On 21 August a UK-piloted Reaper drone – an unmanned aerial vehicle, remotely controlled from RAF Waddington, an airbase south of Lincoln, a few miles off the A1 to Doncaster – launched a Hellfire missile at a car near Raqqa in Syria. In the car were Reyaad Khan and Ruhul Amin, two British citizens who had left the UK to join Isis in 2013. They were killed instantly. If this had been America, it would be just another small strike in a long war against militants who were possibly – but not demonstrably – plotting attacks on the allies’ home soil. But the British are more fastidious, and cautious with their money, and this was the first time that a British-owned drone had been deployed, outside Afghanistan and Iraq, to kill.
Khan, who was 21, had a few years ago been a ‘straight-A student’, as his friends put it, in Cardiff. He was over the moon to meet Ed Balls, then shadow chancellor, and he wanted to be Britain’s first Asian prime minister. Amin, who may not have been so high up the kill list, was interviewed by Good Morning Britain shortly after going to Syria, and told the interviewer that leaving Gatwick had been ‘one of the happiest moments in my life’. Both young men had appeared from Syria in an Isis recruitment video aimed at other British Muslims. It’s not clear – at least it hasn’t been made public – whether they had done anything more directly threatening, though Khan, who was big on Twitter, had said after he left Britain that ‘The brother that executed James Foley should be the new Batman.’
General Atomics’s MQ-9 Reaper drone – cost per unit around £11 million – is the most advanced unmanned military vehicle in production. It can carry a weapons payload 15 times heavier than its predecessor, the Predator, and can quietly hover, 50,000 feet above the ground, making it almost impossible to detect, before launching a strike. The RAF, so far as we know, has bought ten of them, all operated by a specialist team at RAF Waddington trained at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada. Over the summer, David Cameron had suggested that he hoped the British air war against Isis could be extended from Iraq to Syria. But, he said, nothing would change – after the withdrawal from Afghanistan, Iraq was the only permitted target – until Parliament was reconvened and prepared to vote to approve further action (Jeremy Corbyn permitting). On 7 September, however, as MPs got back from their holidays, he issued a statement to say that, despite the prohibition against UK action in Syria, Khan and Amin had been killed – nearly three weeks earlier – in an RAF airstrike.
Perhaps not coincidentally, this statement was put out just as Cameron released the government’s position on the refugee crisis. Britain, he said, would take in 20,000 Syrian migrants over the next five years, a number that may sound big and scary to readers of the Daily Mail – the audience he is most at pains to appease – but amounts to almost nothing, especially compared to Germany’s promise to take in half a million Syrians a year. Definitely not coincidentally, it was the Mail on Sunday that got the scoop on the Khan/Amin kill operation. The effective message was: we’re tough on Muslim twentysomethings tweeting threats from two thousand miles away – indeed, we’ll kill them. But, in return, surely a harmless immigrant or two should be allowed across the border. The Mail ran the story that Khan had somehow been involved in a plot to blow up the queen with a pressure-cooker bomb at the VJ parade in the middle of August, but since Khan and Amin weren’t killed until after the parade uneventfully took place, the legal justification for the kill order – that it was an act of national self-defence against an imminent threat, as described in Article 51 of the UN Charter – looked shaky, to say the least, and will be challenged.
Aerial drones have somehow come to stand for the scary future of war. They hover invisibly overhead, and can fire missiles, and we’ll never know they’re coming. Drones are the subject of endless books, and are central to the future of Amazon et al, whose quadcopters may soon drop off your groceries before you even know you need them. But, if you read Christopher Coker’s Future War (Polity, £16.99), this is the least of it. (He has a helpful foreword by General H.R. McMaster, deputy commanding general at the Futures Division of the US Army Training and Doctrine Command.) There is other stuff on the horizon. What about magnetorheological body armour, which Coker imagines (ambitiously) will in the future be central to an army’s defensive capabilities? The idea is that liquid armour – in a Terminator moment – will, when suspended in a Kevlar vest, suddenly coalesce when a current is applied to it, such that it can harden and repel bullets. The TALOS suit – standing for Tactical Assault Light Operator, or for the demigod Talos, Zeus’s bronze automaton and a key figure in the videogame franchise The Elder Scrolls – will, the hope is, do pretty much what Robert Downey Jr’s carapace did in Iron Man: turn a man into an indomitable soldier, his every biometrical signal translated into deadly action. Weapons are cheap, soldiers are not, and a great deal more money is spent on protection – of our guys – than on offence. Our soldiers matter, theirs are statistics. New inventions – just check out the website for the Lethality Division of the US Army Research Laboratory’s Material Research Directorate – promise clever things, and better soldiers, but when it comes to dealing with the enemy nothing is really as effective as firing at people from far enough away that they can’t fire back.