Photo Credit: U.S. Air Force, Lt Col Leslie Pratt
Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or “drones,” are among the most significant technological advances of this century. Within just eight years from 2002 to 2010, the Department of Defense’s inventory of UAVs increased 40-fold. Since then, drones have become the weapon of choice in hostile, remote areas throughout the world. Now, as the White House prepares to release its drone “playbook,” the entire nation must evaluate the efficacy of our policies, and the unintended consequences of drone warfare.
The ease of going to war
On the surface, drones are an obvious force multiplier. However, there are ramifications to being able to wage war so easily anywhere in the world that cannot be underestimated. In his book, Wired for War, P.W. Singer, said, “Unmanned systems represent the ultimate break between the public and its military. With no draft, no need for congressional approval, no tax or war bonds, and now the knowledge that the Americans at risk are mainly just American machines, the already lowering bars to war may well hit the ground. A leader needn’t carry out the kind of consensus building that is normally needed before a war, and doesn’t even need to unite the country behind the effort.” With the prevalence of this relatively new technology, national security decision-makers must resist the temptation to always settle for launching new drone strikes that may potentially draw the United States into conflict. There are some situations where drones are the best option, but they are not a global panacea to all of our political-military challenges.
Unmanned systems have not only changed the ease of conducting military operations but have also changed the “experience” of warfare entirely. As opposed to being deployed for months on end, in this new era of drone warfare, the operator may be piloting a drone over Afghanistan while sitting at a control console in Nevada, and then go home to his/her family each night. This phenomenon has been described as, “the first generation to go to war without actually going to war.” That is a transformational shift in how the United States conducts wartime operations and ultimately also exacerbates the ease in which the United States could enter a conflict.
Loss of intelligence
The importance of timely, actionable intelligence is crucial to national security. The White House Policy on the Use of Force in Counterterrorism Operations Outside the United States outlines that, “the policy of the United States is not to use lethal force when it is feasible to capture a terrorist suspect, because capturing a terrorist offers the best opportunity to gather meaningful intelligence and to mitigate and disrupt terrorist plots.”
A perfect illustration of this policy occurred in March 2016, when the United States declared that the U.S. military conducted airstrikes against sites believed to be integral to ISIL’s chemical weapon program. The intelligence that led to these strikes was provided by a senior ISIL operative that was captured three weeks earlier by the U.S. Expeditionary Targeting Force (ETF). The United States would not have had this intelligence if they had instead elected to use a missile from a drone to kill the operative rather than capturing him alive. A partiality towards drone strikes depletes the intelligence community of actionable information that could save American lives in the future.
The impact of U.S. drone strikes on terrorist recruitment is concerning and not yet fully understood. Former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General James Cartwright (Ret.), stated that the United States is witnessing “blowback” from drone strikes. This “blowback” General Cartwright described could potentially be anything on the spectrum from resentment of Americans to full-fledged radicalization, and this cannot be taken lightly.
It is well documented that terrorist propagandists have been using U.S. drone strikes as a recruitment tool. Inspire is a radical online magazine that seeks to motivate people to commit terrorist acts and is generally associated with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). A 2013 Inspire issue declared that, “These missiles are usually carried by the unmanned drones to kill this or that target cold-bloodedly… These missiles have no eyes and their launchers are more blind. They kill civilians more than mujahideen.” While the hyperbole in this excerpt and many others like it is clearly evident to most, it is still appealing to some.
There have been examples in the United States already that demonstrate the connection between drone strikes and terrorist recruitment. In one case, Pakistani-American Faisal Shahzad, the failed Times Square car bomber, was asked by the judge at his trial how he could rationalize planting a bomb near innocent civilians including children. Shahzad coldly responded saying that U.S. drone strikes “don't see children, they don't see anybody. They kill women, children, they kill everybody.” This is why preventing civilian casualties from drone strikes is so important. No one questions that drones can be an effective military weapon if employed responsibly. However, the United States must be careful to not choose the short-term tactically smart option only to be trapped by a long-term strategically dumb decision.
The Way Ahead
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles are typically the least costly method of targeting terrorists and extremists abroad, both in terms of actual cost and danger to Americans. However, the second and third order effects must not be overlooked. The United States must be cognizant of the inherent loss of intelligence from drone strikes, continue to make progress on reducing civilian casualties, and be aware that there may be unintended consequences not yet known. Drones are a phenomenal tool, but not a strategy. Ultimately, the United States must not over-rely on drones or we will fail to see the consequences until it is too late.