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 fleet).

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.

Judgment Call

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 territory.

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.

War by Remote

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.  

To 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.