Kill Chain: The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins, by Andrew Cockburn

Review by Ed O’Loughlin: Are drones the new wonder weapons, or an expensive and dangerous waste of time?

Sat, Aug 22, 2015, 00:52


Book Title:
Kill Chain: The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins


Andrew Cockburn

Henry Holt and Co.

Guideline Price:

The unmanned aerial vehicle is, we are told, the new wonder weapon in the “War on Terror”. Circling over Somalia, Pakistan, Yemen or Gaza, these pilotless drones relay real-time images to intelligence analysts, generals and spy chiefs watching from thousands of kilometres away. Having identified a “terrorist” suspect, many can launch their own missiles, surgically removing “high-value individuals” from the leadership “nodes” of the terrorist foe. Or they can be used to guide conventional airstrikes or to summon special forces.

This new doctrine of drone warfare promises an end to old-fashioned combat – cheaper and safer than boots-on-the-ground operations such as those in Afghanistan and Iraq, more acceptable to domestic opinion, and supposedly less harmful to civilians than conventional airstrikes or shelling. And the drones themselves, taxpayers are told, cost far less to build and operate than old-school manned aircraft.

There is, of course, some debate about the morality of drone warfare. Is it ethical to deliberately kill people without trial? Where is the warrior code, the moral hazard, for those who attack with impunity from thousands of kilometres away? What happens when mistakes are bloodily made? How does one define a terrorist? Which side are we on again? Why?

These are important issues. But in Kill Chain: Drones and the Rise of High-Tech Assassins Andrew Cockburn doesn’t spend time on them. Instead he seeks to pre-empt the ethical debate by posing two seemingly pragmatic questions.

First, is assassination a useful policy? Second, does drone technology, along with its multibillion-dollar suites of surveillance and processing add-ons, and its growing thousands of support personnel, do what it says on the tin?

According to this persuasive, punchy and revelatory book, the answer in both cases is no.

A veteran writer on US national security issues, Cockburn assembles a formidable battery of insider sources to support his thesis. Among them is Rex Rivolo, a Vietnam fighter pilot who later studied maths and statistics. As a defence consultant he also studied the effects of assassination campaigns in two oddly similar US adventures, the “War on Terror” and the “War on Drugs”.

In the early 1990s the cocaine trade was dominated by two Colombian cartels, in Medellín and Cali. When the United States had their leaders assassinated or arrested, dozens of smaller, meaner gangs moved in to replace the duopoly. Competition and, with it, efficiency increased. The street price of cocaine in the US fell from $80 a gram to $60.

Local insurgent

Years later, in Afghanistan and Iraq, Rivolo analysed the number of attacks on Allied forces in areas where local insurgent leaders had been successfully targeted.

“Hitting HVIs” – high-value individuals – “did not reduce attacks and save American lives. It increased them. Each killing had quickly prompted mayhem. Within three kilometres of the target’s base of operation, attacks over the following 30 days shot up by 40 per cent.”

As a field commander told Cockburn, “Even if I kill one, it only took two weeks before the next guy came in. They didn’t miss a beat. You replace one guy, chances are the guy that’s coming in is more lethal, has less restraint and is more apt to make a name for himself and go above and beyond than if you had just left the first guy in there.”

The magic bullet may not be so magic. And what if it doesn’t even hit its intended target?

The book begins with a transcript of drone communications as a convoy of unarmed men, women and children drives through rural Afghanistan in the early morning. Watching from above, US-based drone operators wilfully misinterpret every innocent action as evidence that this is a group of armed men with belligerent intent.

The ultimate trigger for the attack – which claimed 23 innocent lives, including those of two children under four – came when the travellers got out of their vehicles at dawn to pray. According to the Americans’ sketchy training, this proved that they were terrorists about to attack.

Compounding this inbuilt cultural ignorance are grave technological failings. The drones’ vaunted intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance cameras – the “unblinking eye” of the American war effort – turn out to be so low in resolution and so narrow in focus that they are seldom able to tell people from bushes, let alone terrorists from civilians.

Sceptics compare it to watching Google Earth through a soda straw. Yet the delusion of God-like knowledge has captivated senior military and political figures in the US, allowing them to participate in operations from the comfort of their offices.

The seductiveness of screen-based warfare is one of the most intriguing – and, in this era of computer gaming, disturbingly familiar – themes to emerge in the book. Yet the television screens and sensors that feed them are still less effective at detecting and sorting potential targets than the previous technology, Eyeball, Mk I.

Adverse impression

So why has drone warfare been an article of faith for two successive United States administrations? One reason is that it makes little adverse impression on domestic opinion – no one is campaigning to “bring our drones home”. Another is that this sort of thing seems to be rather fun for the kind of people who watch “Kill TV” or who get to press the buttons. The last, and probably most important, is that UAV warfare is highly profitable for the defence contractors that sell the drones and associated systems.

Each new generation of drones has been bigger, more expensive, and more heavily armed than the last, so that the latest units cost far more to build and operate – and require more support staff – than the supposedly clunky manned aircraft they are replacing.

The two most recent US drones to go operational, Reaper and Global Hawk, were both rejected by US air-force testers as unfit for service. Nor would they be much use against a “real” enemy like Russia or China, with the basic equipment to shoot them down or, as Iran did recently, hack into them and fly them to a friendly airfield.

The US already has a huge inventory of aircraft with a proven record of intelligence-gathering, close support and aerial bombardment. But these cannot be flown from the Pentagon or Langley. Worse, they are already paid for.

Ed O’Loughlin’s most recent novel, Toploader, was a black comedy about drone warfare