Small Wars Journal

The Drone Delusion

The Drone Delusion

by Robert Jordan Prescott, House of Marathon

Drones are emblematic of America's reliance on advanced technology in warfare and have become the principal instrument in the nation's fight against terrorists. While unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) technology is a few decades old, they have become indispensable to American military operations. The manpower-intensive nature of counterinsurgency and stability operations in Afghanistan and Iraq have increased the requirement for the unique intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities provided by drones by several orders of magnitude in just under a decade. Moreover, armed drone strikes have become central to American counter-terrorist operations in Afghanistan-Pakistan. In the parlance of national security practitioners, drones constitute an "asymmetric" advantage for the United States -- a unique means of warfare available primarily to one side in a conflict. Indeed, the success achieved by drone strikes, in tandem with the American surge in Afghanistan and the killing of Osama bin Laden in July 2011, have convinced national decision-makers that Al Qaeda is within "strategic defeat." The conviction would be welcome if it was indeed based on more than the impressive technological of remotely piloted vehicles. As many practitioners will caveat, the enemy has a vote, and in the face of overwhelming American military strength, it will readily employ its own asymmetric advantages. When American drones are contrasted with enemy stratagems, the alleged advantage evaporates. Ascribing strategic advantage to drones exaggerates their effectiveness and obscures needed changes in the way the United States approaches contemporary security challenges.

Comments

I'm surprised the comment on AQ being more competent and capable now than ever didn't generate more responses. That comment should be explored in more depth, but since it isn't the primary topic I'll transition back to the drone topic (but obviously the two topics are inseparately related).

The drones definitely have their drawbacks, but I think the author and previous commenters are throwing the baby out with the bath water. The drone is a tool, whether used for ISR and/or a weapon that has a lot of utility. Of course there are preferred methods for employing it, and I agree with Peter Singer that the way we employ it does challenge our strategic communications in one respect, but in another it supports the line there is no where to hide and you will be pursued if you're a member of AQ.

U.S. boots on the ground is often a politically unacceptable option for many nations and the U.S., so it seems that a drone strike to kill a mutually agreed upon target is a better (more acceptable politically) option for all concerned in some cases due to less political push back. Our drones, the high end ones anyway, is a unique capability and it doesn't necessarily embarass the nation if we use them to kill a terrorist. If we send elite forces to do it, then the question is why didn't the host nation do it? Aren't they capable? Why did non-Muslim troops have to intervene, why did you let them intervene? and so worth.

I still agree with many of the author's arguments and some comments below, because there are obvious drawbacks to using the drone, yet lets not so easily dismiss the positive points. For now it is a politically acceptable weapon system that gives us considerable reach to target a geographically dispersed network in politically sensitive regions.

Additionally, it gives us the capability to respond fairly rapidly, provide relatively long term dwell over the suspected target to ensure to the extent possible it is the right target (and do so largely undetected), and good weapon to respond to a fleeting target regardless of the terrain. For example, if we get a tip that a target is a point X, and point X is in a remote areas difficult to access and any attempt to do so with conventional means would provide too much early warning to the target the drone is ideal to put eyes on and strike if the target is confirmed.

As for getting inside the enemy's mind, there is plenty of reporting that the drones are doing just that. I doubt that the drones will ever be decisive like the Atom bombs were against Japan in WWII, but they do have a culumative effect on the enemy's nerves, but as others have argued it may actually reinforce their will to fight, just as our bombings campaigns in North Vietnam did. I'm not convinced there has been enough analysis done on this for us to determine the effect on the enemy, but I suspect that it has a considerable impact, but for this type of tool/weapon/strategy to be decisive against the enemy's will it would have to be employed much more aggressively and relentlessly.

In summary I think the drones are a great capability, but they are no substitute for the right strategy.

Ken White

Sat, 10/22/2011 - 12:17pm

In reply to by carl

Yes. We are fostering a perception problem that will do us a long term disservice. We are arguably where we are in the world because flawed reactions by four previous administrations from both parties over almost 30 years virtually invited ever increasing attacks on US interests and ultimately on the US itself. They unarguably did not deter such attacks...

The last two administrations were far more forceful and sensible in their reactions. However, less than stellar performance by the inadequately trained and prepared forces involved on the ground have mitigated that positive effect.

Our continued use of AUV strikes in the current mode will likely do as much harm as good. We should take a long, hard all aspect look at where we are and what we are doing.

This is an excellent article. It addresses the use of drones from the human factors angle. Mr. Prescott states that war is a clash of wills, and our enemies view our use of drones as evidence that our will is weaker. If that is so, the more we depend upon the drones, the more we encourage our enemies to persevere. The drones are shovels we are using to dig a deeper hole for ourselves.