Skip to content

The Drone War Does Not Take Place

November 16, 2012

I’ll try to make this a bit shorter than my usual fare on the subject, but let me be clear about something. As much as I and many others inadvertently use the term, there is no such thing as drone war. There is no nuclear war, no air war, no naval war. There isn’t really even irregular war. There’s just war.

There is, of course, drone warfare, just as there is nuclear warfare, aerial warfare, and naval warfare. This is verging on pedantry, but the use of language does matter. The changing conduct and character of war should not be confused with its nature, as Colin Gray strives to remind us in so many of his writings. When we believe that some aspect of warfare changes the nature of war – whether we do so to despair its ethical descent or praise its technological marvels, or to try to objectively discern some new and irreversible reality – we lose sight of a logic that by and large endures in its political and conceptual character.

Hence the title (with some, but not too much, apology to Baudrillard). There is no drone war, there is only the employment of drones in the various wars we fight under the misleading and conceptually noxious “War on Terror.” Why does this matter?

To imbue a weapons system with the political properties of the policy employing it is fallacious, and to assume its mere presence institutes new political realities relies on a denial of facts and context. This remains the case with drones. The character of wars waged with drones is different – the warfare is different – but the nature of these wars do not change, and very often this argument obscures the wider military operations occurring.

Long before the first drone strikes occurred in Somalia, America was very much at war there. Before their availability in that theater, the U.S. had deployed CIA and SOF assets to the region. It supported Ethiopia’s armies and it helped bankroll and coordinate proxy groups, whether they were Somali TFG units, militias, or private contractors. It bombarded select Somali targets with everything from naval guns to AC-130 gunships to conventional strike aircraft. It deployed JSOC teams to capture or kill Somalis. That at some point the U.S. acquired a new platform to conduct these strikes is not particularly relevant to the character of that war and even less to its nature.

We sometimes assume drones inaugurate some new type of invincibility or some transcendental transformation of war as an enterprise of risk and mutual violence. We are incorrect to do so. The war in Somalia is certainly not risk free for the people who the U.S. employs or contracts to target these drones. It is not risk free for the militias, mercenaries, or military partners which follow up on the ground. Nor is it risk free for those who support the drones. Just ask Abu Talha al-Sudani, one of the key figures behind the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, who sent operatives to case Camp Lemonier and launch a commando raid – one which looks, in retrospect, very much like the one that crippled Marine aviation at Camp Bastion recently – that might have killed a great many U.S. personnel on a base then and now critical to American operations in the Horn of Africa and Gulf of Aden.

The existence of risk is an inherent product of an enemy whose will to fight we have not yet overcome. The degree of that inherent risk – whether it is negligible or great – is a product of relative military capabilities and war’s multifarious external contexts. Looked at through this lens, it’s not drones that reduce U.S. political and material risk, it’s the basic facts of the conflict. In the right context, most any kind of military technology can significantly mitigate risks. A 19th century ironclad fleet could shell the coast of a troublesome principality with basic impunity. When Dewey said, “You may fire when ready, Gridley,” at Manila Bay, according to most history and much legend he lost only one man – due to heatstroke! – while inflicting grievous casualties on his out-ranged and out-gunned Spanish foes. That some historians have suggested Dewey may have concealed a dozen casualties by fudging them in with desertions, which were in any case were a far greater problem than casualties since the Navy was still in the habit of employing foreign sailors expendable by the political standards of the day is even more telling. Yes, there are always risks and almost always casualties even in the most unfair fights, but just as U.S. policymakers wrote off Asian sailors, they write off the victims of death squads which hunt down the chippers, spotters, and informants in Pakistan or the contractors training Puntland’s anti-piracy forces. And no, not even the American spooks are untouchable, the fallen at Camp Chapman are testament to that.

This is hardly unique to drones or today’s covert wars. The CIA’s secret air fleet in Indochina lost men, too, and the Hmong suffered mightily for their aid to the U.S. in the Laotian civil war. The fall of Lima Site 85, by virtue or demerit of policy, resonated little with the American public but deeply marks the intelligence community and those branches of the military engaging in clandestine action. The wars we wage in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia are not drone wars any more than our war in Laos was an air war simply because Operation Barrel Roll’s bombers elicit more attention than the much more vulnerable prop-driven spotting aircraft or Vang Pao’s men on the ground.

There is a certain hubris in thinking we can limit war by limiting its most infamous weapons systems. The taboo and treaties against chemical weapons perhaps saved men (but not the Chinese at Wuhan, nor the Allied and innocents downwind of the SS John Harvey at Bari) from one of the Great War’s particular horrors, but they did nothing appreciable to check the kind of war the Great War was, or the hypersanguinary consequences of its sequel but a generation later.

The Predators and Reapers could have never existed, and very likely the U.S. would still be seeking ways to carry out its war against al Qaeda and its affiliates under the auspices of the AUMF in all of today’s same theaters. More might die from rifles, Tomahawks, Bofors guns or Strike Eagles’ JDAMs than remotely-launched Griffins, and the tempo of strikes would abate. But the same fundamental problems – the opaque decisions to kill, the esoteric legal justifications for doing so, the obtuse objectives these further – would all remain. Were it not for the exaggerated and almost myopic focus on “killer robots,” the U.S. public would likely pay far less attention to the victims, excesses, and contradictions. But blaming drones qua drones for these problems. or fearing their proliferation at home, makes little more sense than blaming helicopters for Vietnam, or fearing airmobile assaults when DC MPD’s MD-500s buzz over my neighborhood.

That concern that proliferation of a weapons system equates to proliferation of the outcomes associated with them, without regard to context, is equally misleading. Nobody in America should fear the expansion of the Chinese UAV fleet because, like the U.S. UAV fleet, it is merely going to expand their ability to do what similar aircraft were already doing. Any country with modern air defenses can make mincemeat of drone-only sorties, and for that reason China, which unlike Yemen and Pakistan would not consent to wanton U.S. bombing of its countryside, need not fear drones. For an enormous number of geographical, political, and military reasons, the U.S. ought fear the “drone war” coming home even less. Drones do not grant a country the ability to conduct the kind of wars we conduct against AQAM. The political leverage to build bases and clear airspaces, and the military and intelligence capabilities to mitigate an asymmetric countermeasure operation do. If another country gains that ability to conduct them against a smaller country, even, it is not because they lacked the ability to put weapons on planes, but because of the full tapestry of national power and military capabilities gave them such an ability.

It was not asymmetry in basic technical ability that made the U.S. submarine blockade of Japan so much more effective than the Axis’s attempts to do the same against America’s shores, but the total scope of the assets in the field and context of their use. It was not because of precedent or moral equivalence, or lack thereof that the Axis could bomb Britain or lose the ability to do so, but because of the cumulative effect of military capabilities and the judgments guiding them. What might expand the battlefield of a “drone war” is much the same. America’s enemies do not refrain from attacking bases in CONUS or targeting dissidents in the U.S. (not that they have not before), they wait for an opportunity and practical reason to do so, and that has very little to do with drones in particular and even less the nature of the war itself.

Fearing that the mere use of a weapons system determines the way in which our enemies will use it without regard to this context is not prophetic wisdom. It is quasi-Spenglerian hyperventilation that attributes the decision to use force to childlike mimesis rather than its fundamentally political purposes. Iran and Russia do not wait on drones to conduct extrajudicial targeted killings, and indeed drones would be of much less use to them in their own political contexts. Focusing on drones and the nature of targeted killings as some sort of inherent link ignores those contexts and ultimately does a disservice to understanding of wars past, present, and future, and by doing so, does little help – and possibly a great deal of harm – to understanding how to move forward.

Expect further thoughts on drone proliferation more specifically coming later, in a different venue.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. November 17, 2012 5:59 pm

    I sense a disturbance in the Force. It’s as if a million half-baked defense reporters’ careers suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced.

  2. November 20, 2012 6:29 pm

    I could be wrong, but this post seems mostly devoted to taking down straw men. Is anyone seriously suggesting that the reason the US should scale back drone use is that, if it doesn’t, the US’s enemies will acquire drones and start using them over [insert names of US cities]? The objections to drone use are, as I understand it, primarily moral and legal, with some attention to possible effects on terrorist recruitment (see a recent guest post at The Monkey Cage for more on that — I haven’t read it carefully yet — will try to add link later).

    As has been evident for a long time from your blogging, you know an impressive amount about military matters (far, far more than I do) and in this post you even name the make of helicopter the DC Metropolitan Police uses. (I have no idea what an MD500 is.) But I don’t think this post, while I suppose it may clear away some misconceptions that perhaps some journalists hold, does all that much to advance the discussion about drones.

    Btw, re Colin Gray: I would hesitate myself to sign onto his declaration that “there is an essential unity to all strategic experience in all periods of history because nothing vital to the function of war and strategy changes.” (‘Modern Strategy’, p.1, quoted in Fettweis, ‘Dangerous Times?’, p.163). When one considers the extremely varied history of war, this pronouncement exists at such a high level of generality as to be, one could argue, not that illuminating.

  3. December 5, 2012 8:21 am

    Excellent article, as always. Your insight into the real issues of war are always a refreshing break.

    One thing I might disagree on, though: is it possible that certain means of engagement (such as nukes, chemical warfare, or drones) are, while not new, different than the kind of war we aught to be fighting? It allows a dissociation from the victims, allowing far more wars to occur because we have no conception of what we are actually doing.

    What do you think?


  1. A Case Against Drone War « elcidharth
  2. From Benghazi to Blackwater | Isenberg Institute of Strategic Satire

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: