Drones: It’s All About Access

The Institute for Conflict, Cooperation, and Security (ICCS), supported by the Centre for War Studies and the Royal Aeronautical Society, is holding a workshop this September which aims to look at and discuss “Drone Research” with particular reference to “Perspectives, Practicalities and Problems” associated with this topic and sphere of interest.

I have been working on drones[1] for a number of years now. It never fails to amaze me just how many years! It all started with my MA thesis which tried to look at the HUGELY wide ranging topic of the “political, strategic and legal implications” of the use of drones (Note to other MA students: make your question MUCH narrower, this could have been three dissertations!). Since then I have read and written on a range of drone related topics and I have narrowed down my personal focus to the specific experiences of the drone pilots themselves. Much of what is written “out there” in both the public and academic domain relies on second hand information, and suppositions about what it is like to be a drone pilot. This is not to say that the work is not useful, nor indeed not well researched, but there is a limit to what we can legitimately say about the experiences of these individuals without speaking to them directly. To me it seems inherently problematic to make claims about how an individual might feel about, live, engage with a specific set of circumstances without providing those individuals with the chance to vocalise this for themselves. To choose the word, the cadence, the example, the body language that suits them (whilst acknowledging the biases and problems that comes with this approach). Perhaps this concern springs from my theoretical background as a feminist scholar where one of the many aims is to enable those individuals who have been in the margins to speak for themselves, to try to avoid claiming objective truths, and to try to understand/illuminate those lives which we tend to silence.

Obviously these apparently noble aims come a cropper when faced with the security concerns which prevail when trying to speak to drone pilots. This is a contentious issue; people have and continue to protest about the use of armed drone. Arrests have been made, and with the ever present fear of terrorism, the identities of drone pilots are a closely guarded issue; dwindling public support makes the military appear somewhat (and understandably) suspicious of allowing journalists and academics into secure environments. Individuals working in these environments are all too aware of the potential for having their words twisted, either intentionally or unintentionally, by those who report them. On contentious issues there is always the potential for accidental or deliberate misunderstanding or misinterpretation, which perhaps contributes to a reluctance to engage.

However, this reluctance to engage produces its own problems for drone pilots. Without hearing what life is really like, how those individuals experience it for themselves, how they rationalise their actions, what they feel are the most salient points, we are left making those ideas up for ourselves. In an information vacuum there is a tendency to surmise, and the potential to give credence to those ideas which appear to be “common sense” or are claimed to be “truth” by those who shout the most loudly. If feminist theorising has taught us anything, it is to be extremely sceptical of those things which are claimed to be “common sense”. These things are often simply prejudices or biases which have become ingrained in society in such a way as to render them normal. This does not necessarily make them more valuable or “truthful”, and it is important that we endeavour to question, destabilise, and peer under the carpet of these truths to see where the power lies and what that means in political terms. Some of the claims that have been made about drone pilots; about ‘play station mentality’, about the ease of killing at a distance, about the dehumanising of the enemy, about the lack of risk being cowardly, about the reliance on technology being unmanly; all of these warrant careful questioning and interrogation. But without access to the pilots whose lives we are trying to understand, this interrogation simply ends in a series of questions which fails to satisfy those asking.

This is not to claim that there are no drone pilots who are willing and able to speak to those who want to hear. There are a growing number of journalist accounts, films, podcasts and academic articles that do draw on first person perspectives, but these are somewhat limited in number and, in some cases, depth. Additionally, the vast majority of drone pilots who do speak to the media and to academics are US drone pilots; there are very few who represent the British cohort. This is partly because of the newness of the technology. It is, after all, much easier for members of the military to speak about their experiences after the event, and perhaps even after they leave the armed forces. However, for the majority of drone pilots this simply isn’t the case, particularly, again, in relation to the British cohort.

The University of Birmingham Policy Commission on ‘The Security Impact of Drones: Challenges and Opportunities for the UK’ noted that British use of drones differs from that of the United States. Indeed, the military cultures of these two countries, whilst closely linked, also differs. Therefore, it is likely that the experiences of British drone pilots are different from their US counterparts, and it is important that their story, their perspective, and their experiences are recorded and heard. This nuance is important to the continuing development of the drone debate both in the UK and internationally. An issue which encourages protests both in the UK and other parts of the world is surely one which is going to demand continued public and academic scrutiny and this scrutiny can only be enabled through access and discussion with the individuals involved.

In this vein, the Institute for Conflict, Cooperation, and Security (ICCS), supported by the Centre for War Studies and the Royal Aeronautical Society, is holding a workshop this September which aims to look at and discuss “Drone Research” with particular reference to “Perspectives, Practicalities and Problems” associated with this topic and sphere of interest. Click here for more information on this workshop and the call for papers.

[1] The term “drones” is highly contentious but ubiquitous in public debate. I am therefore choosing to use it in reference to machinery which might otherwise be termed Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) or Remotely Piloted Aerial Systems (RPAS). In addition, there are many different types and sizes of drones, with many different capabilities, both privately and publicly owned. My focus here is on armed drones utilised by the US, UK and Israeli militaries.

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