Opinion | The drone debate in Denmark: We need to take a stance

As warfare becomes increasingly digitalised, the debate of how data is and can be used for becomes ever important

Drone technology has been debated in the Danish media for quite some time already. Although the focus has primarily been on ‘armed drones’, the possibilities offered by ‘surveillance drones’ has also been mentioned. Yet, as recent debates demonstrate, this distinction is not as simple as is sometimes made out to be. Moreover, two features are arguably contributing to changing the terms of debate about drones in Denmark. Finally, broader questions concerning the global political context have arguably received unhelpfully little attention. 

Armed drones in Denmark: Where are we?  

The first distinction that must be made concerning drones (or unmanned aerial vehicles) is the distinction between the use of this technology for surveillance or armed purposes. The use of armed drones is by far the most controversial and most debated. However, the application of drones as a tool in intelligence gathering is not without its own inherent issues. ‘Surveillance drones’ produce large amounts of data, such as images and electronic intelligence and can be used to track movements not only in military conflicts, but also in policing and political activities. The question in this regard is not only what the effect of drones in surveillance will be, but also how to manage the data they collect and how to protect this data, e.g from unauthorised access. Transmissions from drones are not encrypted and occasionally drones have been hacked and information stolen. It has also been suggested that hijacking a drone and using it for acts of terrorism or other crimes would not be impossible. 

A critical aspect of recent debates concerns the issue of intelligence-sharing that blurs this distinction. Notably, the alleged Danish involvement in supplying the intelligence for the US drone attack on al-Qaeda cleric Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen in 2011 sparked public debate over the legality and morality of Danish support for the US use of drones in the killing of suspected terrorists. Yet this did not lead to any clarification of the political stance towards the use of drones. Similarly, the Danish government announced in 2012 that it would rejoin the high-profile NATO smart defence Alliance Ground Surveillance (AGS) programme and, furthermore, Danish pension funds have invested in drone development programmes since such investments offer substantial returns for their clients.

As such, the drone debate in Denmark is not simply about whether Denmark should acquire more drones but rather about the need to define rules for how drones – and the data they produce – can be used. 

Denmark needs to take a stance 

The debate can be read as indicative not only of the pros and cons of the new technology, but also of larger issues concerning the need for politicians to take a stance. Two factors have arguably changed the international landscape in ways that push for such decisions to be made, also by Danish politicians. 

Firstly, we have seen a new set of voices expressing concerns and critique of how the US has deployed drones to carry out targeted killings of terror suspects in places such as Yemen and Pakistan – places in which the US is not even at war. Notably, the United Nations has recently announced an initiative to undertake an investigation of the legality of the use of armed drones. Although it is still too early to say whether the UN report that will come out of this might have any significant implications, it is still noteworthy as an illustration of how international organisations have begun to voice critique of the contemporary use of drones by the US. As such, these are arguably critical voices that Danish policy-makers need to decide how to relate to, certainly if they are critical of the US use of drone technology that Denmark has otherwise largely been uncritical – sometimes even supportive – of.  

Secondly, the international situation is now such that a number of international players – including China, Saudi Arabia and India – are in possession of drones. The longer the US uses drone technology as it pleases – that is, with minimal transparency and legality – the more this prepares the world for a setting in which other states in possession of drones can point to the US and claim that they also have a right to deploy drones to neutralise whoever they define as their enemy. Not only is this likely to affect internal security situations in the countries that have drones at their disposal; it may also cause friction with neighbouring countries. Issues of privacy aside, there are strong strategic incentives for why a widely recognised set of rules about the application of drones should be agreed upon at this juncture, rather than later. 

Together, these two factors produce an international context that arguably pushes Danish decision-makers to take a stance not only on the issue of whether to acquire more drones, but also on the more critical issue of how to deploy such drones and perhaps on whose side “we” are on when it comes to issues of legality, insofar as that will be the new terms of debate. 

Indicative of larger questions 

Arguably, the relevance of the drone debate lies not only in the specifics of the technology but also, and perhaps more importantly, in how drones are used within a broader political environment that continues to deploy the ‘War on Terror’ as legitimate. In this context, a crucial question that is sometimes neglected in current debates is the question of the extent to which this rhetoric and the ‘exceptional’ measures that it legitimises are still acceptable more than ten years after 9/11 and nearly two years after the killing of Osama bin Laden. Even if legal frameworks were to be defined for the use of drone technology, one could worry that, for as long as a ‘War on Terror’ rhetoric is evoked to legitimate exceptional measure, such legal frameworks will be of little use. This aspect has arguably received too little attention in current debates about drone technology.

The authors are researchers at the Danish Institute for International Studies.