Whenever a new technology first changes the nature of how war is waged, it is perhaps a sign of inherent human compassion that we openly detest its usage. Just like the use of poison gas in the First World War and the dropping of atomic bombs in the second, drones are among today’s most hated military tools. Unfortunately, unlike poison gas or nuclear weapons, which have largely been reigned in by international regulations, the immediate future for the drone is likely to be that of rapid expansion. The deployment of drones can bring huge strategic advantages to their controllers and deep human costs to their victims. Far more disturbing than their current rise is perhaps the geopolitical conditions that have made drones so frighteningly applicable.
The Good (sort of):
The strongest case for deploying drones has been that they are a logical alternative to patrols in occupied countries where NATO soldiers and armored vehicles are constant victims to the Islamic militants’ preferred weapon of instant death, the IED. Just like improvised explosive devices, the sudden and unexpected explosions from drone strikes are extremely effective at killing enemies, and their unknown positions leave ground troops extremely vulnerable. Drone pilots work remotely and are rarely in harm’s way. Drones themselves can fly for weeks at a time by refueling in the air and must only briefly touch down for maintenance. When fighting small networks of radical extremists who hide among civilian populations in multiple countries, drones have the advantage over more traditional forces.
Surgical strikes from drones and special forces units like Seal Team Six have not only decimated the leadership ranks of Al Qaida and similar groups, but also statistically cause fewer unintended deaths than traditional bombing campaigns and military occupations do. Drones possess an unprecedented range and accuracy, and like IEDs, are far cheaper than putting human soldiers into harm’s way. The average cost of paying, equipping and feeding just one U.S. soldier in Iraq or Afghanistan is roughly half a million dollars a year. Drones are a far cheaper and far more effective option.
For these and other reasons, drones will not be exiting the battlefield anytime soon. The sad truth is that expanding them has not come out of simple warmongering intentions, but from cold, calculated numbers.
The Obama administration, although credited with bringing home massive amounts of troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, has dramatically expanded drone programs to make up for a lost ground presence in the Middle East. They have particularly focused their attention on conflict zones around the Afghan-Pakistani border.
But of course, the real problem behind drones is that one person’s conflict zone is another person’s home, and drones have led to a perpetual stream of innocent people dying in the crossfire of anti-terrorist strikes. In some of the worst cases, entire wedding processions in places like Yemen have been incinerated because they were mistaken for terrorist gatherings. Still, although the number of civilian casualties as a direct result of drone strikes can be measured, the psychological impact of their presence in a region, particularly in the religiously zealous tribal regions of Pakistan, cannot be. Drones could very well inspire the creation of more terrorists than they are blowing up.
Worse still is that many drone strikes and night raids conducted by Special Forces units have a disproportionate amount of oversight from the executive branch. This has already resulted in the very questionable drone-assassination of the pro-jihad American citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki and his 16-year-old son in Yemen (more details on that are available in the fairly one-sided but information-rich documentary, Dirty Wars). Obama responded to questioning on the subject by saying that such a person in Yemen is no more protected from a drone by their U.S. citizenship than a rogue sniper in America is from a SWAT team.
Whether one agrees or disagrees with such a statement isn’t terribly relevant. What is very relevant is that we need established guidelines for where and when drones can be used. Any such guidelines definitely need to be more specific than the malleable moral compass of whatever president happens to be in office.
Elevating the status of drones is stupid because all it does is focus people’s attention on one way of fighting instead of examining their context in the overall war. It’s not likely that today’s battlefields would be any less deadly, or be breeding any fewer anti-western militants, if the United States were putting boots on the ground or employing Bush-era torture tactics in the tribal regions of Pakistan rather than conducting strategic raids and drone strikes. What is likely is that even well intended cries of disgust about drone programs risk directing too much public attention on one weapon of war instead of working to wind down the larger conflict taking place. Any type of military strike will breed contempt against the perpetrator. Whether you are firing with a rifle, a tank, or a remote joystick, death is death.
No new technology is truly to blame for war casualties. In order to effectively and logically reign in drones, we need to be analyzing the systems keeping western forces stuck in places like the Middle East, not obsessing over the flashiest new death machines to grace the screens of CNN. Media-promoted drone hysteria only succeeds in desensitizing the public to their presence, which puts a dangerous emotional distance between the people who are dying and us. Those who are concerned about the human cost of modern warfare should focus on deconstructing why we are fighting in the first place rather than elevating what we are fighting with.