Are drone operators actually combatants? They are not exposed to two substantial factors in the everyday work of classical combatants: Fear and the risk of death.
Ifrane – Just over one year ago, the Benghazi-based warlord Khalifa Haftar launched an offensive to seize Tripoli, the capital of Libya’s UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA).
While Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) is a powerful actor in the Libyan civil war against Fayez al-Sarraj in Tripoli, a large part of their success is the result of abundant support from foreign powers.
Since the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime in 2011 and especially since 2014, Libya has been a battlefield in a war of competing powers. In order to uphold their interests in a strategic country like Libya, foreign powers have given political, military, and financial support to either of the rival governments.
Recently, foreign countries have turned to military drones, also known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), as an appealing means of intervention.
In the Haftar camp, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is deploying Chinese Wing Loong drones. In the Sarraj camp, Turkey is deploying its Bayraktar TB2 drones and supplying some to Qatar to fulfill the same mission.
With the unleashing of a drone race, power relations became irrelevant on the Libyan, and rationality acquired a distinct meaning. The use of military drones is a game-changer in the Libyan civil war.
Drone warfare is irregular warfare
Military drones fall under the umbrella of irregular warfare as opposed to regular warfare. Conventionally, war involves a cause, state actors, and individuals as combatants. With the development of drone technology, the nature of war has become unprecedently complex for three reasons.
First, the use of military drones throws into confusion the status of drone operators. Are they combatants? They are not exposed to two substantial factors in the everyday work of classical combatants: Fear and the risk of death.
Paradoxically, the targets’ exposure to the risk of death increases drastically because they are not aware of imminent danger nearby. In a conventional war, combatants on both sides are exposed to physical risk. In the absence of parity between dying and killing, war is less equal.
Second, the one-sided absence of physical risk spills into the political sphere. In a war-zone like Libya, when Turkey and Qatar deploy Bayraktars and the UAE sends Wing Loongs, they are less likely to generate popular discontent compared to the deployment of manned aircraft.
In fact, military drones enable “remote killing” with two implications: The lives of military personnel are not put in jeopardy and the use of force overseas does not create public pressure. With the minimization of risks and the absence of accountability mechanisms, foreign powers have found meddling in Libyan affairs is easy and more affordable.
Third, the use of military drones reduces the nuances of the battlefield. In Libya, the frequency of drone strikes rose significantly after the April 2019 offense, corroborating the negative correlation between the ease of manipulation and restraint of action.
Drone operators conduct a fourfold loop—watch, target, decide, fire—in every drone strike, transforming the battlefield into an action game in which the player watches a virtual terrain for hours and then uses a joystick to shoot when the target appears. This loop, involving a human and a machine, suggests the battlefield is becoming depersonalized.
As mechanisms of accountability blur, killing becomes easier and distant.
As a method of irregular warfare, the deployment of military drones has proved to be a promising strategy for foreign powers in upholding their interests. The appeal of those “blind planes” extends beyond the ease of launching strikes. In fact, money remains a decisive factor in shaping states’ decisions to get involved in a war, and military drones are more cost-effective than manned aircraft.
Drones are affordable
Drones have become affordable for numerous stakeholders. In Libya, the UAE is deploying the Chinese Wing Loong drones to support Haftar. Developed by Chengdu Aircraft Design, a Wing Loong drone flies for approximately 20 hours on average at an altitude of 4-9 kilometers and carries anti-tank missiles, rockets, and bombs.
Surprisingly, the Chinese sell this technological sophistication for the moderate price of about $1 million, while an American drone like the Reaper costs around $30 million. Countries like the United States and Israel take the lead in drone manufacturing expertise, but China has also managed to join the race by producing UAVs with limited production costs.
Since April 2019, Chinese drones have proliferated. Beijing’s growing share in the global drone market allowed countries like the UAE to acquire a large inventory of lethal and cheap drones destined for securing Haftar’s grip. But Turkey and Qatar rushed to offset the balance of power in Libya in favor of Sarraj, and the deployment of drones has been financially and strategically feasible.
The acquisition of unmanned aircraft is complex, causing Turkey to develop a local drone industry. Its UAV leader, Baykar Makina, manufactures the Bayraktar TB2, a lethal and cheap drone roughly analogous to the Wing Loong in endurance and performance.
In order to secure various geopolitical and economic interests in Libya, Ankara deploys military drones to counterbalance Haftar’s maneuver. Qatar is also a major participant in the cause as the two countries are united against the UAE-Saudi Arabia-Egypt-Russia square.
Clearly, the deployment of drones is the epitome of foreign activism in Libyan affairs. State actors chose to reduce their official footprint and limit their entry costs by substituting manned aircraft with military UAVs.
This shows that the expertise behind lethal drones is not a protected property since new candidates are entering the drone market other than the traditional drone makers like the United States, Israel, and Russia. When a market becomes accessible, competition skyrockets.
Drones, COVID-19, uncertainty
Today, Libya is a major theater of drone warfare. Although military drones vary in range, lethality, and size, their deployment has altered the balance of power and deterrence logic in Libya.
The proliferation of drones shrinks the power gap among stakeholders: Striking with a Reaper is no longer so different from striking with a cheaper Wing Loong or Bayraktar. Accordingly, UAVs are a “power equalizer” rather than a deterrent, increasing the complexity of the Libyan civil war.
The ease at which drones are manufactured, the absence of a rigorous legal framework to govern their use, and the quest to minimize casualties are all rationales behind the ongoing race for drones. Nevertheless, if drones minimize the exposure of soldiers to physical risk, they do not necessarily minimize collateral damage.
In Libya, it is always the people who suffer most from the outcomes of realpolitik. The outbreak of COVID-19 has also increased the vulnerability of the Libyan people because the country is at significant risk given the absence of infrastructure to absorb deadly health threats.
In a humanitarian move, the warring powers consented to prevent total annihilation, but the terrain shows otherwise: Attacks and counterattacks continue, and COVID-19, like drones, is not a deterrent either.