Small Wars Journal

Drones Revolutionize US Warfare

Mon, 06/11/2012 - 1:42pm

Drones Revolutionize US Warfare by Luis Ramirez, Voice of America.

They are robots in the sky and some say they are revolutionizing the way the United States wages wars.  Drones are playing a growing role in the U.S. military.

It is estimated that there are 10,000 unmanned aerial vehicles in the U.S. military's arsenal, in addition to an undisclosed number operated by the CIA - including one that recently killed Abu Yahya al-Libi, al-Qaida's number two leader.  

Pakistan objects to the use of drones over its territory.  But U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has given no indication Washington will stop using them against terrorists.

"We made it clear to the Pakistanis that United States of America is going to defend ourselves against those that would attack us, and we have done just that, we have gone after their leadership and we have done it effectively," said Panetta.

Drones are relatively cheap to operate.  Their strikes are precise.  And they entail no risk to the pilots who operate them from U.S. bases thousands of kilometers away.  

At a time of shrinking budgets and growing war fatigue among the American public, the Obama administration has made unmanned aerial vehicles a central component of its new defense strategy.

Michele Flournoy is a former top Pentagon official and an architect of that strategy.

"The whole realm of unmanned systems is going to revolutionize the force over time," said Flournoy. "We are still in the process of understanding what those systems bring in terms of new ways of operating, new ways of working as a military."

By some accounts, that revolution is happening now.  UAVs' effectiveness and their small footprint are quickly making them the Obama administration's weapon of choice for U.S. military and intelligence operations.

John Brennan is President Obama's chief counterterrorism adviser:

"It is hard to imagine a tool that can better minimize the risk to civilians than remotely piloted aircraft," Brennan said.

But anti-drone protesters say drones are not risk free and the deaths of bystanders in Pakistan and elsewhere go largely unreported.

Medea Benjamin fears that Americans could become desensitized to war.
"The biggest ethical problem with drones is that it makes killing too easy," said Benjamin.

For U.S. leaders, armed drones have proven their worth and are the way of the future. Activists want a moratorium until laws catch up with the technology in order to keep it in check.



Our Command and General Staff College discussed the issues of robotics and Unamanned Ariel Vehicles (UAVs) in warfare yesterday. A few thoughts.

1.) No matter how great the video and other survelliance capability a UAV provides, human beings still need to interpret and take action on the data collected. From what I experienced in Afghanistan, JAG officers and the proper weapons release authorities on the ground still played a key role in ensuring that lethal use of UAVs, met law of war principles.

2.) As our UAV capabilities progress, so too will the threat's ability to conduct counter-measures to deceive these assets. Because of this, 'boot's on the ground' will still be necessary to gain target fidelity and confirm validity for engagement by UAVs. This could take the form of uniformend military personnel or other agency partners/human intelligence sources. I'm not sure the pace of technological advancement will ever remove this requirement. Verification of targets requires mutliple forms of visual/intelligence confirmation for a reason, it keeps us from being to indiscriminate, whether we're talking about UAV or other weapons system employment. Even as sensors of multiple types become increasingly unmanned, I've got to think DoD will still think about keeping humans in the decision making cycle for target acquisition/neutralization. Hopefully, we won't allow unammed platforms to make all these tactical calls based merely on some programming algorhythms.

3.) In terms of increased usage of UAVs desensitizing Americans to war, that's a litte tougher in my mind. Whatever emotionally detached or callous attitudes Americans may have towards war presented through a screen, is more likely attributable to preexisting cultural trends of rampt violent video game play and movie consumption. That we're starting to see some UAV pilots, operating their aricraft from Nevada, suffer signs of PTSD perhaps suggests that for the warfighter at least, the killing still remains a very personal experience.

One thing is for sure, we'll need to ensure our operational law stays abreast of robotic capabilities/limitations, so we can always ensure we utilzie these assets within the long existing principles of the law of war.

CPT (P) Robert Schmor
Student, Command and General Staff College

"The views expressed are those of the author and do not represent those of the Command and General Staff College, Department of the Army or Department of Defense."