Drones both foreign and domestic

Currently the twitterverse, and mass media, is alight with the flames of drone war. What sparked this altercation between twitterarati and the rest of the world? It is as simple as the possible use of unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) to seek and perhaps exterminate Dorner the rogue former Los Angelas Police Department officer. There has been a simmering debate over the use of drones in combat and that debate is nothing if more vociferous when they are operated over domestic soil. Let’s work our way through this problem set and look at a few elements of the discussion.

I speak a lot to the concept of a social contract and consent of the governed. The social contract between the people and law enforcement is a two-way bond for a civil society. The law enforcement agencies are empowered by the people to mitigate the risks and social issues of society. For the power to enforce the will of the people law enforcement officers are given special rights to protect themselves and others. The people are active participants if often uninterested in this process. The people set the laws and acceptable standards of law enforcement. It is a disconnect between the parties of this arrangement upon which the debate of drones and automated enforcement mechanisms swing.

First the use of ad hominem attack in the debate. There is an extensive pandering in the discussion of drones. If you even discuss them in less than effusive ways you are “droned out” by the twitterati likes of “Drunken Predator” or others who are more interested in capabilities. Drones provide a unique set of capabilities in loiter time and inherent reduction of risk to personnel. As drones are innovated through the cycles of build, test, deploy, innovate, repeat they are getting better and better with more variations. Advocates of drones and weapons systems that uniquely reduce risk to personnel and increase operational lethality are incentivized to be proponents. Thus, anybody challenging the use of drones is in their minds arguing for less capability and the death or injury of personnel.

The original arguments for drones in combat environments were for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) activities. An ISR platform is a weapon against an adversary. The ISR function is for targeting and assessment of an adversary not simply to view a landscape. Adding the missile and gun systems to ISR platforms removed the requirement for other weapons systems to operationalize the ISR platforms information. Similarly the use of drones on domestic soil whether armed or unarmed are in fact a use of force by the state. Whether that force is inherent in the armaments of the drone or to the forces the drone provides as ISR capabilities is a minor point.

Force is an interesting quibble for people in law enforcement. Police academies usually teach a concept called the ladder of force. The mere presence of a police officer at a location is a form of force. The officer has instantiated the will of the state at a particular time and place. The ladder continues from the use of a chemical sprays like CAPSTUN to the use of a baton through the use of weapons like handguns and rifles. Each step of the ladder moves from a non-lethal environment towards a lethal option. The correct choice of force option based on the threat facing the officer is an ethical set of boundaries and legal set of considerations based on the Constitution of the United States. Most assuredly the use of ISR platforms like drones represent an escalation in the force used by police departments in perpetuity.

Proponents of drone and ISR capabilities argue that the force constraints or more accurately the level of force is not onerous. On the one hand the drone proponents argument in that context admits to the drone being a form of force, and the second sets up the argument of what is the correct level of force in the current environment. In either case the simplistic ad hominem attack against those who would question the use of drones in domestic air space is exposed for the red herring that it represents. Any and all forms of force used by law enforcement agencies should be examined for the applicability and social acceptance. It is not the place of law enforcement agencies to determine social norms but society to empower law enforcement as servants of society.

Part of the problem with the debate over drones in domestic airspace is that of fear by the public. Drones are currently a military weapons system and will be for a long time. The use of a military weapons system by civilian law enforcement should cause pause by the public. Since 1997 the Department of Defense 1033 program has provided military grade equipment to domestic law enforcement agencies. Much of the post 2001 support has been for the “war on terror”. The 1033 program though predates terrorism fears and was part of the war on drugs. The social contract instantiated in law and policy is that the United States military would never be used against the domestic population. This is arguably myth but one challenged by the military at it’s political peril. The question remains if a civilian law enforcement organization is indistinguishable by training, equipment, and tactics from the military has the social contract been broken.

The sideline to this is a criticism of the concept that the militarization of local law enforcement is localized if even a problem. This ignores the vast evidence that former members of the military become law enforcement officers, current reservists often are found in law enforcement agencies, and the previously mentioned Mr. Dorner is in fact a veteran. This is not a criticism of the military taking up the law enforcement career. I took up the mantle of law enforcement officer when I left the Marines. It is an open question for society if the militarization of local and state law enforcement represents a social trend we want to support.

The argument of the day that a drone ISR platform would never be weaponized is “shot down” by the often formed quip that police helicopters aren’t military attack helicopters, or otherwise more accurately police helicopters aren’t weaponized. To be sure the different agencies do buy everything from Dauphin helicopters to Huey helicopters that are military weapons systems in other roles. No, these devices are not Comanches or other more famous military systems. However, it doesn’t take a lot of digging to find local law enforcement using current military hardware on loan like the UH53 Blackhawk for drug interdiction.

Drones though have a special place of fear for the public and are represented at the local level by red light cameras and the fear works it’s way up through the hierarchy of unmanned systems to the aerial vehicles. At the most incisive moment the use of unmanned systems for domestic law enforcement teeters on an edge of legitimacy of governance and respect of the governed. The fear is of automation in all forms. The strategy of society to control law enforcement has been through the use of fiduciary controls. Society may make something illegal but there are often no resources to take action. The political brinksmanship of law versus resources is a study of it’s own.

Automation removes the resource constraints that can be used to hold a law enforcement agency in check. The red light camera is a good example of this. Communities after having the burden of red light cameras in their towns have sought legal protections against there use. As to the legitimacy of governance some communities have fought over the basis of the contracts and privatization of the speed and light cameras. Into this morass of fear of automation we add military weapon systems like drones. For the proponents of drones I would caution that denigrating these fears has only entrenched the population and lost supporters in past engagements.

Consent of the governed is not something to be taken lightly. In the hunt for Mr. Dorner there have been two shootings of innocent people thought to be Dorner and new questions opened into the veracity of the testimony of the law enforcement agencies. It is not a long trip from the obviously mentally ill Mr. Dorner as agent to be blamed to an over zealous law enforcement agency seeking to cover up and silence Mr. Dorner. Add to the fears and flames of social indignation the use of military weapons systems and you have a level of ignorance that can only be blamed on forward flight and terror within the Los Angelas Police Department. Mr. Dorner is nobody but the focus on response of the law enforcement agencies will be his legacy.

There is an inherent ethical issue when automating any weapons or law enforcement system. If the system of criminal justice is automated there is no person to hold accountable or argue with at the point of the crime. There is no subjective nature to the law and all law is by nature subjective. Only in the minds reflecting the moral compass of Mr. Dorner is the law a black and white rule and code. The law by nature and whimsy of language and social construct is malleable across time and conditions. Law and law enforcement is a muddy process of thinking, reacting, and intuitively considering the nature of humanity. Automation though can only take a small part of that context into account even with, “the human in the loop”.

Though outside scope there is an ethical conundrum about automating a weapon system. The foreign use of unmanned aerial vehicles is a poorly described term for a stand off weapons systems. The UAV/Drone used to kill insurgents and possible enemies of the United States is basically a long-range (deployed and then targeted) weapons system. The automation of a UAV is in principle less than that of a modern naval torpedo. The drones reportedly used in Afghanistan have a long period of loiter but always have a human operating the controls. The question as to ethics is if this weapon system creates a low risk, high engagement environment that invites abuse of human morals and ethics. The answer is likely yes.

The debate though is quelled by adherence to a letter of the law not reflected in the instantiation of law. If the weapon systems didn’t exist would people be dying? That is a question that could be asked about any weapons system and of course is simply answered no. What this particular point in the debate points to is the resource and desire of one nation to inflict it’s will on another nation and at what cost that act to compel will be paid. If the act to compel comes at no cost in blood what is the barrier to nation state actions? If power can be expressed without cost or societies agreement on that expression of power what is the restraint on the state? This too weights the balance of domestic drone use.

The question of using drones by the military in foreign engagements is no less and no more than the standard fear of automation in domestic matters. The fear expressed is a reflection of consent and governance. The ethical and moral conundrums are part of the discussion that often is ignored. It is not without irony that a nation states leadership that hides behind the rule of law but ignores the spirit of the law inflicts grievous injury on the legitimacy of governance. Actions that need to be hidden behind legal briefs and are not obviously in the best interest of the nation by their mere expression come at a cost of legitimacy. The discussion of drones and automated systems hinge on the answers and openness of a society to explore the breadth and depth of these issues.

Leave a Reply