized to the point of being practically wiped out. The masterminds of this methodology declare that “targeting a single key node in a battlefield system has second, third, n-order effects, and that these effects can be accurately calculated to ensure maximum success.”
This claim to predictive calculation is the foundation of the policy of prophylactic elimination, for which the hunter-killer drones are the main instruments. For the strategy of militarized manhunting is essentiallypreventive. It is not so much a matter of responding to actual attacks but rather of preventing the development of emerging threats by the early elimination of their potential agents—“to detect, deter, disrupt, detain or destroy networks before they can harm”—and to do this in the absence of any direct, imminent threat.
The political rationale that underlies this type of practice is that of social defense. Its classic instrument is the security measure, which is “not designed to punish but only to preserve society from the danger presented by the presence of dangerous beings in its midst.” In the logic of this security, based on the preventive elimination of dangerous individuals, “warfare” takes the form of vast campaigns of extra-judiciary executions. The names given to the drones—Predators (birds of prey) and Reapers (angels of death)—are certainly well chosen.