Small Wars Journal

Drones and Airpower: A Lack of Deterrence in Unconventional Warfare?

Wed, 09/02/2015 - 2:51pm

Drones and Airpower: A Lack of Deterrence in Unconventional Warfare?

Jahara W. Matisek

Consider for a moment that drone strikes are akin to the use of antibiotics and that an illness is an insurgency and/or terrorist group, etc.  When someone is sick they see a doctor.  The doctor can usually figure out if the pathogen causing the illness is bacterial, viral, etc.  However, there are times that a doctor is unable to be accurate in his/her diagnosis, and this uncertainty sometimes forces the doctor to err on the side of caution; caution in this case usually means a prescription for antibiotics.  In other cases, the doctor does not believe the illness to be bacterial, but due to the strong "patient advocacy" of his/her patient, the doctor decides to give the patient antibiotics anyways, either out of fear of being sued for malpractice or the view that the patient may be right about needing antibiotics.[1]  Ostensibly, this is generally how medicine is practiced in the West, but this does not necessarily result in the best outcomes in the short-term or long-term.  For example, it is well documented that the over administration of antibiotics is leading to drug resistant strains of "super" bacteria.[2]  In some extreme cases, the use of antibiotics eliminates most of the healthy bacteria in the patient's gut allowing the pathogen an environment to thrive in that is devoid of any "healthy" bacteria that would have normally kept the invasive microbes at bay.[3]  Both scenarios exacerbate health problems and makes treatment exponentially more difficult. 

Such examples of improper antibiotic use intensify the severity of illnesses in the short-term for singular patients and lead to "super bugs," creating long-term threats to humanity.  As a corollary, from a short-term perspective it can be argued that even though kinetic strikes from drones punish 'bad guys' (assuming you can correctly target the right person in conjunction with correct intel), the local populace may respond by ceasing their resistance to an insurgency, due to the ability of insurgents in that area to create the perception (i.e. propaganda) that such selective violence was actually indiscriminate violence.  Such communities may be swayed by 'narrative-shaping' by whoever controls the town, while others may choose to tolerate the terrorists quietly in a complicit manner or join them in their cause.  Moreover, in the long-term, airstrikes from drones may lead to terrorist and insurgent organizations becoming battle-hardened, where they can no longer be degraded by an airstrike due to them adapting to drone tactics and evolving operational measures to avoid drone detection and strikes; something ISIS did well in its taking of Ramadi during a sandstorm.[4]  Thus, leadership and ideology seem to be practically immune to drone strikes; hence making them a "super bug" that is not deterred by threats of drone strikes or undermined by actual kinetic strikes against leadership or lowly foot-soldiers.  Likewise, "insurgents, terrorists, and criminal organizations will adapt their organizational strategies and behavior in an attempt to reduce their vulnerability to state counter-measures," which further supports the argument that airstrikes do not do enough to deter these organizations from committing selective or indiscriminate violence.[5]  One could possibly agree with a recent article at The National Interest that ISIS is becoming a "Super Terrorist Organization."[6]  In fact, despite a slew of airstrikes from drones and manned aircraft in the region, ISIS has not been significantly degraded nor has deterred people from joining its regional jihad for a caliphate nation-state.[7]

In essence, antibiotics and drone strikes are useful when delivered appropriately (typically against a conventionally fielded and uniformed force), but when misapplied (due either to internal and external constraints), its use can worsen the situation for all parties involved.  This can best be summed up by Sir Basil Liddell Hart's quote on strategy when he said: "The longest way round is often the shortest way there; a direct approach to the object exhausts the attacker and hardens the resistance by compression, whereas an indirect approach loosens the defender's hold by upsetting his balance."[8]  Dealing with an insurgency is exponentially more complicated than trying to fight a conventional army.  Even though drone strikes appear to be an easy and near zero-risk answer to dealing with insurgents and terrorists, it appears that such actions may actually hardens these groups, making a long-term solution that much more difficult to attain.[9]  In fact, it may be that the oft quoted and disdained "boots on the ground" expression may be the only solution to eliminating these non-state actors.  This requires considerable incumbent military ground forces to seize control of these sectors and push the insurgents out, and hold and maintain security and control in these territories.[10]  Although this is a high-risk type of military operation, it has more of a psychological impact on an enemy than does the ability to deliver weapons from a standoff distance.  This idea is best embodied by John Paul Vann's (a U.S. adviser in Vietnam) quote that: "The best weapon for killing would be a knife, but I’m afraid we can’t do it that way.  The worst is an airplane.  The next worst is artillery. Barring a knife, the best is a rifle – you know who you’re killing."[11]  The Vietnam War showed how airpower could be incredibly effective when the Vietcong fought conventionally (i.e., Tet Offensive), but airpower was incapable of delivering control of villages under the rule of Vietcong guerilla forces, this despite no matter how much the U.S. bombed them.

While I am not attempting to present an argument that airstrikes against terrorists and insurgent groups is somehow illegal or immoral (there are plenty of scholars making that argument though), I am contending that such kinetic strikes vis-à-vis an armed drone discerns the weapons platform a perception that undermines its effectiveness in any sort of unconventional war.  In addition, an over-reliance on drones may even be encouraging an overly Newtonian focus on killing more and more terrorists by military or political leaders, despite it have little to no strategic value or payoff in the long-term, even when eliminating a high-value leadership target.  Such a focus may be crowding out voices that see no point in wasting money or time killing 'bad guys' in far out areas that are of no threat to the U.S. or allied interests.  Despite criminal justice literature showing that "death penalties" deter violence, it is obvious that this does not translate into the minds of terrorists, especially ISIS, given its rate of growth in the face of airstrikes.[12]

The value of this medicinal analogy in presenting drone strikes is not meant to wholly undermine the need and purpose of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) and the kinetic strike capabilities they provide in close combat situations (i.e. troops in contact, etc.) or the invaluable ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance) support they provide.  However, it is meant to call into question the numerous issues facing the use of drones for fighting terrorists and insurgency groups along with its believed effectiveness in stemming terrorism and deterring future terrorist activities.  Thus, it is to be argued here that the use of an UAS for airstrikes in an unconventional war as seen in the Global War on Terror and/or Overseas Contingency Operations is more or less aesthetic warfare, and by virtue of its risk-averse strategy, it is carrying little thought or worry about the secondary and tertiary effects of such an approach to combat.

One such great argument against the over use of drone strikes can be derived from Edward Tenner and his belief that technological advances result in a "revenge effect."[13]  While Bin Laden lamented the lethal effectiveness of drones in disseminating his Al Qaeda leadership structure, even with the death of many of its leaders (Bin Laden included), Al Qaeda and certain offshoots continue to exist unabated with plenty of attacks against the U.S. and its allies.[14]  In fact, ISIS is now exponentially stronger than Al Qaeda, despite the supposed threat that airstrikes pose to terrorist group members.  ISIS resilience can easily be discerned from estimates that over 10,000 ISIS members have been killed in airstrikes by U.S. coalition forces, and yet ISIS has lost little ground due to airstrikes.[15]  The "blowback" of  U.S. involvement in areas of the world with a historical precedent for mistrusting Western Christian powers, only worsens the image of the U.S. in cultures where drone attacks are perceived as cowardly (even if justified) and/or as a 21st century version of the Crusades (which ops tempo has increased under Obama).[16][17]  Most disconcerting, is the harsh fact that current estimates show ISIS taking in approximately 1,000 new recruits per month.[18]  Airstrikes from U.S. and coalition aircraft cannot bomb ISIS leadership or foot-soldiers fast enough to reduce their growth or deter new trainees from joining.  Nor are there enough drones in the world to kill that many terrorists in ISIS at their current rate of growth.

With the advent of more specialized kinetic weapons and delivery systems (i.e. drones at the turn of the 21st century), it is believed by many that the use of drones and airpower is an effective and efficient means of waging war.[19]  My counterfactual narrative to this is that even though airpower and drones have contributed greatly to combat and the effectiveness of U.S. military forces in conventional warfare domains, this effectiveness only works as far as there are enough conventional targets to destroy.  In the unconventional domain of warfare, drone strikes are mainly aesthetic; they essentially undermine the political, credibility, and psychological effectiveness of U.S. military power.  This is truer especially of engagements involving ill defined enemies with little to no interest in fighting the U.S. on conventional terms.  Such philosophical and normative thoughts on the application of military force, airpower especially, against non-state actors that fight in an asymmetric/unconventional manner, begs a new philosophical conundrum: just because you can kill something, does not always mean you should.

Comprehending this viewpoint is tantamount to understanding the narrative that airstrikes against unconventional enemies (i.e. non-state actors) is not decisive or deterring.  A former President of Pakistan recently stated: "Terrorism cannot be defeated by simply fighting militants…the mindset has to be defeated as well."[20]  This mindset is critically important to understand when establishing a U.S. objective that defeats terrorists and undermines their ideology.  Since the U.S. has been at "war" with terror since 9/11, the U.S. (and the West) along with the rest of the world appears to be even less safe, along with even less stability in the Middle East.  Based on data from The Institute for Economics and Peace, Afghanistan and Pakistan experienced 30 and 43 terrorist incidents respectively in 2002.[21]  However, after a decade of counterterrorism and nation building in South Asia, Afghanistan and Pakistan experienced 1148 and 1933 terrorist incidents correspondingly in 2013.[22]  This equates to about a 3700% increase in terrorist attacks in Afghanistan and about a 4400% increase in terrorism in Pakistan.  It is possible to draw a link between these exponential increases in terrorism and the over-reliance by U.S. forces to fight terrorism with more airstrikes (generally from drone strikes). 

Open source data shows that there have been 2,471-3,983 people killed in Pakistan by drone strikes since 2004.[23]  Similarly, 416-592 people have been killed by drone strikes in Afghanistan since 2001 as well.  This begs the question: is the U.S. killing enough 'bad guys' or does it even matter?  This gets back to the crux of the issue of whether killing the 'bad guys' even helps efforts in either country.  Backing this assertion is a recent United Sates Institute of Peace report, which indicates that Afghanistan and Pakistan are less stable and more violent, compared to 2001.[24]  While not necessarily an indictment of drones, this report indicates that drones attacks are straining relationships between the U.S., Afghanistan, and Pakistan.[25] Such dependence on airpower to pursue insurgents was aptly referred to as "kinetic COIN" by a U.S. military officer lamenting this approach in Afghanistan, which in his opinion, rendered counterinsurgency efforts futile.[26]  The explosive increase in terrorism since 9/11 makes it evident that overwhelming U.S. airpower via drones does not deter terrorists and insurgents or reduce their propaganda.[27]  As mentioned previously, if insurgents/terrorists can control the narrative over a drone strike killing someone in an area they control, it does not matter if the attack was selective, because the perception would be shaped to give the appearance of it being indiscriminate.  In such a case, a drone strike would essentially provide a "revenge effect" or "blowback," by virtue of undermining the strategic nature of the strike, and leading to secondary and tertiary effects that hurt U.S. efforts in the long-term.  Moreover, it may increase the effectiveness of their sob stories in justifying more attacks on civilians or helping recruitment by virtue of them creating the illusion of indiscriminate violence being perpetrated by the U.S.[28][29][30]

In FY2001, UAS funding by the U.S. military was $1.241 billion and by FY2014 it had almost quadrupled to $4.119 billion.[31][32]  In reference to how much is being spent on drones, it is important to note that open source data has shown that as many as 5,901 people have been killed by drone strikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia since beginning the War on Terror in 2001.[33]  For those wondering if such drone strikes have improved the governance of said countries, a recent Fund for Peace report that ranks failed states, placed Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen on "High Alert" for being failed states; the second highest ranking for purely failed/fragile states.[34]  They join the ranks of such amazing lavish tourist spots as Syria, Iraq, Haiti, Zimbabwe, Chad, Cote d'Ivoire, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, and Chad.[35]  Somalia and South Sudan round out this same report as being two of the most failed and fragile states in the world, receiving the highest failed state ranking of "Very High Alert," with other notable group mentions for Sudan, Congo, and the Central African Republic.[36]  Such failures of governance should mean that there should be more of an emphasis on political reconciliation and stabilizing security, "[s]ince the 1960s, 83% of terrorist organisations that ended, ceased to operate due to policing or politicisation. Only 7% ended due to military intervention."[37]  Such facts are vital to understanding that drones are incapable of 'policing' let alone facilitating political reconciliation.  Such shortcomings should not be lost on decision-makers considering other failed states topping the Fund for Peace report in terms of how to apply military force (if any) in improving the governance and security of such countries.  This idea is seconded by an International Affairs article that shows that the current U.S. "counterterrorism policy operates at cross-purposes because it provides a steady flow of arms and financial resources to build up governments whose legitimacy it systematically undermines by conducting unilateral strikes on their territory."[38]  With such evidence presented it is obvious that over a decade of drone strikes in these countries is not improving governance nor is terrorist violence decreasing either.

In the end, when fighting an unconventional enemy, the prescription for dealing with such a group should never be more drone strikes.  While politically expedient to throw more bombs at the 'bad guys' from afar, this is not curing the problem, and while it may or may not be truly exacerbating the problem of terrorism, drone strikes have surely not deterred or decreased the number of attacks since 9/11.  More importantly, with more countries (such as Australia) arming up their drones to pursue similar anti-terrorist policies in the pursuit of extremists, the potential exists for regional instability to be created by virtue of perceptions of imbalanced power, given the perceived strategic low-risk and the ability of drones to selectively strike targets.[39]  Nonetheless, due diligence is necessary when decision-makers decide to fire on a 'bad guy' in a remote area of Afghanistan or Pakistan, because the payoff utility of this is probably close to zero from a strategic or deterrence perspective.  A better diagnosis is needed of how to facilitate policing and political rapprochement to bring about solutions to insurgent violence and poor governance.
End Notes

[1] Tiffany Christensen, "Finding Your Voice as a Patient Advocate: A Bed’s Eye View," NC Med Journal, 70(2), (March/April 2009), p. 180.

[2] José L. Martínez, "Antibiotics and Antibiotic Resistance Genes in Natural Environments," Science, 321(5887), (18 July 2008), p. 365-367.

[3] Bruce Goldman, "Scientists show how antibiotics enable pathogenic gut infections," Stanford Medicine: News Center, (1 Sep 2013),

[4] Eric Schmitt and Helene Cooper, "ISIS Fighters Seized Advantage in Iraq Attack by Striking During Sandstorm," The New York Times, (18 May 2015),

[5] Anoop Sarbahi and Patrick B. Johnston, "The Impact of U.S. Drone Strikes on Terrorism in

Pakistan," forthcoming International Studies Quarterly, (21 April 2015), p. 38-39,

[6] Bilal Y. Saab, "ISIS has a Choice to Make: Build a State or Super Terrorist Organization," The National Interest, (1 July 2014),

[7] Ben Kamisar, "Report: ISIS no weaker after a year of airstrikes," The Hill, (31 July 2015),

[8] Basil Liddell Hart, Strategy: The Indirect Approach, London, Faber, (1967), p. 219.

[9] James I. Walsh, The Effectiveness of Drone Strikes in Counterinsurgency and Counterterrorism Campaigns, U.S. Carlisle Barracks, PA: Army War College Press, (2013), p. 42-43.

[10] Stathis N. Kalyvas, The Logic of Violence in Civil War, New York City: Cambridge University Press, Kindle Edition, (2006), loc. 3231

[11] David Halberstam and Daniel Joseph Singa, The Making of a Quagmire: America and Vietnam During the Kennedy Era, Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, (2007), p. xiv.

[12] Hashem Dezhbakhsh, Paul H. Rubin, and Joanna M. Shepherd. "Does capital punishment have a deterrent effect? New evidence from postmoratorium panel data," American Law and Economics Review, (2003), p. 344-376.

[13] Edward Tenner, Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences, New York City: First Vintage Books, (1997), p. 6.

[14] Peter Bergen, "A gripping glimpse into bin Laden's decline and fall," CNN, (12 March 2015),

[15] Laura Smith-Spark and Noisette Martel, "U.S. official: 10,000-plus ISIS fighters killed in 9-month campaign," CNN, (3 June 2015),

[16] Leila Hudson, Colin S. Owens, and Matt Flannes, "Drone Warfare: Blowback from the New American Way of War." Middle East Policy, 18, (2015), p. 122-132.

[17] John Feffer, Crusade 2.0: The West's Resurgent War on Islam, San Francisco: City Light Books, (2012), p. 109.

[18] Sean D. Naylor, "Airstrikes Killing Thousands of Islamic State Fighters, but It Just Recruits More," Foreign Policy, (9 June 2015),

[19] Col. Mike Pietrucha and Lt. Col. Jeremy Renken, Airpower May not Win Wars, but it doesn't lose them," War on the Rocks, (19 August 2015), t

[20] Dawn website, "Ideology of terrorists must be defeated: Zardari," Dawn, (17 November 2014),

[21] The Institute for Economics and Peace, Global Terrorism Index - 2014, Microsoft Excel Full Data Set.

[22] Ibid.

[23] The Bureau of Investigative Journalism website, "Get the Data: Drone Wars," The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, (31 August 2015),

[24] Sunil Dasgupta, Regional Politics and the Prospects for Stability in Afghanistan, Washington D.C., United States Institute of Peace, (2013), p. 18-19,

[25] Ibid, p. 8-9.

[26] Sten Rynning, NATO in Afghanistan: The Liberal Disconnect, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, (2012), p. 110.

[27] Megan Smitha & James Igoe Walsha, "Do Drone Strikes Degrade Al Qaeda? Evidence From Propaganda Output," Terrorism and Political Violence 25 (2), (2013), p. 311.

[28] James I. Walsh, The Effectiveness of Drone Strikes in Counterinsurgency and Counterterrorism Campaigns, p. 43-44.

[29] J.B. Walker, Nightcap at Dawn: American Soldiers' Counterinsurgency in Iraq, New York City: Skyhorse Publishing, Kindle Edition, (2012), loc. 3299.

[30] Max Abrahms and Philip B.K. Potter, "Explaining Terrorism: Leadership Deficits and Militant Group Tactics," International Organization, 69(2), (2015), p. 311.

[31] Unmanned Aerial Vehicles Roadmap 2000-2025, (April 2001), Office of the Secretary of Defense, Washington D.C.,

[32] DoD Unmanned Systems Integrated Roadmap FY2013-2038, (December 2013), Office of the Secretary of Defense,

[33] The Bureau of Investigative Journalism website, "Get the Data: Drone Wars," The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, (31 August 2015),

[34] Nate Haken, J. J. Messner, Krista Hendry, Patricia Taft, Kendall Lawrence, Laura Brisard, and Felipe Umaña, The Fragile States Index 2014, The Fund for Peace, (2014), p. 4,

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ibid, p. 4, 17-18.

[37]Vision of Humanity: Global Terrorism Index, Institute for Economics and Peace, (2014),

[38] Michael J. Boyle, "The costs and consequences of drone warfare. International Affairs," International Affairs, 89(1), (2013), p. 1-2.

[39] Scott Mitchell, "The Sale of US Reaper Drones to Australia Could Provoke Regional Tensions," Vice News, (30 March 2015),


About the Author(s)

Captain Jahara "FRANKY" Matisek, U.S. Air Force, is a former C-17 Instructor Aircraft Commander and T-6 Instructor Pilot for "ENJJPT" (Euro-NATO Joint Jet Pilot Training).  He holds a B.S. from the U.S. Air Force Academy (USAFA), M.P.A. from the University of Oklahoma, and M.S. from Troy University.  Capt Matisek is a Distinguished Graduate of Squadron Officer School and is currently an AFIT Ph.D. Student working towards a Ph.D. in Political Science at Northwestern University.  His doctoral studies are sponsored by the Military and Strategic Studies Department at USAFA and will be assigned to USAFA as an Associate Professor following completion of his program.  The opinions espoused in his articles and essays are his alone and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of his colleagues, USAFA, the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or any other government agency.



Thu, 09/10/2015 - 8:10pm

In reply to by Rob Berg

Definitely true that destroying ISIS equipment and weaponry hurts them but it has not prevented them from defeating better trained and equipped Iraqi and Kurish military/militia units. (I heard a good story from a buddy of mine in Iraq talking about how ISIS seized an Abrams tank from the Iraqis with only Ak-47s because the tank crew was scared, not because ISIS had better weapons.)

Now if Airpower can be combined with competent ground forces then these military groups could easily push out ISIS and focus on stabilizing once insurgent controlled towns. The bigger problem stems from when Iraqi and Kurish forces retake these towns is if they actually behave better than ISIS; if they don't, they undermine the Iraqi/Kurdish governance legitimacy and make insurgent groups enticing.

Rob Berg

Tue, 09/08/2015 - 5:02pm

Targeting of personnel by airpower may be less effective when compared to thousands of new recruits. However, what would the expansion of ISIS be if targeting of armored vehicles, artillery, and support infrastructure did not take place?


Thu, 09/03/2015 - 12:34pm


I think your article on Drones and UCW is "spot on."

War is not about "killing"- it is about getting the other side to change their minds and conform to your will. How can we expect to change their minds if all we focus on is eliminating leaders. I know it probably feels good, but I do not believe our goal should be to "just kill them all."

I know as Americans we look at three "dimensions" in war: the physical, the moral, and the mental/ informational. As modern Americans, we like to make Reason the overarching truth. Sadly, wars are still fought by "reasoning" people yet Clausewitz used the ideas of "reason, chance, and passion" to create his remarkable trinity. Where does "passion" reside? What about the warrior's "heart"?

I remember seeing a sign a while back that exclaimed "Solve Entropy with Enthalpy.... and Love."

As Gen McMaster points out, War is essentially a Human effort. As such, I have always considered the "physical, mental, and moral" as missing a fourth element of our humanity - and that is the spiritual dimension. (Now this concept is easier to accept if you were brought up in a religious-e.g. Christian/Jewish/Islamic or faith that acknowledges the "Creator" environment.) (E.g., We all have a spiritual component whether it is clear to our own conception of "reality" or not.)

To achieve a sense of victory vs the Islamic State--Al Qaeda and the Islamic apocalyptic sects, we must appreciate the idea that even with knowledge and reason, some people have a spirit in them that will not yield to reason, physical beatings, "in-discriminate" bombing, or tons of leaflets.

As a Christian warrior, I know the battle is "not against flesh and blood but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places." You may not recognize that verse as a "Narrative" that belongs in our "UCW" strategy, but we should not be naïve and dismiss the "unseen" that holds ideas, hearts, and minds to an idea - even if it's a lie.

The cool thing about being a Christian is in 1 John 3:8 it says "... the purpose the Son of God was manifested was to destroy the works of the devil." I have a sign by my desk that says simply "ISA for ISIS."

When we can be brave enough to acknowledge the role of the spirit/ spiritual in this fight, the better we can construct our comprehensive strategy.