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Drones are a symptom, not a cause

May 23, 2012

Ben Farley has a solid post up arguing that I’ve overstated the non-game change of drone technology. Read his post, but his arguments can be summed up basically as:

  • Drones have much longer mission endurance
  • Drones are expendable
  • Drones don’t put a pilot in harm’s way
  • Policymakers are relying on drones
  • Drones make policy makers use force where it is not necessary or counterproductive

These are all interesting points, and I’m almost certain every one of them isn’t significantly relevant to the way drones are used today. This is a contrarian position, to be sure, but let me explain. Before I go on, to give credit where credit is due, everyone reading this ought to read Winslow Wheeler’s five part series on the MQ-9 Reaper.

Drones have longer mission endurance:

In a vacuum, yes, but that’s not where operations occur. In fact, drones are not often used for this very long endurance time, according to Wheeler. Why? Because, as detractors of signature strikes are all too aware, drones are not particularly good at identifying targets from the air, particularly when compared to the plethora of manned platforms that generally supplement drone missions.

Wheeler notes that on the U.S. border, drones often must be supplemented by “Big Miguel” Cessnas with FLIR (that cost multiple times less than Predator or Reaper airframes to operate, and magnitudes less per alien intercepted). Even in the so-called drone wars, manned ISR platforms are frequent features. There is a reason Sean Naylor talks about the use of P-3 ISR platforms off the coast of Somalia, or that U-28 aircraft are flying out of Djibouti. Additionally, Task Force ODIN in Afghanistan has MC-12W Liberty prop-driven aircraft as the cornerstone of ISR missions supporting drone operations there (in addition to the myriad of Air Force and Navy EW and ISR platforms which support AfPak operations). If the drones, even with their long endurance time, must be supplemented with manned ISR, this means that drone endurance capability is likely not a factor that significantly removes constraints on strikes.

Additionally, for drones to provide as much firepower as manned combat aircraft, they must significantly sacrifice their endurance to bring a full-combat load to bear. Manned planes have a very obvious method for improving endurance – in-flight refueling. While this still does not bring them up to match drones, when one considers that in combination with native or additional ISR platforms, more precise and effective strikes are possible. In-flight refueling is a readily available option for a wide variety of manned strike platforms. Indeed, some manned strike platforms are actually based off of refueling variants such as the KC-130 Harvest Hawk and MC-130 Dragon Spear families. The MC-130Ws can be armed with a Bushmaster 30mm gun along with up to dozens of Viper Strike or Griffin munitions. The KC-130 maintains a similar capability. They can carry just as much weaponry as drones, including the gun (often a more useful weapons systems for certain strikes), along with equivalent or superior sensor packages and the ability to in-flight refuel or draw on their internal fuel bladders to provide potent overwatch capabilities.

That drone strikes have to be supplemented by these platforms not simply for ISR but for strike capabilities suggests that drones are not what tips the balance between the choice to use force and the choice not to use force. One must differentiate between the proximate and ultimate determinants of the decision to use force, and while drones might be a proximate decision, as the first strike in Yemen utilized one in 2002, that they were hardly the only platform utilized suggests that that a lack of drones would have prevented the U.S. from conducting standoff strikes against hostile non-state actors in Yemen and Somalia.

Drones are expendable:

If they are, at least in a way that alters the decision to use force in a way manned aircraft does not, it’s not reflected in the way we currently employ them. The so-called drone wars in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia are all areas where we have tacit agreements which allowed for the violation of foreign air sovereignty – which is precisely why we have used manned platforms in Yemen and Somalia. Even in Pakistan, though published reports only emphasize drone usage, serious Pakistani air defense attempts to intercept drones have never been a serious concern. Diplomatic prohibition of the strikes has been far more problematic than any attempt to shoot down the aircraft, which suggests that the U.S. is sensibly more concerned about losing a multimillion dollar investment -pilot or no – than it is willing to take advantage of the supposed political risk mitigation an unmanned platform offers.

There is one case that we know of where drones have conducted armed strikes in areas where their expendable status might have been put to good use – Libya. So did drones go in first and take the heat for Americans? No, they absolutely didn’t! The first armed drone strikes in Libya did not occur until about a month after the U.S. had deployed manned and cruise missile attacks had neutralized Libyan air defenses and conducted a variety of other strikes. Drones, in fact, were not deployed to attack ground targets until any threat to aircraft of any kind was removed, which is the opposite of what we would expect if drones were really pushing policymakers into the more vigorous use of force.

Drones, in fact, because of their poor survivability, are not very useful in contested airspace, which is why they’ve never been employed in situations where an expendable aircraft might be desirable. In fact, it’s quite difficult to defend them even from man portable guns and air defense missiles. Despite their relatively “cheap” cost, Wheeler notes that Reapers and Predator operators are “reluctant to venture below 10,000 feet.” In fact, in the face of air defenses, the survivaibility record of manned American platforms is so high that the supposedly vulnerable manned aircraft are far more frequently used where actually hitting the target is a mission-critical task.

On paper, drones are expendable. In practice, we have yet to treat them as such. They’re never used in airspace which is military contested, and in airspace that is military contested, it’s manned aircraft that come in first to clear the airspace for the drones. So this factor doesn’t point towards drones increasing American bellicosity in any meaningful way.

Drones don’t put a pilot in harm’s way:

Drones have yet to be used in a situation where a pilot of a manned strike platform would have been at serious risk from something besides a plane crash. In practice, in these kinds of campaigns the most vulnerable people are those operating on the ground to support drone operations, and more of them, not fewer of them, are brought in to support so-called drone wars.

But does the lack of accident threat increase bellicosity? Not really, since again, in virtually all theaters of drone use, drone strikes occur where manned strikes or manned ISR support is also occurring. These aircraft are also at accident risk, yet they are often used alongside drones or to fulfill missions that drones also carry out. While again, on paper, drones remove these risk, in practice the kind of missions policymakers employ drones with does not suggest drones have significantly changed their calculus towards waging standoff strike campaigns.

Policymakers are relying on drones

The United States is only “relying” on drones in Pakistan, and even then, in Pakistan it’s also operating Counterterrorism Pursuit Teams on the ground and other proxy militia forces, and very likely receiving the kind of manned ISR support that drones very frequently do in Afghanistan (along with strike support in that theater, of course). The “unique capabilities” of drones do not change the calculus to actually initiate military action, they just change the relative logistical load of the operation. That’s not a revolution and that’s hardly enough evidence to suggest it significantly effects U.S. bellicosity or the accountability of warmaking by giving policymakers a cost free option for prosecuting strikes.

In Yemen and Somalia, policymakers almost certainly are not relying on drones. The first drone strikes in Somalia did not occur until years after the U.S. had begun using JSOC ground forces, helicopters, gunships, and naval aircraft and ship fires to target the ICU and later al Shabaab. Even then, drones have yet to actually take over the duties of strike missions, as the F-15E squadron in Djibouti suggests. In Yemen, the strikes have generally been a mix of platforms that has ranged from drones, to seaborne fire missions, to manned aircraft.

So it’s certainly not an undisputed fact that policymakers are relying on drones, even if this factor is publicly played up by the media and government alike. If anything, drones are over-emphasized to hide the very many people operating on the ground and in manned supporting strike and ISR platforms that are involved in these wars. It’s absolutely false to suggest that it’s casualty aversion or drone expendability which enables these conflicts, or otherwise policymakers would not be using manned missions in Yemen and Somalia (and they would probably be more willing to conduct high-value strikes when Pakistan clamps down on strikes).

Farley suggests that policymakers are not casualty tolerant of air wars. This is false. In fact, the utter air superiority of U.S. forces has been invoked for the ease of conducting U.S. airpower interventions in the Balkans and Iraq after 1991. There’s significant evidence to suggest that policymakers consider aerial and naval assets writ large, along with deniable and covert SOF assets, more expendable than regular ground troops from the Army and the USMC. The record of U.S. military interventions suggests this. Casualty aversion from ground troops did not prevent the growth of an airpower mystique among policymakers which allowed for interventions in Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq between 1991-2003, and later, Libya. The punitive use of aerial and standoff fires is extended to virtually all aerial assets, and in many cases policymakers are more eager to send manned aircraft against enemy air defenses than they are to send unmanned strike aircraft into contested areas. If Farley was arguing, as many other commentators have, that there is a general airpower mystique, that would be a much more plausible argument. But the conduct of U.S. military interventions since 1991 suggests that policymakers are not very worried about pilot casualties (even after the shoot-down of an F-16 in Bosnia and an F-117 in the Kosovo War), and drone strikes rarely occur when there’s a real threat of pilot casualties beyond the accidents that can afflict the manned strike and ISR assets used alongside them.

Drones make policymakers more prone to use force

This is highly unlikely. As I have noted, in Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan, drone use has been dependent on both militarily and diplomatically permissive environments, and they are generally used alongside manned assets, proxy forces, special operations, and security force assistance to other states. In other words, there are a variety of militarized options which are employed concomitantly which all suggest drone strikes were not the limiting factor in the U.S. choosing to find a variety of direct and indirect methods for covertly and overtly killing foes determined to be hostile to the country.

Secondly, the fact that the U.S. also uses the Pursuit Teams and other covert actors in Pakistan suggests that the U.S. would still be trying to kill its enemies across the borders if drones were not available. In Yemen there isn’t convincing evidence that drones are the reason the U.S. chose to militarize its policy there, as the increase in strikes starting in 2009 came with an increase in manned and naval strikes. In Somalia, drones are definitively not the reason the U.S. chose to militarize its counterterrorism policy there, as U.S. strikes in support of the American-backed Ethiopian invasion in 2006 were all of a  manned variety.

Thirdly, there’s little suggestion that drones are blinding policymakers to the virtues of riskier means of force, an example of which that Farley cites is SOF. But SOCOM has expanded enormously alongside the growth of the drone program, and SOCOM and JSOC are operating on the ground in far far more countries than we use drones! Not only that, but JSOC, CIA SAD operators, and proxy forces such as contractors, militia groups and foreign military forces are all in play in Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan. Standoff strikes are always and everywhere just one prong of the U.S. counterterrorism strategy – even the kinetic aspects.

If anything, the biggest advantage to policymakers of drones, in terms of initiating and continuing use of force, is that they allow policymakers to obscure and misinform the public and the international community – and each other – as to the extent of the military and covert campaign. But that’s not drones eluding accountability and enabling bellicosity, it’s secrecy and the management of public perceptions. The CIA had methods of doing this thing before today’s remotely-operated weapons were invented. Back in the day, when you wanted to avoid the bad publicity of USAF or USN platforms getting formally involved in “shadow wars” (and they often were anyway, as they very obviously are now), you started a secret air force. Former USAF or USN airframes, crewed and often even supported by foreign nationals or deniable covert operators. This was what happened in Cuba and the Congo.

Drones make very little difference in the ability of policymakers to militarize U.S. foreign policy approaches. They are insufficient for action in military impermissive airspace, and they are almost always used alongside manned assets, and they are always used alongside covert ground or proxy forces. This is why I greatly admire the work of national security journalists (the first coming to mind being Jeremy Scahill and Marc Ambinder and D.B. Grady) who sketch out not simply the new hotness that is killer robots, but the full spectrum of direct and indirect methods that are by necessity and by preference used along side drone attacks, such as SOF, manned platforms, naval assets, spies, mercenaries, unsavory foreign security services, militias, warlords, and even terrorists previously targeted by the U.S. to attack America’s real and imagined enemies in places like Yemen and Somalia.

Criticism that exalts the mythical capabilities of drones to conduct cost-free, casualty-free campaigns in fact enables to prosecution of unaccountable wars. Why? Because it’s not having the option of drones which make the policymakers responsible for determining the mission and demanding warheads put to foreheads decide to do so. If it was, then we’d see being drones use din the expendable, cost-free ways that our comprehensive strike campaigns and covert wars suggest is not occurring. Instead, the exaltation of these game-changing features of drones, which will be eagerly swallowed by the broader public, if not by critics of the war on terror, is often parroted by the fears of drone critics, which give policymakers the ability to obscure the extent of the “drone wars” and what is really going on.

It’s not drones that decrease accountability or increase bellicosity. It’s secrecy and bureaucratic politics. Drones don’t truly offer any advantages in terms of secrecy or bureaucratic politics that did not already exist or are not being cultivated alongside drones by other branches of the military and intelligence community. Even the much-vaunted ability that drones give the CIA to conduct military-grade “secret wars” was pioneered aerially by the “instant air forces” of the Cold War that it set up, as well as other proxy assets with which the CIA can emply and is now employing in its modern shadow conflicts. The very same compartmentalization and secrecy that protect the drone campaign also protects the activities of manned strike missions, SOCOM, CIA assets, and U.S.-backed proxy forces. Drones only marginally alter the kind of impunity that U.S. air superiority gave American policymakers to launch its airpower interventions of the 1990s and 2000s (themselves, as Carl Schmitt foresaw in the 1950s, an outgrowth of naval technology). What’s at least slightly novel about these campaigns is the way in which bureaucracies and secrecy have been utilized to obscure policymakers use of all manner of overt and covert strike, ground, intelligence and proxy assets from proxy criticism, even though even this was essentially cultivated during the Cold War. Perhaps some day in the future drone capabilities will improve enough that they will actually encourage the lack of accountability and bellicosity that critics blame for them. But the record of drone usage so far suggests that the evasions of accountability and enablings of bellicosity in question are equally available to manned assets, standoff naval assets, and deniable covert assets. Drones have yet to be responsible for a single militarization of a U.S. CT campaign that would not have been militarized by the concomitant use of other assets. They’re a symptom of the post-Iraq decision to conduct comprehensive shadow conflicts against AQAM ( arguably pioneered in the Horn of Africa long before strike drones showed up), not from what we can observe in the conduct of drones so far, a cause of its direction. They are a useful instrument in the toolbox. But it’s the toolbox, not any one tool in it, that’s shaping policy. Giving the drones the kind of hype they receive from critics and proponents alike shifts debate obscures what’s really allowing policymakers to conduct today’s wars.

14 Comments leave one →
  1. May 24, 2012 4:30 pm

    Usually I agree with almost everything you write, but respectfully,I think that you are missing the fact that drones, along with robotics of all types are rapidly evolving technologies, and indeed represent something new under the sun.

    For example, in flight refueling by drones is an issue being worked on:

    And this is only one of the technical hurdles being overcome.

    What drones and robotics is doing is lowering the costs of weaponry. People, understandably, concentrate on the loss of the pilot in warfare, but the military also loathes the loss of the plane. The latest generation fighter costs upwards of $200 million dollars:,15202,187737,00.html

    By contrast a predator drone is about $4.5 million a pop.

    The revolution in robotics is effecting naval and ground forces as well. There is a huge cost incentive to move away from expensive soldiers towards machines.

    All of this is an enormous transformation likely to effect not just war, but the decision of when to fight wars. We are already, I think, seeing some of the effects in the kinds of undeclared conflicts- such as the use of the computer worm stuxnet.

    To see this revolution as business as usual is to miss out on a turning point in history.

    • May 24, 2012 5:04 pm

      Sorry, but you are incorrect. Robotics are not a revolution but an evolution of, as the Chinese would call it, the “informatization” of warfare which has been ongoing since the end of WWII. There’s nothing “revolutionary” about robotics yet, and no way to predict now that any kind of revolutionary changes in warfare will take place.

      Your drone comparison is completely ridiculous. If you actually read the Wheeler piece, you’ll note that the cost of the airframe is totally misleading. A 4.5 million drone airframe on its own is completely useless. Combined with the cost of the infrastructure on the ground necessary to actually fly a drone, Wheeler notes:

      “The margins are not even close — the Reaper is approximately twice the price to acquire compared to a contemporary F-16 fighter-bomber, and up to six times the cost of an A-10 close-support aircraft. Reaper’s annual operating costs are roughly four times the cost to operate an F-16 or an A-10.”

      And you don’t need an F-16 or an F-22 to do what Reapers do. Hell, you could do it with a propeller driven Super Tucano or an AT-6, which are also being fitted to use Griffins.

      You can’t compare a drone’s cost to that of an F-22 because the F-22 is an air superiority fighter, a task that drones are utterly incapable of thus far (and don’t tell me that a drone with a Stinger is an effective air to air weapon – so far it hasn’t happened yet). The jobs drones do are all performed by aircraft much less expensive to operate than drones.

      The notion that drones and robotics are lowering the cost of weaponry is NOT TRUE. The extra infrastructure and personnel to maintain drones is continuing the upward cost spiral of weaponry. Drones capable of fulfilling the task of ground weapons systems will certainly not be less expensive than manned vehicles and infantry.

      Sorry, but the notion that drones and technology are creating a new kind of “undeclared conflict” is, to put it kindly, BS. Undeclared conflicts have been part US national security since the formation of the CIA. To argue otherwise is totally myopic.

      I don’t find any of your arguments convincing. There’s no evidence a “revolution” is occurring, and all these predictions of revolution are just as likely to be as false as Douhet and Seversky’s ridiculous beliefs that airpower would also revolutionize warfare in the same ways drone proponents and critics are arguing they’re doing now.

      • May 24, 2012 7:31 pm

        You are usually much more open minded than this response would suggest. Only time will prove which one of us are correct. You should keep an open mind, otherwise you are as likely to miss profound changes as you would say I am prone to overstate them. Anyone interested in a contrary view to your own should check out Peter Singer’s Wired For War.

        I will continue to read and learn from your blog…. even when I disagree.

      • May 24, 2012 7:46 pm

        Actually, coming to this position is a result of my open mindedness. When I’d first read Singer’s book when it came out, I was convinced, but all of my research on the conflicts drones have been involved then since then have convinced me that if there is a revolution, it hasn’t happened yet.

      • May 24, 2012 8:28 pm

        Fair enough, and your contrarian view, as always, keeps people from being lazy- definitely a good thing.

        But when I see things like this:
        It’s gotta make you wonder where we’ll be in 20yrs.

  2. Daniel permalink
    June 10, 2012 9:51 am

    Part of what is frustrating for me here is that it’s not clear what’s being explained. If drones are impacting modern warfare, we should see some observable implications. One thing that I often see pointed to as being the result of the increase in drone usage is the increase in observed targeted assassinations, specifically in Pakistan, since Obama took office. This is a fact to be explained. How can we explain it?

    One perhaps conventional explanation is that drones have made targeted assassinations cheaper/easier. Another could be that in fact targeted assassinations have not increased, but that they are being reported/observed at a higher rate. Another could be that strategic imperatives to take out hostiles in Pakistan have increased since Obama took office. Or perhaps Pakistan has become more accommodating recently and is simply signing off at a higher rate for targeted assassinations in their country.

    The last two don’t seem particularly plausible to me as sources of variation. The second seems contrary to the suggestion that drones are another source of obfuscation with respect to covert ops – if drones were in fact secretive, we shouldn’t see an increase in observed assassinations if in fact the number of assassinations is being held constant pre- and post-drone introduction.

    This leaves point number one: that drones have made targeted assassinations cheaper/easier than they used to be. (By the way, you are absolutely correct to note that these sorts of covert operations are long-standing policy.) One useful way of thinking about this is to ask whether or not we would have seen the number of targeted assassinations we have if drones were not being used. It seems at least plausible to me that we would not have, simply for the reason that we did not during the Bush administration. It doesn’t seem likely to me that Bush would have had the technology/opportunities to knock out terrorists with drones but not utilize it. So the other explanation is that he was assassinating suspected terrorists, but that it was done by covert operations teams or traditional air power and that we simply don’t know about it. Surely this is a possibility. But it doesn’t seem more likely that this was the case than that a rapidly-developing technology allowed Obama to dramatically up the number of these missions.

    Finally, I don’t know much about military technology – not really my field. But it seems to me that you are conflating the use of information technology with the rapidity of its development. Surely we can agree that technology has always been harnessed for military purposes AND that technology advances quicker today than it has in the past. These both seem to me utterly banal.

  3. June 20, 2012 8:06 pm

    I don’t read your posts as often as I’d like to, but I appreciate the research and facts you put into it. I agree that drones themselves are not the issue with our foreign policy. The ways they are being used, however, are a problem to the same extent that our manned missions are a problem.

    I wonder if the reason so many people focus on drones is so that they don’t have to seem like they aren’t “supporting the troops.” It’s a lot easier to blame a robot than a soldier.


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