Small Wars Journal

Death From Above

Mon, 01/30/2012 - 8:14pm

Editor's Note:  Adam Elkus' offering is an important look at the role of drones and the moral debate that surrounds them.  He highlights concerns that drone warfare, or war by pushbutton, is a cowardly and indirect way to fight, but notes a long history of similar charges reaching back at least to the crossbow.  Westerners are fond of calling insurgents cowardly for using improvised explosive devices against our troops, but is this truly any more cowardly than dropping precision guided munitions with impunity and deadly precision from a manned fighter thousands of feet above the battlefield?  And is that any more or less cowardly than using a drone to do the same?  While Elkus explores a slightly different question set, the implications are illuminating.


Abstract:  According to some critics, unmanned aerial systems (UAS)—more colloquially known as drones--are a symbol of moral decay. Because the operator can inflict force from a vast distance, the drone enables a kind of postmodern “videogame” warfare. While every new generation of standoff weaponry creates a disruption in ethical, moral, and legal norms of a given style of warfare, these disruptions do not constitute a shift in the nature of war itself. Moreover, little of the cultural concerns expressed about UAS warfare are new. Similar concerns have been voiced about weapons ranging from the crossbow to the stealth bomber.
The demonization of the UAS is a symptom of a larger problem with the way we view conflict: the idea that war is equivalent to battle. In our attachment to battle, we make war out to be a deadly ritual rather than a true contest of wills. Direct, positional combat is only one aspect of war, not its essence. Indirect force is also a part of ancient and modern conflict. Moreover, our competitors understand that the point of fighting is not to achieve aesthetic perfection. Force, guided by strategy, achieves political goals. We ignore the purpose of force at our own peril.

According to some critics, unmanned aerial systems (UAS)—more colloquially known as drones--are a symbol of moral decay. Because the operator can inflict force from a vast distance, the drone enables a kind of postmodern “videogame” warfare.  But the demonization of the UAS is a symptom of a large problem with the way we view conflict: the idea that war is equivalent to battle.

In our attachment to battle, we make war out to be a deadly ritual rather than a true contest of wills. Moreover, our competitors understand that the point of fighting is not to achieve aesthetic perfection. Force, guided by strategy, achieves political goals.

The Ritual of Battle

While there are many valid criticisms of the problems involved in using discrete force and avoiding civilian casualties, they are not specific to flying robots. Many center on larger legitimate political, strategic, and legal issues related to the global counterterrorism targeting program. However, it is impossible to ignore the fact that some drone critics have a visceral sense of repulsion over the idea that that men in warehouses in Nevada can kill targets on other side of the globe. In other words, it is not the War on Terror or the war in Afghanistan but the drone itself that triggers their ire. Their critiques center around a visceral sense of disgust at the supposedly disturbing nature of drone warfare, which they portray as the frictionless application of force against helpless victims.

Patrick Lin, a robotic ethicist, recently wrote in The Atlantic that our adversaries will not respect us because fighting with robots signifies that we are too afraid to fight “man to man.” Susan Brooks Thristlewaite inquires in the Washington Post about what drone operators feel when they “shut off their drone technology” at the end of the day. The 2007 graphic novel Shooting War featured soldiers in cubicles operating unmanned platforms, their kills recoded on a giant, old-style videogame scoreboard. Of course, the idea that UAS operations are completely riskless is without merit. While their pilots may operate from the United States, the drones themselves are forward-based and require a support infrastructure that is—for those who have the capability—eminently targetable.

However, the UAS is only part and parcel of a generalized loathing of long-range warfare. Intellectuals from the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard onward have opined that precision-guided warfare is not “real” war, but an illusion that disguises the high-tech application of discrete violence against a more or less helpless opponent. Michael Ignatieff similarly wrote of “virtual war” in Kosovo.  But what is real war, then? If the drone is “fake” war, then critics must have an implicit idea of authentic war that they unfavorably compare against.

Military history, however, complicates this picture. The same logic that damns the drone operator or frowns on precision-guided military dominance also curses the more accurate firearms of the mid-19th century. As David Bell argues, the drone critic’s lament is echoed throughout history:

Under medieval codes of chivalry, the most honorable conflicts were those where the combatants fought as equals, relying on individual strength and skill to prevail, rather than superior weapons or numbers. .. [W]e certainly have evidence of the scorn some late medieval critics reserved for the crossbow—a weapon that supposedly allowed poorly skilled archers to kill honorable knights from safe cover.

The military writer Ardant Du Picq devoted his intellectual career to discovering how to make soldiers—deprived of comradeship in the firepower-strewn “empty battlefield”—function and act independently. Surely Du Picq’s readers were no less soldierly despite the fact that they no longer could mass in the dense assault groupings so characteristic of the Napoleonic era. Du Picq himself, a champion of the idea that moral force could overcome long-range weapons, was unceremoniously killed by the very impersonal force he despised—a Prussian artillery round.

If loathing for “unreal war” is a loathing of technologies that make war impersonal, then one ought to ponder Sebastian Junger’s writings about the most basic of small-arms weapons:

A man with a machine gun can conceivably hold off a whole battalion, at least for a while, which changes the whole equation of what it means to be brave in battle…. Machine guns forced infantry to disperse, to camouflage themselves, and to fight in small and independent units. All that promoted stealth over honor and squad loyalty over blind obedience….As a result, much of modern military tactics is geared toward maneuvering the enemy into a position where they can essentially be massacred from safety. It sounds dishonorable only if you imagine that modern war is about honor: it’s not. It’s about winning, which means killing the enemy on the most unequal terms possible. Anything less simply results in the loss of more of your own men (p. 140).

Hence we come to the basic reason why the drone is so loathed: it represents the latest evolution of a near continuous move away from direct tactical confrontation, strongly linked in the popular mind with basic norms of reciprocity. The emphasis on the moral force of the offensive, in some ways, was a philosophical response to the collision of a given ideal of soldiering with new technologies that made it impossible.  Every new disruptive weapon is threatening to intellectuals because it upsets a given system of values, beliefs, and aesthetics they build around the use of force in their era. Perhaps, as Junger’s example suggests, critics of drones are not just blind to the military technologies of the 21st century, but the late 19th as well.

The Enigma of “Real War”

Our question, however, is still unanswered. What is “real war?” To answer this question, we turn—like so many times in the past—to Carl von Clausewitz. In his book, On War, Clausewitz made a crucial distinction between the theory of war and its realities. Theoretical war ended in the total annihilation of an adversary as each side ratcheted up the amount of force it was willing to use to obtain decision. Real war, however, exists in an environment of material, political, and military constraints.  But Clausewitz also warned of attempts to try to artificially restrain war and ritualize it in order to make it comport more with chivalric sensibilities.

This, the Prussian counseled, would lead to a situation in which an adversary like Napoleon, who did not respect the assumptions of 18th century wars of maneuver, could conquer by fighting at a higher intensity. While many have exaggerated the bloodlessness and gentility of 18th century wars, Clausewitz’s point still stands. By marrying the military engines and operational techniques of the late Bourbon monarchy to the passion of the people, Napoleon created a military machine that was tactically and operationally superior to the armies of the Frederician era.

The idea of “videogame war” similarly supposes “real war” as a secular ritual akin to the allegedly placid 18th century maneuver wars. Both exposed to direct risk, the combatants try to gain mastery against each other. A drone operator does not fit into this equation because he or she is not directly exposed to the other combatant. Drones, in other words, do not fit into a popular conception of battle. In battles, two sides contest ground in a defined engagement. The Second Battle of Fallujah would determine who controlled the city, and ended with the defeat of the militia by the Marine Corps.

Battle, as realized in operations and tactics, is at the core of military doctrine. As Antulio Echevarria has argued, the American military is fond of frameworks for battle, such as AirLand and AirSea Battle, but still does not have a way of war. Observers who repeat the anecdote of “winning all the battles, but losing the war” in Vietnam yet simultaneously denounce “push-button war” by drone do not really understand the true meaning of the first statement they parrot. While battle is one kind of warfare, it does not express the totality of war.

There is another side of war that battle does not entirely encompass, a world in which submarines sink maritime shipping to economically starve opposing states, weekend warriors in tennis shoes hide improvised explosives on roads, and land-based missile arrays target expensive carriers and airbases and dare the US to escalate in response. While this type of warfare does not involve set-piece engagements, it has real costs that cannot be denied. As Lukas Milevski argues, such operations impose cumulative costs on an enemy while minimizing one’s own ability to be hit in retaliation.

While some may have an aesthetic attachment to battle, the purpose of war is not to validate a military aesthetic. Fighting achieves political objectives. But frequently, both militaries and publics become so tied to the supposed superior moral force of a given method of operation that strategy, operations, and tactics become linked to the sustainment of a narrative rather than the pursuit of victory. And those who mistake war for ritual have been repeatedly punished throughout military history. The military mysticism of Mao Zedong, like that of the early Soviet Union, punished military professionalism and placed great stock in the ability of ideological preparation to compensate for severe material deficits—with frequently catastrophic results. The French knights at Agincourt and military believers in the moral force of the offensive in 1914 were both blown away by long-range firepower.

Lin and others believe that our adversaries will not respect us for fighting at long range. This, if course, raises the question of whether the respect of our adversary is attainable at all given the vastly different ideological and religious calculus that drives potential opposing forces. Also unanswered is the question of whether gaining the respect of adversaries is a strategic priority for the United States—and if so, is fighting by what we believe to be their standards the only way to do so? Perhaps their fear of the consequences of opposing us may be all the respect that we require for deterrent purposes. Lastly, are we even sure that other military cultures regard long-range warfare with the same trepidation we do? What about the possibility that they integrate direct and indirect methods of combat to achieve strategic advantage?

Historical evidence strongly suggests that such adversaries frequently use long-range methods—and have managed to integrate them into their worldviews.  Unfortunately, our response to their pragmatic adaptation has been to construct self-serving cultural myths that demonize them as weak and cowardly.

The Myth of the Wily Pathan

When our adversaries refuse to engage us in battle, we paint them as exotic or deviant. In our mythology, it is the West that bravely contests the field, and the Rest as tricksters who sulk in the shadows. While there are certain cultural differences that inform views of strategy, culture is often used to disguise the fact that non-Western adversaries—bereft of material advantage—are simply using common sense. Indirect firepower is effective, and in war that is usually enough to convince an actor to adapt a given operational or tactical method. For all of the talk about the primitive honor of tribesmen, even clannish peoples bound by anachronistic battle rituals use standoff methods out of pure necessity.

While only battle can create lasting control, a strategy of erosion can deny control to others. Moreover, indirect and direct methods of operation on the operational and tactical level can be used flexibly. As Larry Wortzel wrote, Chinese Communists during the Chinese Civil War used large-scale maneuver operations, positional warfare, guerrilla operations, deception, psychological warfare, and popular mobilization more or less seamlessly. It is doubly rich that we do not recognize the complexity of these methods, given that the British pioneered them in the “compound” war against Napoleon in the Peninsular War. We also ignore the historic comingling of guerrilla, maneuver, and positional methods in the American Revolution and Civil War.[1]

Historically, foreign expeditionary forces are fought with combination of area denial and battle. However, foreign forces often mistake adaptive tactics and operations for cowardice or moral turpitude. The British cast their South Asian, African, and Arab adversaries in derisive terms because they did not rush out and fight. Racist epithets such as the Imperial term “wily Pathan” deliberately occluded the reasons why the Pathan was so shifty. He understood what his unfortunate Sudanese cousins at the Battle of Omdurman did not—it was better to use a combination of indirect and direct force against the European rather than attack him outright. It was through these methods that the Afghans defeated the British in the first Anglo-Afghan War.

The Chinese are often cast in popular myth as tricky warriors who use dark arts of deception and subterfuge. But anyone even remotely familiar with Asian military history knows the long and bloody history of large-scale warfare on the Chinese mainland, memorialized in epic Homeric works such as the novel Romance of Three Kingdoms. John Woo’s recent film Red Cliff, a dramatization of a pivotal military campaign from Romance of Three Kingdoms, rivals the martial intensity of any Hollywood sand-and-sandals epic. The North Vietnamese, portrayed in a million American war films as shadow killers in black pajamas, not only conquered South Vietnam by conventional force but also fought the Chinese to a standstill in 1979. Perhaps one of the greatest cultural problems with the focus on deception as an feature of warfare in Asian societies is it obscures the heroic spirit in Asian military history and downplays the real determination and grit displayed by Asian armies in large-scale battle.

Today’s emerging powers and sub-state groups have managed to integrate military methods of denial with their strategic goals. While American newspaper columnists question about whether or not drone operators feel bad when they “turn their drone technology off,” the Rest integrates standoff methods into national and cultural worldviews. Both “access” and “denial” are politically charged terms in certain national narratives. Policymakers in the United States subscribe to the idea that America guarantees the smooth operation of the global commons of international commerce and communication in the world’s oceans, skies, and cyberspace. Similarly, the United States sees itself as the military lodestone of a rules-based international order. It reserves the right to punish others for violating the rules of that order, either when they engage in external aggression or mistreat their own citizens.

Not all states and sub-state actors view these ideas as natural features of the international environment or regard American maintenance of the commons and capability for intervention as inherently beneficial. Some even see it as a threat to their interests. For centuries, naval power projection and high-quality air-land expeditionary forces allowed European and American forces to operate freely across the globe, and the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) was seen by some as the enabler of American interventions in regional war throughout the 1990s and the early 21st century. Compounding the sense of urgency regional powers feel is the obvious fact that the 1991, 1999, and 2003 victories were astoundingly lopsided. Western forces inflicted massive destruction on industrial-age armies with little cost in return.

Of course, the anti-access philosophy that some states and groups hold conveniently excuses their own expansive geopolitical designs and downplays the necessity that regime survival plays into their calculations.  In listening to their views, one should not confuse propaganda with truthfulness or even an accurate representation of motives for regional strategies. But their views deserve respect because they drive political and military efforts to deny the United States the ability to operate on tactical, operational, and strategic levels. This is the real story behind the near-consensus view of security experts that traditional missions ranging from amphibious operations to theater logistics will be complicated by the onset of the “G-RAMM” (guided rockets, artillery and mortars, and missiles) threat.

Warheads to Foreheads

We should understand that, as Colin S. Gray stated, “weapons don’t make war.” Unmanned platforms, strike weapons, and other indirect methods of force should not lull us into the suspicion that we can dominate with network-centric capabilities. We should understand from the last ten years that the enemy’s violent contribution matters, and that no amount of sensors and electronics will lift the fog of war. Similarly, we should also be realistic about what force can achieve abroad.  The drone is not any more of a silver bullet than the bomber or cruise missile. The thoughtless application of force, in many circumstances, can significantly worsen security problems.

But this does not mean that we should deny ourselves capabilities because of an anachronistic view of war that allies and potential competitors most certainly do not share. While long-range firepower cannot gain control, we can also use it to deny control to others. Drones, married with enhanced surveillance technology, might create a climate of virtual containment that prevents irregular adversaries from massing and coordinating activities. The ability to use enhanced firepower can also deter by shaping the conditions in which state and non-state actors contemplate the use of force against America or its allies.

Counterinsurgency theory focuses on the need for American forces to gain granular control over theaters of operation as small as villages or suburbs. While this may be useful in some contexts, it is unlikely that American strategy will always require that a village submit to American will—or that those who gain control have to be Americans. Hence some kind of standoff capabilities will be necessary to reach, as the United States has, targets in inhospitable regions or augment and support American allies.

Finally, not every war will look like Libya or Kosovo, and not every enemy will be as conventionally supine as Gaddafi or Milosevic. There is substantial risk on both operational and strategic levels embedded within the emerging robotics revolution, and this risk will be heightened by the proliferation of long-range weapons among middle powers and state-sponsored irregular armies. In short, pundits may feel nostalgic for the vision of frictionless drone warfare they once derided.  

[1] Larry Wortzel, “The Beiping-Tianjin Campaign of 1948-49: The Strategic and Operational Thinking of the People’s Liberation Army” in Mark A. Ryan, David Michael Finkelstein, Michael A. McDevitt, New York : M.E. Sharpe, 2003 Chinese Warfighting: The PLA Experience since 1949, 56-73.


Categories: drones - China - area denial - anti-access

About the Author(s)

Adam Elkus is a PhD student in Computational Social Science at George Mason University. He has published articles on defense, international security, and technology at Small Wars Journal, CTOVision, The Atlantic, the West Point Combating Terrorism Center’s Sentinel, and Foreign Policy.