Modern face of warfare
Greg Torode, chief Asia correspondent
Warfare is changing. Amid the historical questions shrouding the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks - America's troubled place in the world and the ultimate costs to the US of its responses to al-Qaeda's fateful strike - the changing face of modern warfare is far more certain.
Then president George W. Bush's 'war on terror' - dismissed in some quarters as a dangerously misguided war on a tactic, rather than a defined enemy - has evolved dramatically over the past decade. It has moved beyond the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq into a ruthlessly efficient campaign of 'targeted killings' of al-Qaeda operatives, barely conceivable just a few years ago.
This element of the conflict is a continual war without a front line or massed ranks of a uniformed enemy; the hunt for a 'non-state actor', against which conventional weaponry and armour are of questionable value. Instead, it is a conflict fought at the nexus of intelligence operations and analysis, the law and the latest in precision military technology - a new world that makes the niceties of the Geneva Conventions of 1949, conceived in a time of prisoner-of-war camps and Red Cross food parcels, appear out of date, if not obsolete.
At its secretive heart is the US Joint Special Operations Command - an expanded elite cadre of Washington's more creative military leaders and special forces units. Linked to America's vast intelligence establishment, particularly the CIA, it works closely with the executive branch - including the White House - in a reflection of its political importance and legal delicacy.
The command's most high-profile action was its raid in May on the fortified mansion hiding Osama bin Laden and his family in the Pakistani town of Abbottabad. Less visible than the killing of bin Laden, however, are its ongoing operations in not only Afghanistan and Pakistan's mountainous tribal hinterlands, but also Yemen and Somalia. The command maintains a list of the most wanted terrorists, hunting them in covert raids by US Navy SEALS, as well as missile strikes by unmanned drone aircraft operated by the CIA and/or the US Air Force.
The use of drones - unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), as they are officially known - is arguably the most potent example of the way the US war on al-Qaeda is changing modern warfare.
A study by the New America Foundation, a Washington think tank, highlights how the Bush era's pioneering use of drones has rapidly expanded under the presidency of Barack Obama.
As a presidential candidate, Obama had campaigned against the Iraqi invasion, but promised more resolute action on all fronts against bin Laden and al-Qaeda.
It shows that Obama has given the green light to four times the number of drone strikes than Bush, killing as many as 1,800 terrorists, acting both in war zones and elsewhere.
In the vast bureaucracy of the US defence and foreign policy establishments, never afraid to deploy a euphemism, such strikes are known officially as 'targeted killings' rather than assassinations.
Significantly, the assassinations of foreign officials and other targets in peacetime by US agencies were formally banned by executive order in 1976 - a reflection of a string of scandals in the early 1970s involving the perceived cold war excesses of US intelligence agencies, from the Phoenix Programme targeting Hanoi's southern guerilla organisation during the Vietnam war to the coup that brought Augusto Pinochet to power in Chile. That ban remains.
Military and administration lawyers have repeatedly drawn distinctions between assassinations and 'targeted killings', not a specific legal term but one some studies note was popularised by Israeli leaders pursuing terrorists in the Palestinian territories.
A study by the US Council on Foreign Relations produced late last month noted attempts by the Bush and Obama administrations to justify such actions within domestic US and international law.
'The Obama administration expounded its stance mostly notably in March 2010, stating that the United States remains in 'armed conflict with al-Qaeda, as well as the Taliban and associated forces, in response to the horrific 9/11 attacks, and may use force consistent with its inherent right of self-defence under international law,'' the study reported. As part of that defence of its rights, the White House has cited Article 51 of the United Nations Charter as justification for killing high-level al-Qaeda operatives both inside and outside of declared war zones.
It also noted an address last year from State Department legal adviser Harold Koh that such killings met laws of war principles of 'proportionality and distinction'. Distinction meant that targets must be military objectives and not civilians or buildings. Proportionality prohibited attacks that caused undue harm to civilians relative to any military advantage gained.
Not surprisingly, such strikes remain controversial and the subject of considerable internal and external debate - one undoubtedly being watched by nations that may soon have similar technology, as well as nations, such as Pakistan and Afghanistan, now suffering drone strikes on their soil.
Human Rights Watch's Washington director Tom Malinowski urged far greater transparency from the Obama administration, even as it hailed the success of the drone campaign in drastically limiting al-Qaeda's effectiveness. While there may well be lawful uses of drone strikes, particularly against high-level targets in areas out of reach of meaningful law enforcement, Malinowski said his organisation simply did not have enough access to such areas or information to be able to declare that lawful criteria had been met.
Beyond that, Malinowski raised concerns about the ongoing involvement of the CIA and its contractors in drone strikes, as well as the need for the US to set moral standards for the use of technology that could be used far more widely in the future.
'Of course, a precision strike by a drone is preferable than simply dropping a 2000-pound bomb, and there may well be lawful grounds for using drones to kill terrorists, but there are other issues, too,' he told the South China Morning Post this week.
'Our problem is that the administration hasn't defined what the limits are. We need to know a lot more about how they draw distinctions and where they draw the line between lawful and unlawful targeted killings. I would also like to see them carried out by the military alone.' While Malinowski said the US military had a long track record of meeting the rules of war, the CIA 'exists to remain secret'.
A former official at the State Department, the National Security Council and the White House, Malinowski has also raised the prospect during seminars on the issue of countries such as China and Russia deploying drones to attack domestic terrorists. 'It's inevitable that most advanced militaries will have the technology that the US now has,' he said.
Others have been even more blunt. The council's survey quotes Philip Alston, former UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions. 'If other states were to claim the broad-based authority that the United States does - to kill people anywhere, anytime - the result would be chaos,' Alston warned.
Then there is the civilian cost - frequently cited as justification for deploying robotic warfare. While Obama administration officials have touted claims that not a single civilian has been killed in drone strikes since May last year, scepticism is mounting. Reports in The New York Times last month noted a case on May 6 when a CIA drone fired a volley of missiles at a truck carrying nine militants and bomb material near Pakistan's Afghan border.
While the CIA logged it as a clean kill, investigations by British and Pakistani journalists revealed the raid also hit a religious school, a restaurant and a house. Twelve militants were killed, but so were six civilians.
Similar investigations have found some 45 civilians were killed in 10 other strikes in Pakistan during the past year.
'It's urgent to answer this question because the technology is so attractive to the US and other governments that it is going to proliferate rapidly,' Sarah Holewinski, executive director of the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict, was quoted as saying in The New York Times.
At the moment at least, the number of civilian deaths does not seem high enough to deter the Obama administration. A range of officials describe the still-classified drone programme as one of the real tangible successes against terrorism.
'Look, everyone knows what a long road it's been,' a senior Pentagon official said privately. 'The decision to invade Iraq remains mired in controversy; post-invasion Afghanistan has been far more difficult than anyone thought. And as we approach the dawn of the anniversary, the historians are having a field day with the costs to the country. But targeted killings? They're bringing results with surgical precision. After all the heavy stuff, who can argue with that?'
US military writer Fred Kaplan last week noted the emergence of a leaner and nimbler US military from the bureaucratic monolith forced to confront the September 11 attacks a decade ago. Specifically, he noted the air force was training more 'joystick' pilots to operate drones and fire Hellfire missiles from bases in Nevada than the pilots of real fighter jets. They were already forming a new counter-insurgency elite, Kaplan wrote. 'This says nothing about the wisdom of the policies they're ordered to defend, or the likelihood that they'll succeed in a given conflict. But it does suggest the force is more capable now than it was 10 years ago of doing what a military is supposed to do.'
Regional East Asian military attach?s echo the view, saying the American effort will shape the future of smaller militaries, both friend and foe alike. 'The world is watching,' said a Southeast Asian envoy.
The MQ-9 Reaper is a medium-to-high altitude unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). The MQ-9's primary mission is as a persistent hunter-killer against emerging targets
Weight: 2,223kg (empty)
Max takeoff weight: 4,760kg
Cruise speed: 370kph
Ceiling: up to 15,240 metres
Honeywell TPE331-10GD turboprop
Lightweight graphite composites with Nomex honeycomb stiffening panels
Allows the UAV to be controlled via satellite from any location
- Intensified TV
- Daylight TV
- IR sensor cameras
- Integrated laser
- rangefinder that doubles as laser
- designator for direct-guided JDAM munitions
A typical system consists of several air vehicles, ground control station, communication equipment and personnel
Used to control UAV when no direct link to the GCS is available
Ground Control Station (GCS)
Functions as the cockpit and can control the aircraft via a combination of satellite relay and terrestrial communications
Drone takes off from airfield controlled by pilot in the ground control station
Semi-active laser guided
Semi-active laser guided