ASCF Report | 8.7.13
By Alan W. Dowd
“The next aero-planes won’t
need men,” a gruff old bomber pilot growls in the 1964 film Fail Safe, before wistfully adding,
“After us, the machines.”
That prediction may have been
off by a few decades, but the age of pilotless planes is now upon us. Unmanned
combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) are revolutionizing warfare
and broadening the commander-in-chief’s war-making powers in unprecedented
ways, which helps explain why drones have served as fodder for filibusters,
front-page news and confirmation hearings.
It seems that each week
brings with it another news item about some jaw-dropping development in drone
technology. For example, Navy UCAVs recently took off from and landed on an aircraft
carrier. A new drone known as the “Global Observer” flies some 12 miles
above the earth, enabling it to scan “an area larger than Afghanistan at a
single glance,” as The Los Angeles Times reports.
Scientists are developing nuclear-powered
drones capable of loitering over target areas for months at a time. The
U.S. and Britain are collaborating on a program that would enable one pilot to
command five UCAVs at a time. Next-generation drones will be able to identify
and attack targets autonomously. In short, we are witnessing the transformation
of warfare before our very eyes.
This isn’t the first
revolution in warfare, of course. But it may be one of the most profound—and it
is certainly among the most rapid. What remains to be seen is whether we are
ready for the implications of the coming drone age.
Unmanned Air Force
Although drone strikes in
Pakistan get most of our attention, the so-called “drone war” began in Yemen
more than a decade ago, when the CIA used a drone retrofitted with Hellfire missiles to kill the mastermind of the USS Cole attack.
Today, U.S. military and political leaders have embraced drones as their weapon
of choice in the post-9/11 campaign of campaigns: Swarms of drones have
eviscerated al Qaeda’s leadership and thinned the Taliban’s ranks in the AfPak
theater; UCAVs struck the convoy carrying Moammar Qaddafi; a stealthy reconnaissance drone kept
vigil over Osama bin Laden’s compound ahead of the raid by SEAL Team 6; and
a UCAV eliminated al Qaeda’s Anwar al-Awlaki.
Given this record, it’s no
surprise that during his stint as CIA chief, Leon Panetta called drones “the
only game in town in terms of confronting or trying to disrupt the al Qaeda
leadership”—or that drones are beginning to dislodge
manned aircraft from the central role they have played in warfighting
since World War II. Consider some of the evidence: a 1,200-percent
increase in combat air patrols by drones since 2005; a geometric expansion in
the size of the U.S. drone
fleet from 50 planes in 2003 to 7,500 today (though
most are not UCAVs); an estimated 3,300
militants killed by UCAV strikes in Pakistan.
Two factors are accelerating the use of drones: the growing distaste for
U.S. casualties and the Pentagon’s shrinking share of the federal budget. Regarding the former, given that the wars in Iraq and
Afghanistan have claimed 6,700 American troops, it’s no coincidence that policymakers
are increasingly turning to UCAVs. As to the Pentagon’s diminishing share of the
budget, an Air Force report
suggests that drones promote “the wisest use of tax dollars.” A typical Predator drone, for instance, costs
$4.5 million, while an F-22 costs $377 million. Moreover, training unmanned controllers
costs less than a tenth what it costs to train traditional combat aviators.
In short, the emergence of an
unmanned air force is not far away. In 2011, for instance, the Air Force trained more drone pilots than fighter
and bomber pilots combined. One out
of every three planes in the Air Force is unmanned. And
as the size of the manned bomber and fighter force rapidly shrinks, the Pentagon
plans to deploy 650 combat-class drones by 2021 (double today’s
The Pentagon is getting its cues from Congress. The
Congressional Research Service notes that in 2000, Congress expressed its
desire that “within ten years, one-third of U.S. military operational deep
strike aircraft will be unmanned.” The Pentagon has not yet reached that goal,
but with spending on
drones exploding from $667 million in 2001 to $3.9 billion in 2012, Congress is
paving the way.
One very basic implication of
the drone revolution relates to risk—specifically, the lack of risk for America’s
warriors and the consequent lack of political risk for America’s policymakers.
Throughout history, warriors
have clashed in a multi-dimensional area of land, sea and sky known as the
battle-space. Soldiers and Marines fight there on the ground; sailors fight
there on and under the water; and airmen fight there in the sky. Drones are
there too, of course, but their pilots are not. Put another way, drones completely
separate the warrior from the battle-space—that is, unless we define the
battle-space as the entire planet (a conundrum discussed below). This
disconnection from the battle-space is transformational.
To be sure, keeping
pilots out of harm’s way is a good thing for our airmen. But it may be a bad thing for our republic. After all, the loss of a drone is the loss of nothing more than metal,
which means UCAVs offer the promise of risk-free war.
Even if the Executive’s inclination toward war is not new—recall Madison’s
letter to Jefferson noting how “the
Executive is the branch of power most interested in war and most prone to it”—the
prospect of risk-free war is. Without the
political risk represented by placing pilots in harm’s way, there is one less
check on the commander-in-chief’s war-making power. “More willing to lose is
more willing to use,” as Daniel Haulman of the Air Force Historical Research
Agency puts it.
The prospect of
losing an American life—and justifying that to the nation—gives the
commander-in-chief pause. But if there
are no Americans at risk, it’s less likely that the parents, spouses, children
or congressional representatives of those pulling the trigger are going to
raise a fuss. Just compare the non-reaction to the
loss of drones under the Obama administration with the bona fide international
crises other presidents faced when U.S. pilots were shot down over enemy
It seems that having
Americans in harm’s way can help the commander-in-chief make better judgments
about when, where and whether to wage war.
In addition to making it easier to go to war, UCAVs
make it easier to keep wars going, as former National Security Council official
Paul Miller observes.
Noting that “endless war is unacceptable and dangerous,” Miller argues that the institution of the
presidency needs to answer an important question: “When, and under what
conditions, will the U.S. government stop using drones to bomb suspected terrorists around the world?”
That brings us back to defining the battle-space. Even
if we argue that drone operators are not in the battle-space, which seems
reasonable given that most of them are 7,500 miles away from the enemy, the
drone war invites friend and foe alike to draw an unsettling conclusion about
American power. “Reliance on drone strikes allows our opponents to cast our
country as a distant, high-tech, amoral purveyor of death,” argues Kurt Volker,
former U.S. ambassador to NATO.
that point, TheNew York Times reports that the White House has embraced a controversial
method for determining civilian casualties from drone strikes that “counts all
military-age males in a strike zone as combatants…unless there is explicit
intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.”
The results are not for the squeamish: The
Brookings Institution estimates that, along with the 3,300-plus militants
killed by drones in Pakistan, some 600 non-militants may have been killed.
Being seen in such a light—as
detached and remote, especially in waging war—should give Americans pause.Indeed, what may look like a useful national-security tool to Americans
appears very different in other parts of the world. “In 17 of 20 countries,” a Pew
survey found, “more than half disapprove of U.S. drone attacks.”
War by Accident
If, on the other hand, we define
the battle-space more broadly and take the position that the battle-space is
the entire earth, the unintended consequences could be dramatic.
First, if the battle-space is the entire earth, the enemy would seem to have
the right under the rules or war to attack those places where UCAV operators
are based—Nevada and New Mexico, for example. That’s a sobering thought few
policymakers have contemplated.
Second, other power-projecting
nations will likely use the same elastic definition of the battle-space to
justify using drones to target their distant enemies by remote. It’s worth
noting that Russia is developing what it calls “automated strike aircraft.” Pentagon reports detail China’s development
of long-range UCAVs to enable “a greater capacity for military preemption” and its
interest in “converting retired fighter aircraft into unmanned combat aerial
vehicles.” Then there are the known unknowns: To whom will China sell its increasingly-sophisticated drones? Has North Korea retooled its drones
into offensive weapons? Are Iran’s drones armed? Is Iran sharing UCAV
technology with Hezbollah or Venezuela?
Worryingly, these nations and
groups are far less skillful in employing military force than the United
States. Yet it pays to recall that the U.S. Air Force concedes its fleet of
Predator, Reaper and Global Hawk drones crash
almost three times as often as any other aircraft in the arsenal. If the
best drones deployed by the best military fail so frequently, imagine the
accident rate for mediocre drones deployed by mediocre militaries. And then
imagine the international incidents this could trigger.
In other words, drones could
usher in a new age of accidental wars. Even if the spread of UCAV technology
doesn’t harm the United States in a direct way, it seems unlikely that swarms
of semiautonomous, pilotless warplanes roaming about the earth, striking at
will, and crashing here and there will do much to promote a liberal global
order. It would be ironic if the promise of risk-free war offered by drones
spawned a new era of danger for the United States.
None of this means drones
should be grounded entirely. From non-strike missions like ISR to kinetic strikes
against especially-difficult targets, drones have a role to play in defending
American interests. But rather than becoming the president’s go-to tool
or “the only game in town,” perhaps the use of drones for lethal purposes
should be curtailed in light of other factors. It pays to recall that the
United States has circumscribed its own military power in the past by
renouncing chemical-biological weapons, limiting
military operations in space and leaving its nuclear weapons holstered.
*Dowd is a senior fellow with the American Security Council Foundation, where he writes The Dowd Report, a monthly review of international events and their impact on U.S. national security.