“Somebody said that someone got filled in, for saying that people get killed in the result of this shipbuilding.”
Elvis Costello’s “Shipbuilding” was written in the aftermath of the Falklands conflict. The song’s a pithy look at how depressed British communities welcomed the manufacturing jobs war brought, while overlooking the awkward fact that, mainly, war brought not prosperity but death and destruction. The anthem sprang to mind recently after American company Spirit AeroSystems Holdings opened a factory in Belfast to develop a military drone for the British MOD, creating 100 jobs in the process. Naturally, Secretary of State Brandon Lewis was at the forefront of those welcoming this vote of confidence in Northern Ireland’s “advanced engineering and manufacturing capabilities". Others meanwhile wondered about the downsides.
The current situation in the Middle East gives us a pretty good idea as to how and where these new Belfast made weapons might be used. On August 20, last year, a number of IS members were reportedly killed in a drone attack in Iraq. According to the MOD’s own website, one of its remotely piloted Reaper aircraft targeted a group of fighters at the entrance to a cave. It launched “a single Hellfire missile, having first swept the area for any signs of civilians who might be placed at risk. The missile struck the target accurately”. We are not told exactly how many died.
IS of course has been responsible for countless atrocities around the globe and I am certainly not going to defend them. But there is a problem, a big one, with the use of drones and it has to do with accountability. The British Government is increasingly using armed, unmanned aerial vehicles in its war against IS, apparently without scrutiny from either Westminster or the mainstream media.
The silence this time around is a far cry from what happened in 2015 when a couple of RAF drone strikes in Syria prompted public outrage and two separate British parliamentary enquiries. The hullabaloo was largely down to the fact that the target, IS member Reyaad Khan (like two of the other victims,) happened to be British. But those killed last August could equally have been British, we simply don’t know. Afterall, the previous month the UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace acknowledged in the Commons that 900 British fighters have been killed so far in the conflict against IS in Iraq and Syria.
A lot has changed in less than six years. It’s not just that drone sorties over Syria, as well as Iraq, have now become routine. It’s also that these attacks more often than not go unreported. A Google search for the August 2020 drone strike threw up only one reference (in the first 10 pages of results) in a mainstream media outlet. That was an article in the Daily Mail which was primarily about a different, later drone attack, also deadly, also in Iraq, which happened on October 6.
Similarly, the search engine of Hansard – the record of proceedings in the British parliament – revealed no results that I could find, regarding either the October or the August 2020 attacks. No explanatory statements on behalf of the Ministry of Defence, and no questions from MPs concerned that increasingly, the national parliament seems to have little oversight over the activities of its military. It is true that both drone attacks (along with others) were reported on the MOD’s website but curiously all of these were pretty much ignored by the mainstream media. Curious because in any previous decade this level of military activity would have been headline news. But the really frightening thing is that what’s reported on the MOD’s website represents only the tip of the iceberg.
It is only because of Freedom of Information questions by the campaigning website Dronewars that we know that RAF Reaper drones actually flew 3,849 “missions” over Syria and Iraq between August 2014 and June 2020. Most of these were never referenced on the MOD website and so had no chance of making it onto the news. Many of the sorties involved the firing of weapons – 350 times in 2016, for example. We simply don’t know how many Britons or foreign nationals died as a result.
And it’s not just drones that have been blitzing Iraq. As recently as February 1 the RAF’s website reported that two of its Typhoon fighter planes had launched Paveway IV guided bombs which had “eliminated the terrorist threat”, but again no details were provided about who actually died. Indeed the language describing this operation is eerily similar to that used in the press release about last August’s drone attack: “Prior to launching their weapons, the Typhoon pilots conducted a careful check of the area around the caves...for any signs of civilians who might be at risk, before conducting simultaneous attacks”.
When there is no information in the public domain about how targets are chosen or the identities of those killed, how are we to trust repeated MOD assertions that no civilians were harmed? An Amnesty International report citing leaked US Pentagon documents said that “during a five-month period in 2013, 90% of those killed by US drone strikes…in north east Afghanistan were unintended targets”. It makes you wonder if British drone strikes can really be so much more accurate than those of their American counterparts.
Whilst engagements by both British manned and unmanned military aircraft in the Middle East are concerning, especially given the cloak of secrecy under which they’re happening, it is the drones which are ethically the more troubling. A controller looking at a computer screen hundreds, possibly thousands, of miles away from an unfolding attack, is surely more detached from the consequences of his finger pull than a pilot in the skies above.
So rather than just hailing the announcement of new employment opportunities in east Belfast, perhaps we need to ask harder questions about how exactly the drones designed there are likely to be deployed. Are 100 new jobs sufficient to offset the ethical qualms about the use of such technologically advanced weapons? Or to put it more succinctly, in the drawling opening lyrics of Costello’s Shipbuilding, “Is it worth it?”