Drone geographies

RP 183 () / Article

Last year Apple rejected Josh Begley’s Drones+ app three times. The app promised to send push notifications to users each time a US drone strike was reported, but Apple decided that many people would find it ‘objectionable’ (they said nothing about what they might feel about the strikes). When he defended his thesis at NYU earlier this year, Begley asked: ‘Do we really want to be as connected to our foreign policy as we are to our smart phones? … Do we really want these things to be the site of how we experience remote war?’1 These are good questions, and Apple’s answer was clear enough. A number of other artists have also used digital platforms to bring into view these sites of remote violence – I am thinking in particular of Begley’s Dronestream and James Bridle’s Dronestagram, but there are a host of others2 – and their work set me thinking about the multiple and compound geographies through which these operations are executed. In this article I will focus on just four of them.

My view is both narrow and wide. It is narrow because I discuss only the use of Predators and Reapers by the US Air Force in Afghanistan and Iraq, sometimes as part of Joint Special Operations Command, and their involvement in CIA-directed targeted killings in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. Other advanced militaries also operate drones, some of them armed and some for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), as part of networked military violence, but it is even more difficult to detail their operations. The US Army and Marine Corps use drones too, but most of these are much smaller and limited to providing ISR for close combat and ground attack. Within these limits, my view is also wide, however, because I want to disclose the matrix of military violence that these remote platforms help to activate. Much of the critical response to drones is unduly preoccupied with the technical (or techno-cultural) object – the drone – and virtually ignores these wider dispositions and propensities. This is, I will argue, both an analytical and a political mistake.

Homeland insecurities

The first set of geographies is located within the United States, where the US Air Force describes its remote operations as ‘projecting power without vulnerability’. Its Predators and Reapers are based in or close to the conflict zone, where Launch and Recovery crews are stationed to handle take-off and landing via a C-band line-of-sight data link; given the technical problems that dog what Jordan Crandall calls ‘the wayward drone’, there are also large maintenance crews in-theatre to service the aircraft.3 Once airborne, however, control is usually handed to flight crews stationed in the continental United States via a Ku-band satellite link to a ground station at Ramstein Air Base in Germany and a fibre-optic cable across the Atlantic. The network also includes senior officers and military lawyers who monitor operations from US Central Command’s Combined Air Operations Center at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, and specialized image analysts in the United States who scrutinize the full-motion video feeds from the aircraft and are linked in via the Air Force’s Distributed Common Ground System. Taken together, the suite of four aircraft that constitutes a Combat Air Patrol capable of providing coverage twenty-four hours a day seven days a week involves 192 personnel, and most of them (133) are located outside the combat zone and beyond immediate danger (Figure 1). This is risk-transfer war with a vengeance, where virtually all the risks are transferred to populations overseas.4 Those who live in the attack zones often criticize drone strikes as cowardly, but the fact that most of those flying these online missions do not put their own lives on the line has also sparked a series of domestic debates about military ethics and codes of honour. These have traditionally invoked a reciprocity of risk that gave war what Clausewitz saw as its moral force: to kill with honour, the soldier must be prepared to die. Now the remote warrior remains the vector of violence but is no longer its potential victim.5

Indeed, some critics have ridiculed the drone crews as ‘cubicle warriors’ who merely ‘commute’ to war.6 The remotely …