Drones and the End of Strategy


Drones are the latest step in the application of high-tech electronics to armaments. The much heralded Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) first appeared on the world stage in the Gulf War of 1991where precision-guided smart weapons were used with devastating effect. The ability to identify, target and strike with unprecedented accuracy objects on the battlefield – or behind it – with relative impunity is a systemic change no less consequential for it being less dramatic than some other of history’s military breakthroughs.

Now, drones–or, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV)–have come front and center. That is due to their role in American counter insurgency and “war on terror” applications as well their controversial application in killing U.S. citizens abroad without due process. “Signature” strikes that produce casualties among innocents add to the controversy. That concern folds into growing anxieties about the widespread use of drones for domestic surveillance and policing.

Is the drone phenomenon yet another example of technical innovation driving changes in how we do things without a full and open debate of its consequences? The answer seems to be an unequivocal ‘yes.’ Predictably so. Our modern age is strongly biased in favor of invention which is a priori taken as a sign of and instigator of progress. Doing things more efficiently, more reliably and at less risk is what the era of technology is all about. Coming up with accurate measures of how those aims are actually being met is more difficult. But the burden is always on those who question innovation rather than on those promoting it. That logic is evident in the push for maximum development and deployment of drones. In the military sphere, the process already is far along.

The United States currently has roughly 1,700 drones on active duty with many more in the pipeline. They run from the tiny WASP reconnaissance craft (a foot long with a range of three miles) to the formidable Predator/Reaper, a potent weapons platform firing Hellfire missiles. It is the latter that have become prominent in the public mind. They are used on a regular basis as the prime weapon in the search and destroy strategy for locating and liquidating suspected Taliban and residual al-Qaida in Afghanistan and Pakistan. They play a similar role in Yemen and Somalia. Surveillance operations are carried out in several other places. The demand is so robust that the Pentagon is juggling deployments at this moment so as to free up assets that could be redirected to Mali in the wake of the French success in dispersing the various groups that compose the jihadi movement there. The United States’ embarrassing failure to anticipate and monitor their movements preceding the successful take-over of major cities is ascribed to a shortage of drone capabilities.

That is untrue; but it is a convenient excuse for  Africa Command’s ineptitude in its mission to train/mentor the Malian Army and thereby to establish an informed, influential American presence in the country. It also buttresses the case for building a drone base in neighboring Niger while expanding the presence of Special Forces in the region. Innovative technology and organizational aggrandizement are working hand-in-hand to enlarge a project. That project will be bigger, involve more personnel and will be more expensive despite the central role of technology whose efficiency in theory is supposed to reduce the size of all other inputs. Means are defining ends. It always is easier to concentrate on methods for doing something than on the reasons for doing it. That is exactly the case in regard to the ever widening ‘war on terror” overall.

Throughout the greater Middle East, and now across broad swathes of Africa, the United States is deepening its military engagements without answering the question: “what for?”  Indeed, it seems as if the question no longer is even being asked. The war against classic al-Qaida has expanded progressively to cover local spin-offs who do not share the original model’s interests, goals or capabilities. At the next stage, the coverage is extended to encompass all radical salafist groups hostile to the United States whether or not they are violent jihadis. By following the implicit logic of this progression, the United States has placed itself in the position of seeing Islamic fundamentalism itself as somehow “the enemy.” That loose category embraces hundreds of millions of Muslims all across the Islamic world. Moreover, since the significance of being categorized as “the enemy” is tinged by the perceptual link with classic al-Qaida (and the horrors of 9/11),  the assessment of the threat that those groups pose to the United States is skewed toward the dire end of the continuum. That means, in turn, that the objective of American policy is scaled upwards to their elimination since the stake implicitly has become the security of the Homeland and tolerance for uncertainty is zero.

Here is where the availability of means comes into play. With the widespread use of military force to attack directly and kinetically this broad based “enemy,” feasibility seems at first glance to have ceased being a compelling constraint. The enormous financial cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan adventures, with little to show for them, has counteracted somewhat the impulse to intervene – especially in a period of austerity.  The human cost in casualties incurred also has reached its politically acceptable limit insofar as public attitudes are concerned. Consequently, Washington finds itself cross pressured by two powerful logics. On the one-hand, it has escalated its “war on terror” by definition and by geography. On the other, its pool of resources of every type is dwindling. What to do? Fortuitously, drones have dropped from the heavens to serve as the Deus ex machine that makes all things possible – including the squaring of circles.

In the vision of the White House, where the President (ever fond of faddish ideas)and his advisers are enamored of high tech solutions for their strategic problems, and the Pentagon, where organizationally rewarding missions seemingly no longer have to be abandoned for want of resources, drones are being embraced with boundless enthusiasm. They hold out the promise, in their star struck eyes, of allowing the United States to prosecute the “war on terror” indefinitely at acceptable cost. Manpower needs are sharply reduced. Precision surveillance and strikes allow us to decapitate the leadership of hostile groups while degrading their overall manpower. Political costs among the local governments are kept down thanks to the light footprint of a few discrete bases as opposed to those required by a massive occupation. The rate of action can be ratcheted up or down as circumstances shift without having to make wrenching decisions about deployments. Or so it is said.

This all sounds terrific for policy-makers who prefer not to ask the basic questions as to what this is all about. There are a few practical issues short of that big question: what happens if the bad guys acquire the means to shoot down the highly vulnerable drones?  what about the local effects of collateral damage among civilians that appear inescapable and play into the hands of the insurgents? does the risk of collateral damage rise as commanders are made over confident about the accuracy of smart bombs based on technological optimism? what does this latter mean for the moral authority of the United States supposedly engaged in a long-term contest for “hearts and minds?” can you really neutralize a popular based insurgency through ”surgical strikes’ in the light of sobering counter evidence from Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen and several other past places, e.g. Vietnam?

The biggest question, though, remains what the point of the exercise is? Can the United States ever be made 100% secure against terrorist attack? Is there sound evidence for believing that such a hypothetical attack would originate from the Hindu Kush, the Saharan desert or the parched earth of Yemen? How do our global missions in the “war on terror” relate to the country’s wider strategic interests over the longer term, e.g. do they have anything to do with the challenge of accommodating the rise of China’s power and influence? As the Chinese entrench themselves via major infrastructure projects, contracted rights to natural resources, and outright gifts – our presence is announced mainly by shooting people. However justifiable that may be in certain cases, despite the appreciation that it evokes among a minority of locals (e.g. in Mali), isn’t it self-evident who is going to win the contest for long-term influence?

How do the unsavory methods we are employing, from an ethical perspective, impact Americans’ self- image and self-esteem with what consequences for the American body politic?

These questions are far harder to come to grips with than the technical issues of utilizing drone technology. They demand a kind of thinking much more complicated than the usual mental fare the tactically focused Washington mind is accustomed to. Credible answers depend on cultivating a strategic perspective. All of that requires a maturity of outlook that is not discernible.

Michael Brenner is a Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.





Michael Brenner is a Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.

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