The Landing Zone | 6.15.12
By Alan W. Dowd
It seems that each morning
brings with it another news item about some jaw-dropping development in drone
Take, for example, the recent
report in Britain’s Guardian newspaper that scientists at
Northrop Grumman and Sandia National Laboratories are working on plans for
nuclear-powered drones capable of loitering over target areas for months at a
time. Reuters reports that the U.S.
are collaborating on a program that would enable one pilot to command “up to
five armed drones.” Next-generation drones could be empowered to identify and
attack targets autonomously, based on predetermined conditions.
In short, we are witnessing
the transformation of warfare before our very eyes.
Drones have been credited
with striking Qaddafi’s convoy; killing al Qaeda’s Anwar al-Awlaki; and
eviscerating al Qaeda’s leadership and the Taliban high command in Pakistan. The Brookings Institution
estimates that as many as 2,209 militants have been killed by drone strikes in Pakistan.
record, it’s no surprise that unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) are beginning to dislodge manned aircraft
from the central role they have played in warfighting since World War II.
Consider some of the evidence:
- There has been a 1,200-percent increase in combat
air patrols by drones since 2005.
- America’s unmanned air force—including UCAVs deployed by
the military and the CIA—has struck targets in Pakistan,
Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan,
Yemen and Somalia.
- In the past decade, the U.S. drone
fleet has swelled from 50 planes to 7,000.
The political and military appeal of UCAVs is
First, as an Air Force report concludes, drones “are not limited by human performance or
physiological characteristics…extreme persistence and maneuverability are
intrinsic benefits.” So, rather than limiting a plane’s capabilities to what a
human can handle—G forces and speed, tedium and boredom—commanders can deploy
aircraft that are limited only by the laws of aerodynamics; rather than relying
on target-rich environments like airbases and aircraft carriers, the Pentagon
can spawn swarms of expendable planes controlled by remote; rather than
landing, refueling and switching out pilots, who get tired and thirsty and
hungry, drones are simply handed off from one controller to another, providing
seamless operation—and with the advent of nuclear drones, endless operation.
Second, the Pentagon’s share of the federal budget is
shrinking. The Air Force emphasizes that drones promote “the wisest use of tax
dollars.” A Predator drone,
for instance, costs $4.5 million, while an F-35 costs $111 million, an F-22 $377
million, a B-2 around $1 billion. Training UCAV controllers costs less than a
tenth what it costs to train traditional fighter pilots.
“As we reduce the
overall defense budget,” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta explains, “we will
protect, and in some cases increase, our investments in special operations
forces, in new technologies like…unmanned systems.”
The confluence of these factors is fueling the rapid replacement of manned
aircraft with unmanned drones:
- The Pentagon’s plan is to double the
drone fleet by 2020, while the size of the manned bomber force plateaus
and the fighter force shrinks, Wired magazine reports.
- In 2011, the Air Force trained more pilots to fly
drones than fighter and bomber pilots combined.
- The Air Force Academy’s
class of 2011 was the first to graduate cadets with specialties in
Where are all these pilotless
planes taking us? Lt. Col. Scott Taylor, an F-15E pilot with 20 years in the
Air Force, including hundreds of hours of combat, worries about the answer to
Quick to emphasize that the views expressed are his, Taylor admits he is biased
when it comes to the drone debate. Although he
sees drones as “invaluable tools when used
for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance,” he has qualms about their
use in combat.
to remember that a pilot, unlike a drone operator, is in the battle-space,” he
explains. “I can be shot down. My plane can have a mechanical failure. I can
crash and die or fall into enemy hands. A drone pilot simply doesn’t have to
think in those terms. That has to have an impact on your decisions. My overall feeling is that it must be different to make
a decision to take a life or destroy a target when your own life is at risk.
When that element of the act of war is removed, the sense of reality is
removed. The magnitude of the decision to take a life is entering virtual
The same applies to
policymakers in the age of drones. The risks policymakers take with an armed
drone are different because the accountability is less than with a manned
aircraft. Since the loss of a drone is the loss of
nothing more than metal, the commander-in-chief is more likely to employ this weapon
than traditional air power. “More willing to lose is more willing to
use,” as Daniel Haulman of the Air Force Historical Research Agency puts it.
Indeed, drone technology makes it theoretically possible to wage risk-free war.
And that makes it easier to start wars—or to keep wars going.
The purpose here is not to
argue against America’s right to target its enemies, but to challenge the
emerging consensus that America
should rely on an armada of increasingly-autonomous unmanned bombers to carry
out such missions.
We need humans in the battle-space, pulling the
trigger, not just because humans make better judgments than machines—judgment
is a very human action, after all—but because having humans in the
battle-space, pulling the trigger, can help the commander-in-chief make better
judgments about when, where and whether to wage war.
The Landing Zone is Dowd’s monthly column on national defense and international security featured on the American Legion's website.