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Shooting down a drone isn’t so hard to do

Updated Jul 09, 2014 01:25pm
  -Illustration by Faraz Aamer Khan
-Illustration by Faraz Aamer Khan

Soon after Pakistan’s May election, Imran Khan called on the new government to “stop or shoot down” American drones.

His position has softened in more recent weeks, but the PTI continues to emphasise coercive responses — as evidenced by a resolution submitted to the National Assembly last month that urges the government to use military force “if needed.”

Yet, if the PTI truly wants to down a drone, it may want to call on its fellow countrymen, and not the government, to execute such an audacious operation.

Why do I say this? Enter an American named Phillip Steel. He has proposed an ordinance for his town of Deer Trail, Colorado. It gives private citizens the right to shoot down surveillance drones — and entitles them to compensation if they succeed.

But first, some broader context.

Hypothetically speaking, could the Pakistani state shoot down a drone? Certainly. There’s little doubt Pakistan’s military boasts the capacity. According to one expert, slow speeds, easy detectability, and lack of maneuverability make drones “child’s play for a Pakistani Air Force pilot.” American drones have been shot down before; Serbians did so in 1999, and Iraqis in 2002 (Iran says it downed one in 2011, a claim disputed by Washington).

Still, in all reality, will the Pakistani state shoot down a drone? No. Doing so would severely damage — if not sever altogether — Islamabad’s ties with Washington, a relationship, new prime minister Nawaz Sharif seems eager to strengthen. It could also trigger retaliation from the United States. And this all assumes the Pakistani military would do the deed — which it likely would not. We now know the military has consented to drone strikes (a logical position, given the high-level Pakistani Taliban and al Qaeda figures killed by drones). This undercuts the oft-stated argument that the government can legally shoot down drones under the principle of self-defense.

Yet there’s another possibility. What if aggrieved Pakistanis, convinced the state won’t act, decide to take matters into their own hands?

Admittedly, this scenario may seem more far-fetched than a state-led effort. After all, few private citizens wield weaponry capable of downing a stealthy aircraft cruising at up to 10,000 feet. Pakistani militants may have the capacity, and they’ve claimed to have downed drones before. But there’s no proof their boasts are truthful.

Still, in a country as heavily weaponised as Pakistan, where powerful arms flow freely, there’s reason to believe someone could acquire the means to down a drone.

This brings me back to Phillip Steel. His proposal would allow residents to purchase $25 licenses that authorise them to fire at drones. If you ground part of a craft, you’re entitled to $25. Bring down the whole thing, and you net $100.

If the ordinance passes (officials consider it August 6), few people — including Steel — believe anyone will actually bag a drone (though the US Federal Aviation Administration has threatened to prosecute anyone who tries). No one’s ever seen a drone over Deer Trail, and because of licensing restrictions, modest shotguns are the only permissible weapons.

Yet this is all immaterial. Steel and his supporters regard the initiative as a purely symbolic measure meant to highlights the US government’s rising levels of surveillance (the FAA is ramping up America’s domestic drones program).

I’m inclined to agree with an observer who describes the effort as “the sort of small-town lunacy that makes the local Chamber of Commerce president want to bang his head against his desk.” Still, it amplifies Americans’ legitimate concerns about a growing surveillance regime.

It also raises some salient considerations about Pakistan.

Assuming drone strikes continue to proliferate and little is done by Islamabad, I can envision something akin to Steel’s initiative emerging in Pakistan — where drones do so much more than simply spy from the sky.

Numerous Pakistanis have good reason to act boldly against drone strikes. Think of tribal belt civilians who have lost family members (or homes, limbs, or livelihoods), or who have been traumatised by the telltale humming of drones.

Some of these people have sought legal assistance. Several months ago, a Pakistani court sided with them and ordered the government to end drone strikes. Yet they haven’t ended.

Their next step could be proposing a rough equivalent of Steel’s ordinance, which I’m sure some PTI official in KP province would happily support. For reasons already mentioned, those proposing the measure could conceivably find the appropriate weaponry (Steel’s shotguns-only rule would presumably not be in effect).

There’d be nothing symbolic about this measure in Pakistan. Blessed with sufficient interest, capacity, and support, it could well bring down a low-flying drone (witnesses report that drones may hover at low altitudes for hours).

Unsettling? Absolutely. Yet this all underscores the understandable lengths to which citizens — American and Pakistani alike — may be willing to go when grievances arecontinuouslyignored.