Should NZ renounce lethal drones?

The Diplosphere event on lethal drones held in Wellington last week was a good opportunity to hear different views on the subject. The majority consensus was that legal, moral and practical questions delegitimate their use, although one defended them and I noted, among other things, that they are just one aspect of the increased robotization of modern battlefields, are only efficient against soft targets and are seen as cost effective when compared to manned aircraft.

At the end of my remarks I proposed that we debate the idea that New Zealand unilaterally renounce the use of lethal drones in any circumstance, foreign and domestic. I noted that the NZDF and other security agencies would oppose such a move, as would our security allies. I posited that if implemented, such a stance would be akin to the non-nuclear declaration of 1985 and would reaffirm New Zealand’s independent and autonomous foreign policy.

Alternatively, New Zealand could propose to make the South Pacific a lethal drone-free zone, similar to the regional nuclear free zone declared by the 1985 Treaty of Rarotonga. I noted again that countries like Australia and Chile would oppose the move (both have drone fleets and do not discount using them in anger), but that many of the Pacific Island states would likely welcome the idea.

Either declaration would in no way impact negatively on the use of non-lethal drones, whose utility is obvious. It would also leave open to interpretation whether NZ based intelligence could be used in drawing up targeting lists for foreign lethal drone strikes, a subject currently in the public eye as a result of claims that the GCSB does exactly that in places like Yemen. The PM says he is comfortable with the intelligence-sharing arrangement as well as the legitimacy of drone strikes, and added that similar intelligence was provided for ISAF drone strikes in Afghanistan (where the US and the UK deploy lethal drones on behalf of ISAF).

His confidence notwithstanding, many Kiwis are opposed to any cooperation with lethal drone programs, so the debate could be expanded to include indirect NZ involvement with them.

I think this is a debate well worth having. I realize that the security community will want to keep all options open and be very opposed to ceding any tactical advantage in future conflicts, and that extending the ban to indirect cooperation would have a negative influence on NZ’s diplomatic and military-intelligence relations with its security partners.

I am cognizant that it may be a hard thing to actually do given the balance of political power currently extant in NZ and the hurdles needed to implement it should the proposition be accepted. One of the other panelists dismissed the idea of unilateral renunciation as simply impractical and said that the proper forum in which to advance it was the UN (cue Tui ad here).

Some may say that is silly to debate something that does not exist. New Zealand does not deploy lethal drones. However, UAVs are already present in NZ skies, both in civilian and military applications. This includes geological surveys and volcanic research, on the civilian side, and battlefield (tactical) surveillance in the guise of the NZDF Kahui Hawk now deployed by the army. The military continues its research and development of UAV prototypes (early R&D worked off of Israeli models), and agencies as varied as the Police, Customs and the Navy have expressed interest in their possibilities. Since non-lethal UAV platforms can be modified into lethal platforms at relatively low cost, it seems prudent to have the debate before rather than after their entry into service.

I am aware that the revulsion voiced by many against the lethal use of unmanned aerial vehicles might as well be shared with all manned combat aircraft since the effects of their deployment ultimately are the same–they deal in death from the sky. Given that commonality, the preferential concern with one and not the other appears more emotional than rational, perhaps responding to idealized notions of chivalry in war. That is another reason why the subject should be debated at length.

Such a debate, say, in the build up to a referendum on the matter, would allow proponents and opponents to lay out their best arguments for and against, and permit the public to judge the merits of each via the ballot box. That will remove any ambiguity about how Kiwis feel about this particular mode of killing.

UPDATE: Idiot Savant at No Right Turn has kindly supported the proposition. Lets hope that others will join the campaign.


6 thoughts on “Should NZ renounce lethal drones?

  1. I am sorry Mr Paul, you have a nice face but this is business as usual

  2. I attended the talk in Parliament last week and while some of the points raised were thought provoking, I left largely unsatisfied.
    The lecture title itself (and some of the speakers) missed the point.
    Drones per say do not add capability. They economise, and (arguably) add precision to already existing capabilities, but they are not a revolution in a state’s ability to reach out and touch someone.
    Many states have been able to execute ‘threats’ for quite some time now. Even without setting foot on another state. A drone is simply another delivery/intelligence system. Missiles can be fired from jets, helicopters, ships, subs, even from the persecuting state’s home soil. Observation can likewise be obtained from other platforms, satellites and boots-on-the-ground.
    Therefore, the discussion should not have been titled “Drone Strikes: Are they in NZ’s best interests?”, but rather “Illegal Lethal Strikes: Are they in NZs best interests?”
    That would’ve cut to the chase quicker and generated more useful thought.

  3. Ash:

    Sorry that the event was disappointing. It is hard to get into much depth with so many speakers and a panel chair who interjects constantly. I thought several panelists made some good points against the use of drones. I share your views on the need to look at UAVs as platforms rather than sinister entities, but I also think that the rules and regulations governing the deployment of lethal drones needs to be tightened considerably, be in by individual countries or by international convention. I do not see either happening soon.

  4. Ash – You rather prejudge the outcome with the term “illegal”. The simple fact is that the West is in a war with a culture. International law has evolved to deal with state actors since Westphalia. When one side constrains itself with a set of rules that does not bind the other it is far more likely to lose.
    President Bush declared a “War” on terror. That means the rules of war apply. It is a different kind of war to that which has gone before but it is still a war. You may argue it is an insurgency. I believe that the use of lethal drones is not illegal.

    We can argue about whether or not the West is at war and whether authorised peacetime use is legal. We can also argue whether or not use of lethal drones is a sensible long term strategy given the tenets of COIN.
    Churchill allowed Coventry to be bombed in order not to give away the secret of Enigma. He also ordered the fire bombing of Dresden. German war leaders were not tried for bombing attacks on London because that was part of war. It is perfectly legitimate for the West to use lethal UAV in the conduct of the war against militant Islam.
    There is a separate moral question as to whether autonomous (as opposed to remote controlled) drones are legitimate. My response to that is that they are more intelligent than any missile and thus a valid evolution that may avoid unwanted collateral damage rather than something that should be avoided.

  5. Drones and Tomahawk missiles are cheap and isolate the politicians and operators from the attack and immediate fallout in human and collateral damage. One of the major extra costs is they provide an excuse for phasing out and downsizing the ability for on the ground intervention , military helicopers, infantry, SAS.
    A 2011 DVD Sub Patrol, provides film of the RN SSN the 30 year old HMS Turbulent on its final deployment firing Tomahawks at Ghaddafi’s Libya. The strike is discussed by the officers and ratings at a voluntary prayer meeting and at least for the cameras their is little cultural dissonance , and it is treated as what there for and part of the job. Possibly British sensisitivity ( politically re UK politicians) is appeased by rewarding the British purely brick and mortar targets without likely human occupation.

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