Making Asymmetrical Warfare Even: Drones and UAVs

Since NATO’s International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF) became involved in the war in Afghanistan in the early 2000s, warfare has undergone a dramatic shift. The training that Canadian and American soldiers received in the 1990s closely reflected the types of operations in which they would eventually find themselves. In the former Yugoslavia, for example, NATO’s IFOR (Implementation Force) and SFOR (Stabilization Force) missions, of which Canada was an integral part, coalition forces often engaged a visible enemy, individuals clearly identified with one belligerent. Much of this changed, however, when Canada chose to participate in combat operations in Afghanistan in attempt to dislodge the Taliban from power and rebuild a country that had largely lain in ruins since the 1980s.

Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), a term derived from the explosives the Irish Republican Army (IRA) used against the British army during the 1970s, has a long pedigree. Even longer, however, is the idea of asymmetrical warfare, which, according to the terminology historians use to describe it, can be traced back to the Spanish revolt against Napoleon in 1808. John Lynn’s Battle: A History of Combat and Culture (2004) posits that asymmetrical warfare is in fact an ancient concept and only identified in western sources by the nineteenth century. Nonetheless, on the most basic level, asymmetrical warfare refers to conflicts in which one belligerent’s power or capabilities greatly outweigh the other. As NATO forces have discovered in Afghanistan, this does not diminish the physical and psychological effects of their tactics or doctrine. On the contrary, the Taliban and other insurgents have effectively used Soviet-era weapons systems, combined with their intimate knowledge of local politics, customs and topography, to create a formidable challenge for Western forces—one that has pushed the technological and materiel capabilities of the West to the limit.

According to Defence Industry Reports, in 2007 the British army reported over 2,670 IED incidents in Afghanistan, of which 206 were considered “effective.” By 2010, the number of incidents had increased to 5,921. Despite these impressive figures, the numbers fail to convey the stress, efficacy, and the impact IEDs have on coalition forces. These weapons are largely invisible. Instead of pursuing an enemy on foot or “having boots on the ground,” operations for which Canadian and coalition troops are highly trained, many soldiers wait to be attacked while in convoy or on patrol through wadis or compounds.

In his latest book, The Afghan Way of War: How and Why They Fight (2012), historian Robert Johnson explores how the Afghans have dealt with foreign invasions since the early nineteenth century and have adopted certain tactics to combat the British, Soviets, indigenous rival groups, as well as the latest forces to invade the country after September 2001. According to Johnson, after 2006 the insurgency’s strategy shifted dramatically. That year, Canadian and British forces defeated the Taliban offensives through the Helmand Valley and the Arghandab. The latter was a major base that prepared to fight the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI) in Kandahar. The PPCLI counter-offensive concluded with a major battle at Pashmul and the dispersal of the Taliban in that area. However, in 2007, the Taliban announced a new offensive, Operation Kamin (Ambush), which focused on an increased use of guerilla attacks, including large numbers of IEDs, booby traps, and motorcycle-borne suicide attacks. On the whole, Johnson notes, the insurgents have created IEDs with increasing skill due in part by external supporters. This also reflects a natural evolution in the insurgency’s tactics. In this way, Western tactics in the Middle East have commensurably evolved, including the use of UAVs to augment – or replace in their entirety – day to day patrolling as well as clandestine operations against high-value targets. JSOC, or the United States Joint Special Operations Command, has employed UAVs to locate and target individuals who they have deemed to be high-value insurgents.

In this context, modern militaries have attempted to save the lives and limbs of their soldiers by investing in and developing a variety of new technologies for use on the ground, including a litany of next-generation armoured vehicles particularly suited for the rugged Afghan terrain, climate, and the unpredictability of asymmetrical conflict. Since the early 2000s, drones or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), have also emerged as a highly-flexible, and most importantly, low-risk tactical weapons system. This is neither a moral nor ethical justification for the use of drones in the Middle East. We’re fully aware that armed drones, many of which are deployed in Afghanistan along the border with Pakistan, wreak havoc and have inflicted unknown casualties on civilians. However, if we look at the history of modern warfare, the development of technologies used by drones and UAVs is an understandable—perhaps even a natural—reaction to the challenge of defeating an enemy that has proven itself adaptable to every phase of war and occupation that Afghanistan has faced since the early nineteenth century. It’s worthwhile to mention that the evolution of these machines began for reconnaissance purposes, only later to be equipped with weapon systems.

The argument that armed drones are inaccurate and kill civilians is wholly unsatisfying, since the same argument has been made since air forces were developed during the First World War. In fact, during the First World War statesmen in the neutral Netherlands claimed that aerial warfare was unethical and called for an end to airborne operations. These parallels are even clearer when examining Bomber Command’s strategic bombing campaign over Nazi Germany in 1940s which resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians. Historians continue to hotly contest the efficacy – and morality – of strategic bombing. That aerial tactics have been used to kill innocents during conflict is certainly not novel. Why, then, has the use of drones today caused such controversy in the media?

Perhaps one of the reasons for this controversy lays in the dissociated nature of killing. Drone operators can deploy weapons systems from the comfort of a control room on an air force base on an entirely different continent and return to their families after a days work. Deploying large weapons systems can be done without recognizing the consequences of their actions because they are not in theater to assess or witness damages. Additionally, some fear the application of these machines in the civilian world. Each day more and more is uncovered relating to civilian data collection or spying, and the thought of using drones for civilian surveillance is disconcerting to many. The consternation is heightened, as many countries have yet to modify laws to reflect concerns about privacy and surveillance.

The use of armed UAVs and drones in combat operations is a consequence of the tactics employed against coalition forces. In both reconnaissance and combat roles, drones can ultimately work to reduce military casualties—and this is the way modern militaries function. Given the increasing role of technology in modern warfare, it is hardly surprising that drones have taken on greater roles in operations. The problem, however, is a perennial one—questions of accuracy and intent have and will continue to dominate discussions about the use of aerial support for generations.