Michael Mair, Elizabeth Minor, Alex Holder – The Europeanisation of the Armed Drone

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With the exception of Britain, European military drones is not a topic in European media or in the public debate. It should be.

Dr Michael Mair is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Liverpool and works on politics, accountability and contemporary warfare and conflict.

Elizabeth Minor is an Advisor at Article 36, a UK-based not for profit organisation working to prevent the unintended, unnecessary or unacceptable harm caused by the use of certain weapons.

Alex Holder is a Researcher at the University of Liverpool who is investigating the practical role of legal frameworks in drone strikes.


The figure of the armed drone is most closely associated with the US in the public imagination. However, several European states are already using armed drones and more are following suit. As the armed drone is Europeanised so too are the ethical, legal and political problems the armed drone brings with it – civilian deaths, the perpetuation of conflict and the erosion of transparency and accountability. The Humanitarian Disarmament Forum, an annual gathering of civil society, meets in New York next week and armed drones as well as the possibility of international standards on these technologies will be one of the topics for discussion. With those discussions about to get underway, we believe this is a moment when European states should not only show greater transparency but should actively work with the disarmament community to develop far-reaching restrictions on these problematic technologies at an international level.

European Armed Drone Programmes

Public discussions of armed drones have tended to focus on their use in the US’s controversial ‘targeted killing’ operations in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia, operations we now know a great deal about thanks to the work of organisations like the Bureau of Investigative Journalism as well as through the limited disclosures made by the Obama administration. However, several European states also have armed drone programmes and several others are in the process of developing them. Using open source data, the New America Foundation’s timeline suggests the UK was the first to acquire armed drones in 2008, followed by Italy and Spain in 2015, France, Greece, Sweden and Switzerland in 2016 and Poland so far in 2017. While the UK is the only country on that list to have deployed armed drones in combat thus far, with drone strikes forming an extensive part of Royal Air Force operations in Iraq, Syria and Libya, rumoured but not confirmed strikes in countries like Mali suggest European states are calling in US armed drones in support of their combat operations around the world. It is also highly likely that European states provide the US with intelligence in support of US operations. Working together under the banner of NATO, a great many armed drone operations are best thought of as joint US-European enterprises.

The US drone programme continues to attract criticism for its secrecy and lack of transparency. It is  a serious concern, therefore, that we know less about the details of European states’ use of armed drones than we do about their use by the US. While the complex, globally distributed network of systems that underpins US drone operations has gradually become clearer, and we have good insights into how it is structured in practice, European programmes remain in the shadows. That the fictional scenario presented in Eye in the Sky is the closest we have to a European National Bird is troubling on several levels and speaks directly to the erosion of accountability and oversight mechanisms that has been a marked feature of the US drone programme.

The Europeanisation of drone warfare also Europeanises the ethical, legal and moral problems that beset drone warfare. Despite drone armed states arguing the use of armed drones minimises civilian casualties, the figures compiled by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and Airwars suggest there are good reasons for questioning such claims. Serious legal issues also arise when states order the execution of their own citizens without trial in drone strikes or when they routinely violate the sovereignty of other states in their operations, as in Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia and Syria. However, perhaps more troubling is the effect of the armed drone on policy and politics. As Andrew Cockburn among others has argued, the availability of armed drones leads states to use drone strikes in attempts to solve political problems by violent means. This does not work. Although armed drones are said to be ‘effective’, the evidence of Afghanistan, Syria, Libya and other areas of operation points to their role in perpetuating not resolving conflict. Drone wars are begetting further drone wars with no end in sight.

The Prospect of International Restrictions

Armed drones are a deeply problematic presence in the contemporary world and European states should be engaged in restricting their use rather than further extending it. Next week’s Humanitarian Disarmament Forum represents an important platform for discussion among civil society as to how an internationally agreed framework of restrictions can best be achieved. Held on the margins of the UN General Assembly’s First Committee, at which European states will have strong representation, it is a key forum where states can express views on this topic. However, as part of that, it will be important to avoid several canards in the drone debate. First, the discussion needs to focus on armed drones not drones in general: a drone with strike capabilities is a very different kind of entity to those without. Second, and just as importantly, the discussion needs to focus on how armed drones are used. The problem is not, as Daniel Green has put it, ‘the machine in the air’ but the objectives that are pursued using it. The technology cannot be treated separately from its uses as the two are intertwined in what might be termed the drone way of warfare. As a first step in addressing these issues, European states should back calls for transparency in the use of armed drones and release comprehensive information about how they are using them as an example to others. Transparency on its own is not enough, however, and European states should also become active partners in initiating a political process that will define what is acceptable and what is not when it comes to the use of armed drones and how this can be articulated in legal or political standards to prevent harm. With armed drones further destabilising an already unstable world, this is an area where European states can and should lead the way.


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