Drones have had a bit of a moment with Ukraine, where they are presented as evening up the fight, providing a cheap way of countering Ukraine’s disadvantages in remote strike capability. I was thinking of the shift in how drones are normally seen in liberal Western circles, as weapons that confer unlimited killing power and which allow the US military to dish out death with impunity anywhere in the world. Usually these critiques imagine nobody else has them or is capable of the meld of surveillance and analysis that makes US drones so utterly lethal. Military drones are presented as dangerous technology which can bring war into anyone’s living room. The are melded with targeting and data analytic assemblages into a sinister combination of fuzzy but deadly power.
This shift from drones as buzzing terrors to drones as legitimate military tech was cemented when I came across Neha Ansari (2022) writing in War on the Rocks on support for drones among the people of North West Pakistan. She reported that US military drones far from being instruments of imperialism cooking up the next generation of jihadis are locally popular. In contrast to the legacy imagination prevalent in the West, they are seen as targeted taker outers of bad folk. Locals who spoke positively about the effect of drone strikes said they were targeted, with limited civilian casualties, and preferable to the alternatives. The positive response to drones comes from improved targeting and rules of engagement which have seriously reduced the harm they cause. Effective use of drones disrupted the Pakistani Taliban’s ability to wield power locally.
The improved effectiveness and reception of drone strikes does not mean we can leave aside questions about ‘necro-politics’ (Allinson, 2015), states’ ability to decide who lives and who dies which are funnelled through drone tech. It does show that the effects of drones can be calibrated, and that they can be seen as working for or against the interests of people in whose territories they operate. The picture is more complex than drones being another round of colonial pacification. Improved targeting is possible and desirable.
This has fairly inverted my thinking about what military drones are as effective technologies, and on other technologies closer to my work, and the capacity for technology to be refined effectively in the interests of people. It makes me rethink sociology’s default critical analysis which tends to see technology in sinister terms rather than engaging with the range of effects it has and responses to it. From a critical perspective you could see it as an effective legitimation strategy. We tend to emphasise failure rather than change and adaptation. The US military proved to be fairly good at intelligence led adaption. Intelligence led policing has also been effective, for example, in the defeat of the IRA. We tend to resist these facts because they do not fit the grand narrative of a failing liberal order, and they suggest that self-correction and effective policing are possible solutions to terrorism.
Ansari N (2022) Precise and Popular: Why People in Northwest Pakistan Support Drones. War on the Rocks. Available at: https://warontherocks.com/2022/08/precise-and-popular-why-people-in-northwest-pakistan-support-drones/ (accessed 1 September 2022).