W. T. Dore

Drone Inevitability


The American military and intelligence services have been using drones (and by “drones,” I mean unmanned aerial vehicles that carry armaments) since 2001. The American national security services have adopted drones more quickly and with less institutional resistance than almost any other military technology; less than a decade after their introduction into service, they are already central to American military strategy in a wide variety of missions. What explains this rapid adoption? What makes drones (as opposed to manned aircraft, SEAL teams, long-range missiles, satellite surveillance) such an appealing way for the US to project force around the world?

The answers to this question are both technological and political. Drones are the culmination of several long-term trends in the US military. These trends cannot be understood on the basis of military strategy alone; they are an extension of the ways in which, in the decades since the Vietnam War, the American political system has viewed, used, shaped and been shaped by the military force at its disposal.

Unmanned aircraft have a long history in the US military: the original drones were independent remote-piloted aircraft, suitable for air-to-air combat training. The Tomahawk Land Attack Missile (TLAM), which can loiter over a target and be re-targeted on the fly, is another precursor to the modern drone. In a broader historical perspective, the drone represents the next step in Italian military strategist Giulio Douhet’s vision of air power, articulated in 1921 in Command of the Air: warfare removed from the mud and blood of infantry, from the headache of logistics, from the whims of a troublesome electorate. Ever since the aircraft was first conceived as a military technology that could deliver firepower, strategists and air power advocates have dreamed of an unassailable position in the sky — the highest ground. Even as anti-aircraft technology has developed, control of the air has become a prime military consideration for the use of a modern army. Impervious to the lessons of WWII, Vietnam, Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan, the dream that “the bomber will always get through” is still a seductive one. In each conflict, control of the air, however complete, was not able to guarantee victory. In Vietnam especially, the US dropped more bombs that were used by all sides in World War II, yet was unable to prevent the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong from waging a war that ultimately became unpalatable to the American public and ended with the fall of Saigon. The enforecemnt of a no-fly zone over Bosnia was unable to prevent the massacre at Srebenicia, or enforce an ultimate peace. Similarly, while the United States exercised near-complete control over the Northern and Southern No-Fly Zones in Iraq, the Hussein government was not brought down until the invasion in 2003. The bomber will always get through, but it can only support ground operations, not replace them. And drones are air power in its purest form: their design is unconstrained by the needs of earthbound human bodies and so free to obey the inexorable laws of aeronautics and mission payload. They are spirits of the air.

But drones offer advantages beyond those of aeronautical engineering: perhaps even more significantly, they represent a revolution in military command and control. It has often been observed that drones dissociate the experience of warfare: they remove the operator from the weapon and the decision to shoot from the operator. Each link in this chain has a critical role to play, but no link can be said to be truly responsible for the destruction caused by a drone strike. The disassociation of weapon from operator from commander serves to distance the decision-making process from the death it causes; this split is reflected in the sanitized language that surrounds the US drone program. Obama's “kill list” is officially described as a “disposition matrix”; such language is symptomatic of the desire for a clean, mudless, bloodless war.

Extracting the decision to strike from the weapon and the operator is more than a matter of language, however: the dissociation inherent in drone use makes possible a radical centralization of command. More traditional weapons systems must be placed in the hands of local commanders who may introduce human vagaries into the decision-making process (vagaries like local relationships, human considerations, and non-quantifiable intel). Drone strikes, however, can be controlled much more directly by the highest level of the command chain--even the commander-in-chief himself. In this respect they contrast vividly with infantry as a way to project force: while even low-level infantry officers may find themselves making decisions of considerable tactical importance in the heat of battle, drones are always under direct orders from on high. They make possible an unprecedented degree of highly centralized control.

Such centralization offers another advantage: secrecy. The information and intelligence that drives the decision to strike doesn't need to be distributed to local commanders; it can even be withheld from the operators themselves. As the trial of Pfc. Manning shows, it is simply too dangerous to let mere weapon systems operators have access to classified intelligence; with drones this becomes unnecessary. Troops with their “boots on the ground” make mistakes—why would they be allowed to make decisions with sensitive National Security material?

The centralization also means the decision-making process can be legally justified, an important consideration in any constitutional republic. The centralization of command allows experts to weigh and review every action, which would be impossible in the heat of battle. The command structure can then ensure that combat decisions are made according to a rational, deliberate process that draws on legal, military and political experts to produce the best outcome possible. This is part of the “maneuver war” vs. “attrition war” mindset that General Screwtape so deftly summarized.1 Striking at terrorists and insurgents in small, concentrated events is the heart of the attritive strategy. The thinking is if the enemy’s network can be degraded, if nodes can be eliminated on a point-by-point basis, the terror networks (like Al-Qaeda, the Haqqani Organization, Boko Haram, Al-Shabaab, et al.) will no longer be able to operate. The attrition mindset is inextricably linked to the centralization of combat decisions, since it is only through the combination of many sources of information that the appropriate patterns can be recognized and a strike authorized. The USMC, as outlined by General Screwtape, is similarly engaged in the centralization of decision-making. As battlefield spaces become more complex and ill-defined, media presence faster and more pervasive, and military leaders subject to increasing amount of political accountability, the drive for junior officers to not be allowed to make bad decisions permeates the military and drives battlefield decisions ever upward. This is part of the drive for metrics-based decision making that Robert McNamara pioneered. Data-driven decision making means that human error can be eliminated, and unruly elements like “personal considerations” and “local knowledge” subsumed by statistical models and organizational planning. The Marine Corps, being the most independent-minded of the branches and priding itself on the quality and superiority of its junior leadership, is the most resistant to this type of warfare. That there is even the trend for senior officers to assume control of the sorts of decision that junior officers are usually entrusted with shows how far along this drive for greater accountability and centralization of decisionmaking has gone.

And again, removing the “boots on the ground” means that the republic’s sons and daughters are not sent to die in foreign lands for ill-defined causes. If the National Interest depends on applied violence, who better than a small cadre of professionals to clearly, calmly and from a great distance, engage with the enemy? The voting public in a constitutional democracy needs to know that their interests are being protected, without bearing the costs. In this sense, drones are the logical conclusion of the US military's abandonment of conscription after the Vietnam War: the anti-war movement demonstrated that fighting small wars was politically unfeasible if every young man in the country risked dying in such a war. America's all-volunteer army insulated most of society from the mortal risks of war; drones insulate even the professional military from the risks of war. This technique has been used by empires throughout history, from the Roman Empire's increasing reliance on foreign soldiers as it expanded to the Janissaries of the Ottoman Empire. It’s most famous and obvious application is in the French Foreign Legion, which has consistently been deployed in situations where sending the regular French army was not politically feasible. This was recognized by the Legionnaires themselves: as their maching song has it: “Our ancestors died for theLegion's glory / We will soon all perish according to tradition.”

This change required a move to more businesslike-practices of recruitment and retention, which in turn mean that individual soldiers, sailors airmen and marines are not as likely to want to (or have to) spend their lives in combat. Deployments are hard on soldiers and hard on families, and the forces were “at their breaking point” years ago. Secondarily, the average member of the US military is very expensive to train and equip. Using people to fight wars has a high economic as well as political cost.

While the drone is not a true robot, the functional integration of the best parts of Machine (stamina, strength, senses) and Man (heuristic decision-making and ethics) make the drone a kind of cyborg. Robots have traditionally done the work that is dirty, dangerous, and dull. Few jobs fit that better than a one-week foot patrol in the Hindu Kush. Areas where drones are used fit two major criteria.

First and most importantly, they extend State control to areas that are otherwise difficult to reach, in the borders and in the breakdowns of States2. Non-State actors have always been present in otherwise uncontrolled areas, but the proliferation of technology means that they are able to act and influence on a global scale. State actors who are interested in preventing disruptive non-State violence prefer to work with and legitimize other States, even at the expense of their own national prestige. Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen—all have nominal territories where national formal power has failed to control or support the region, so they rely on external, powerful States to support the Governments. Generally, powerful states exist in two forms. The first are imperial powers, who dominate militarily. More subtle are hegemonic powers, who rely on cultural and economic forces first. For a hegemonic power, propping up an existing State (called a client) legitimizes the presence of foreign troops, equipment, and policies. This is preferable for the hegemon as well, since by avoiding placing its own uniformed troops in contested areas, it reinforces the idea of native State control and downplays the reliance of the client State., reinforcing its legitimacy. Even as the Pakistani government denounced drone strikes, it tacitly agreed to them in areas where the government had no authority, like Waziristan and the FATA. The next place drones are likely to be used is along the United States’ southern border, as the northern territories of Mexico, the neighboring State, slip beyond central control.

Secondly, a strike by drone, as opposed to an arrest by a policeman, eliminates the need for a trial. Trying terrorists is tricky business: the State may not want to show what sort of evidence was used to make the decision to arrest; the terrorist may use the trial as an opportunity to verbally attack the State; trials are expensive and messy. By using a secret, legal process, the republic can both eliminate the cause of a trial and the need for one. The difficulties in handling captured terrorism suspects is plainly evident in the treatment of the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. Many are unable to be tried, since the evidence against them is classified, tainted, or otherwise inaccessible. Those who can be tried are subject to an ad-hoc, questionable legal process. The ones who can be freed are not wanted in their home countries, for fear they will join AQ and other affiliated groups. And while the Administration currently maintains that the mission at Osama bin Laden’s compound was “kill or capture”, it is undeniable that killing removed a large potential problem in terms of detention, trial and sentencing.

Drones, as the culmination of a few long-term trends and as the fulfillment of several needs of the United States, are fast becoming an integral part of how it interacts with the world. Empires and hegemons throughout history have needed to hide the use of force from their citizens, their clients, and their enemies. The drone is the perfect tool of our era to do that now.

1 General Screwtape’s point—briefly, that “no longer must we attempt to appease our discomfort at an unruly battlefield in which we lack complete and clear situational awareness,” was publicized in the Marine Corps Gazette as The Attritionist Letters.

2 For purposes of this paper, a State is an organization that 1) claims territory and 2) can defend it.

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