The changing nature of drones and its impact on surveillance and the laws of war

The LA Times reports how a new type of drones will be able “listen in” on cellphone conversations and pinpoint the location of the caller on the ground. Some can even “smell” the air and sniff out chemical plumes emanating from a potential underground nuclear laboratory.Reconnaissance is “now the centerpiece of our global war on terrorism,” said David L. Rockwell, an electronics analyst with aerospace research firm the Teal Group Corp. “The military wants to have an unblinking eye over the war zone.”

More than 7,000 drones — ranging from the small, hand-launched Raven to the massive Global Hawk — are currently deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. David Ignatius shines light on the impact aerial reconnaisance has on the laws of war by highlighting how France has assisted Saudi Arabia with intelligence in its border war against the Houthi rebels across its frontier with Yemen.

The Saudis appealed to America for imagery from U.S. surveillance satellites in space, so they could target more precisely. Gen. David Petraeus, who was Centcom commander at the time, is said to have backed the Saudi request, but it was opposed by the State Department and others. They warned that intervening in this border conflict, even if only by providing targeting information, could violate the laws of war.

So the Saudis turned elsewhere for help – to France, which has its own reconnaissance satellites. The French, who were worried that imprecise Saudi bombing was creating too many civilian casualties in Yemen, agreed to help. The necessary details were arranged within days.

Using this precise satellite intelligence, the Saudis were able to
monitor the Houthis’ hideouts, equipment dumps and training sites. Saudi
warplanes then attacked with devastating effectiveness. Within a few
weeks, the Houthis were requesting a truce, and by February this chapter
of the border war was over.

But the Saudi incident raises larger questions about the transfer of
technologies that have demonstrated their deadly effectiveness during
the past decade in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal areas. These
weapons are seductively attractive; they offer the promise of destroying
an enemy from a safe distance of 10,000 or 20,000 feet in the air.

The lid on Pandora’s box is coming open: The Saudis, understandably, now
want their own satellite capability, and they will soon request bids
from Western companies for such a system. Riyadh also wants drones that
can see and attack enemy targets in remote places. Washington has been
weighing whether to include versions of its Predator drones in an arms
sale to the kingdom. Such weapons would boost Saudi ability to deter
Iran, but they could also threaten Israel.

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