Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles and Limiting Factors

Slouching Towards Columbia has dedicated a fair amount of space over the last two weeks to unmanned aerial vehicles ("drones")--a topic with which I'm somewhat familiar. One post, "Drones and the False Allure of Impunity," assesses a Zenko piece about the future of drone operations in Afghanistan if Pakistan were to oust our drone bases there. Trombly notes rightly:
The ability of the United States to conduct drone campaigns and other so-called standoff strikes is in fact heavily constrained by geopolitical and logistical considerations. While the drone aircraft may be unmanned, they are just as dependent on bases, ground crews, and a logistical tail as their manned counterparts. So too are they dependent on permissive airspace.
To which I would that drones are also dependent on human-source intelligence and the ability of intelligence agencies to operate in theater. Although the topic of drone reliance on HUMINT has been fairly downplayed, one need only look at the suicide bombing of FOB Chapman to understand it. FOB Chapman was manned by CIA agents who were looking over the border from Afghanistan into Pakistan to support the U.S. drone campaign in Pakistan. One of the sources the CIA was operating, Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, a Jordanian doctor, proved to be a triple agent, tasked by Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan with attacking FOB Chapman. The TTP targeted that base because of its role in drone operations in Pakistan and because the TTP were one of the primary groups targeted by the drone campaign. 

I would also add that the comparison between CIA operations in Pakistan and JSOC operations in Yemen is not necessarily apt. In none of the reporting I've seen regarding drones in Pakistan has there been anything like Foust's depiction of 300-500 U.S. troops on the ground in Yemen supporting UAV operations. If the CIA is able to operate drones in Pakistan with a lighter footprint--and one that is likely reliant on contractors rather than U.S. military personnel--then there is little reason why the CIA could not do so similarly in Yemen. The choice for JSOC over CIA operations in Yemen--and the attendant larger JSOC footprint--likely has more to do with the legal framework underlying U.S. operations in Yemen. That is, the United States views its operations in Yemen as part of an armed conflict--either with AQ proper or through intervention in Yemen's IAC with AQAP--and, as such, must employ uniformed military personnel. As opposed to the apparent view that of the United States that it is not engaged in an armed conflict in Pakistan -- a point of view with which I disagree, at least with respect to the TTP during 2009-2010.

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