mq1_predator dronePhoto courtesy of Defense Tech.Org

What is Gained or Lost With Drones?

By R. Alan Clanton | published July 20, 2013 |
Thursday Review Editor

At the height of the Vietnam War, President Lyndon Johnson faced daily pressures to escalate the level of combat operations, especially aerial bombing, then seen as a relatively "safe" U.S. tool to deploy against the North Vietnamese army and the Viet Cong. Johnson, who famously fretted about the heavy bombing and often micromanaged the selection of targets, signing off on them only after personally reviewing maps and aerial photos, worried rightly about three kinds of blowback: the bombing might trigger a wider war with China or the Soviet Union if Chinese or Russian personnel were killed or Warsaw Pact assets destroyed; American pilots would be at grave risk, even at high altitudes, from the Russian-supplied anti-aircraft weapons in use by the North Vietnamese; and the collateral damage to civilian areas could be severe.

On this third point, Johnson worried mightily and continuously: even one mismanaged bombing mission could lead to disaster—residential areas, schools, hospitals, markets would be destroyed, along with the inevitable loss of life among the civilian population. There was no easy solution: low altitude bombing using lighter, faster jets would increase precision, but would put more American pilots at risk; high altitude bombing would lower the risk to U.S. airmen, but would reduce the accuracy of the ordnance dropped.

Johnson was never able to reconcile his inner torment, for neither path was ideal in the highly unpredictable and incalculably complex endeavor of warfare. And indeed, despite what were cutting-edge targeting technologies available at the time, civilians were killed in U.S. air strikes over North Vietnam. Fighters and bombers were shot down, and many of the pilots who survived crashes or ejections then spent years in POW camps. Johnson was never able to sanitize the process, nor remove the risk.

Hawks reasoned that the bombing was an essential tool to force the North into taking negotiations seriously, and as a way to demonstrate U.S. commitment to victory. Doves insisted that the bombing was only a technological form of terror, and that it solidified civilian allegiances—aligning the peasant population and middle-class elements with the Marxist-Leninists in Hanoi. Even after the war, the debate would not be settled.

Decades would pass, and then, during Operation Desert Storm, television viewers the world over would watch as the newest technologies enabled smart rockets and missiles to become routine instruments of war. Cruise missiles launched from battleships in the Persian Gulf could be monitored from high altitudes, or from satellite observation positions in space, as they found their way to their intended targets—aircraft hangars, Iraqi bunkers and command posts, tanks and vehicles, fuel depots. Neither Saddam Hussein's army, nor his much ballyhooed, elite Republican Guard, were a match for the dazzling hyper-accuracy of the smart ordnance the U.S. and its allies deployed, and these weapons were widely credited with ensuring Allied victory in the liberation of Kuwait.

But Desert Storm may have been the last major conflict in which enemy combatants could be easily distinguished by their uniforms or their combat vehicles.

In the current War on Terror, a Tomahawk cruise missile would be a costly, clumsy form of overkill—antiquated, in fact--for the mission U.S. commanders face. American soldiers in Afghanistan have no way to distinguish friend from foe, nor an easy way to spot the Taliban or al Qaeda operative standing amongst a group of Afghan men on a street, sitting in a coffee shop, or riding in the back of a truck. Even Afghans in the uniforms of police or military can turn, and in recent months many U.S. soldiers have been killed by presumably "friendly" Afghans, and a decade of war in Afghanistan has brought little progress in making distinctions between Qaeda combatants—real or potential—and civilians.

Over the long course of the war in Afghanistan, as it became apparent in the last years of the administration of George W. Bush and the early years of the administration of Barack Obama that combat operations on the ground would be endlessly mired in the conundrum of sorting civilian from combatant, the use of smarter tools of war came into prominence. Among those high tech tools were drones—small, light, unmanned flying machines designed originally for reconnaissance and surveillance, but easily adapted to carry powerful weapons.

Although these remotely-piloted devices were used only occasionally by Bush (most estimates suggest that between 40 and 50 drones were deployed for lethal purposes between 2004 and 2009), their use has increased dramatically in the Obama years. Drones can now be credited with as many as 3350 killed in all operations across the wider jihadist world—Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and other locations. Drones have also been deployed in large numbers for surveillance and intelligence-gathering over many other nations, including Syria, Jordan and perhaps Iran.

On the Obama scorecard, the use of drones may be in fact his most hawkish tendency, placing him squarely upon the foreign policy footprint of the neo-conservatives so widely derided in many of the public debates and media discussions of the last five or six years. For most progressives, this predisposition toward high tech killing devices is perhaps even more troubling than Guantanamo. Liberals and civil libertarians see drones as the most slippery of all slopes, a high tech device easily transitioned from military to civilian applications. For many conservatives of the libertarian stripe, the use of drones raises a variety of timely ethical questions, all made more urgent because of the recent revelations of government intrusion: NSA domestic spying, IRS overreach and political abuse, Justice Department inquiries into reporters' phone records, even the recent fracas over police department. During recent Senate hearings, FBI officials admitted that surveillance drones have been used over U.S. territory for law enforcement and tracking purposes, and NSA officials have acknowledged the use of drones in the skies of even our closest allies.

Like any newly-deployed weapon, drones raise obvious questions about what constitutes "fair" or "ethical" combat and warfare. Defenders of the use of drones point out that these arguments can be traced back centuries: artillery, machine guns, tanks, airplanes, submarines, atomic bombs—all have been at one time or another declared unethical as weapons. Opponents of drones, however, suggest that remotely-guided flying machines are nothing more than the ultimate form of detachment from ethical war—a step toward the total erasure of scruples or human interdiction in the choice of who will die and who will survive.

Military commanders in the field admit that although civilians are sometimes killed by drone strikes in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan, those occasions are rare, and the percentage of collateral death is actually lower than what is wrought by more indiscriminate forms of combat, such as bombing, targeted missile-strikes and even boots-on-the-ground operations. More importantly, say intelligence and terror experts, drones have created fragmentation among Taliban and Qaeda leadership by making it virtually impossible for more than two or three operatives to gather in one spot for any length of time. Marked individuals, those with connections to terrorists, can be tracked—often easily—and the result has been a dramatic increase the number of Qaeda assets killed. Those among the civilian population know this, and keep their distance from any Taliban gathering or any known terror cells. This creates isolation, and weakens command-and-control. Coupled with data-mining and other high-tech tracking tools, terrorists must refrain from nearly all forms of electronic activity—no laptops, no wireless internet, no use of cell phones or handheld devices. And since gathering in one spot for more than a few minutes is now dangerous, no newly produced recruitment videos have emerged—those infamous short films of dozens of young recruits in ski masks tumbling, crawling and leaping with rifles. And if there are no videos, there are surely no secret training camps.

Supporters say that drone search-and-kill operations work with frequent success. Just a week ago the U.S. military announced the death of Shaeed al-Shihri, a radical, violent militant with direct ties to several terrorist plots and activities in recent years, including foiled "underwear" bombs in England and the U.S.

Al-Shihri had at one time been detained by the American military and held in Guantanamo. After his release, he returned to his homeland of Saudi Arabia, and shortly afterwards he went back into the terror business in Yemen, quickly emerging as the de facto leader of al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula. His death would seem to confirm what drone advocates have said: drones work effectively, and undercut Qaeda efforts to groom and sustain leadership.

For most supporters of drone deployment, the bottom line is sound and compelling: fewer U.S. boots on the ground mean fewer deaths of American combat personnel; drones allow the U.S. to avoid being drawn into the complex, often intractable issues of local disputes; and drones are highly precise tools, ideal for the decapitation of terrorist leadership and with a relatively low chance of tragic spillover into civilian life.

But critics suggest that drones do not have the high success rate and low collateral percentages their enthusiasts boast of so frequently. Further, opponents of drone use point out several key factors: drones have not inhibited swift replacement and promotion of new terror leaders after others are killed; when harassed, terror operations simply move to new areas (as in the recent migration of Qaeda leadership from Pakistan to Africa and the Arabian Peninsula); and drone strikes have done little to blunt the marketing outreach by Qaeda and Taliban operatives working on the web. In fact, Qaeda and Taliban operatives routinely post videos of drones attacks and photos of the aftermath of drone havoc to promote the cause of radical jihad to new recruits and potential supporters among the population. These images of the drone attacks often generate more sympathy, online activity and recruitment success than those slick training videos with their uplifting martial music and their fighters wearing scarves and bandanas. Critics say that this fact alone demonstrates the failure of drones to significantly reduce potential terror.

From a military and foreign policy standpoint, nothing has been more troubling to American progressives and western liberals—save perhaps Guantanamo—than President Obama’s total embrace of drones. As the high cost and political pain of two wars (now currently only Afghanistan) wore thin with Americans, Obama and his Pentagon chiefs quickly escalated drone activity from a secondary to a primary tool of war. Critics point at that where Bush used drones only sparingly, and only after careful scrutiny of the high value of the target involved, the Obama administration has lowered the bar substantially, ordering strikes on secondary and tertiary targets, or for that matter, any gathering that is deemed suspect by intelligence analysts. Despite the 2011 claims by John Brennan and others that drones had resulted in few, if any, collateral deaths (a claim which seemed suspicious even to conservatives and neo-cons at the time), video and photographic evidence indicates that civilians have been killed on multiple occasions, whether by technological failures or by mishandled intelligence. This feeds the propaganda campaigns of terror networks and enables Taliban and Qaeda recruiters to portray the American embrace of drones as a form of high tech terror designed only to kill Muslims.

Further, opponents of drone deployment say that the claim that drones have had significant success in thwarting potential terrorist activity is spurious, at best. Since terror plots are conceived and executed in cellular, small groups using improvised, out-of-the-box tactics and tools (the Boston Marathon bombers used cheap pressure cookers and backpacks; al-Shihri's operatives used underwear) the notion that intelligence gleaned online or from cell phone activity can lead to targeted drone success somewhere in Afghanistan or Yemen is neither verifiable or measurable. Drones simply provide a lazy, detached way to eradicate pockets of "suspicious" activity in some remote location.

Because a significant number of drone strikes now take place in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and along the southern rim of the Arabian Peninsula, liberals contend that U.S. drones act as a proxy weapon in support of odorous, military regimes. Writing in the most recent edition of Foreign Affairs, Audrey Kurth Cronin says drones have in effect become "remote-controlled repression."

"With its so-called signature strikes," Cronin writes, "Washington often goes after people whose identity it does not know, but who appear to be behaving like militants in insurgent-controlled areas. Worse, because the targets of such strikes are so loosely defined, it seems inevitable that they will kill some civilians."

This conundrum of war remains constant: no matter the precision of the weapon, its lethal effects will surely spill over into civilian areas, with disastrous results. Lyndon Johnson famously agonized over the ethics and the blowback of bombing, though his successor Richard Nixon had little compunction over their extensive use in Southeast Asia. After 9/11, George W. Bush, the neo-con unilateralist, used drones surgically and sparingly; his successor, the internationalist conciliator, has exchanged the toxic baggage of a decade of costly conventional ground war with the low-cost, expedient of a remotely-controlled operation.

Meanwhile, the U.S. military brass is working overtime to expand the scope and flexibility of drones. Just last week the U.S. Navy conducted more field tests as technicians sought to successfully remote-pilot a drone from take-off to landing on the deck of a moving aircraft carrier. Though landing a returning drone was the most complex problem to solve, the July 10 successful landing of a drone onto the deck of the George H.W. Bush demonstrated to the Navy that it was possible (other recent landing attempts during testing were aborted).   The U.S. Navy says it intends to continue work on perfecting drones for fleet applications, with the immediate goal of incorporating drone technology and deployment platforms into its new Ford-class aircraft carriers, named for the Gerald R. Ford, which is scheduled to be christened later this year.  Ford-class carriers will all be fitted for extensive drone deployment.

But for U.S. libertarians on both sides of the political aisle, and both sides of the age old hawk versus dove debate, drones raise more troubling issues than their relative success on the battlefield of Afghanistan, or in the rugged and remote regions of the world's most lawless locales. The frank admission by FBI and NSA officials that drones have already been deployed by intelligence agencies and law enforcement over American soil, and the soil of some of our allies, escalates the ethical and constitutional questions of remote-controlled surveillance and interdiction to a timely status. Local and state police have recently deployed drones for tasks ranging from traffic enforcement to drug interdiction, and from vehicle identification to the tracking of individuals, in some cases coupling data harvested from new squad car tag-readers with computer systems which can quickly direct the drones to their intended target or location.  When residents and local officials in one Colorado town approved an ordinance allowing citizens to use their personal guns to shoot down snooping drones, the FAA and the Justice Department weighed-in with an immediate warning that downing a drone could be a federal offense. 

Many conservatives and liberals were shocked in recent months over the casual, even arrogant responses by public officials of the Justice Department, NSA and IRS when—in their appearances in front of Congress—they told of their agency or department's rather elastic and unrestrained interpretations of the U.S. Constitution. The NSA's domestic spying program—harvesting massive troves of information from the cell phones, laptops, emails and downloads of average Americans—seemed the most troubling permutation of the problem, and a clear indication that drones, like many other technologies, might be all-too-easily be adapted for homeland surveillance and even social and behavioral restrictions.

Questions of the use of remotely-controlled flying machines are not easy to answer, and inevitably lead to the age-old balance between enhanced securities and eroded liberties, lives saved versus lives lost, and the intractable problems of preventing civilian deaths in a world in which terrorism erases the traditional boundaries of battlefields. If used domestically, drones are surely that genie which we will find impossible to put back in the bottle—capable of remarkable feats with the flick of an eye, but also perhaps an expedient agent for the erasure of privacy and individuality.