For the last few years, unmanned aerial systems (“drones”) have been the source of a number of sometimes overlapping debates. For example: Are drone strikes legal? When are they legal? Are drone strikes dishonorable? Are they counterproductive when used in COIN?
At the same time, a parallel debate over whether these other debates (relative merits aside) are a waste of time altogether. The question animating this corollary debate is whether drones are in fact different from the other weapons platforms available to U.S. policymakers. At heart, this debate centers around the sense that for all their virtues, drones are really just air systems. They fly. They launch missiles. They come home. Sure, drones are unmanned. But so are cruise missiles.
In general, the drones are really just air systems approach is the correct one. Drones and their operators are subject to the same law as manned air craft and their pilots, for example. Unfortunately, hewing too closely to this position tends to lead observers to ignore or discount the ways in which drones actually are different—and why these differences have caused drones to be perceived so differently by the public and policymakers alike.
Unlike manned systems or cruise missile or most other standoff platforms, armed drones are able to stay on station for incredibly long periods of time. Whereas an F-15, for example, can remain airborne for only about 5 hours without refueling, a (now obsolete) MQ-1 Predator is built to loiter over a target for 14 hours (and at least one declassified flight lasted for 40 hours) and MQ-9 Reapers are built to loiter for 24 hours.
Also, unlike manned systems, drones are expendable. Necessary support infrastructure aside, individual drones are substantially cheaper to purchase than their manned counterparts. An F-15E costs approximately $31 million dollars; an individual MQ-9 Reaper costs about $13 million. Although that price tag blows a cruise missile out of the water—depending on the version, a Tomahawk will cost between $500,000 and $1.5 million—a cruise missile delivers just one warhead and returns no intelligence.
Finally, unlike manned systems, drones are unmanned. That is, putting a drone in harm’s way does not put a pilot in harm’s way. This seems like an obvious point but the impact of it has been discounted in some circles. No, the absence of an onboard pilot does not mean there are no U.S. (or allied or proxy) personnel on the ground supporting the operation. Nor does it mean, absolutely, that the United States will not suffer casualties. One need only look at the suicide bombing of FOB Chapman in Afghanistan in December 2009 for evidence of U.S. casualties directly related to the operation of armed unmanned aerial systems over Pakistan. But U.S. personnel are not necessarily in proximity to the targets of U.S. drone strikes—in stark contrast to strikes by manned systems.* What’s more, although drones operate almost exclusively in permissive environments—those where air defenses are actually or effectively non-existent—which means that manned systems would face a low probability of being shot down in the same airspace, removing the pilot also removes the more realistic threat (in these environments) of casualties due to accidents, weather, or operator error.
Although infrequent losses of U.S. personnel due to these causes may seem relatively trivial, the impact on policymakers is clearly not. The fact that the United States is relying on drones instead of manned systems despite the limitations of drones is a prima facie indicator that policymakers in fact view drones as different from other systems. This is likely due to the fact that, as described above, drones have operational capabilities that are not matched by other standoff platforms. More compelling, the unique capabilities of drones are paired with a tantalizing ability to avoid or minimize U.S. casualties. When a policymaker dispatches drones to survey and attack a target, that policymaker need not worry about images of U.S. pilots being dragged through the streets of some God-forsaken warren in Mogadishu, Sana, or Peshawar. Nor does that policymaker have to worry about the political backlash that such images would engender.
Again, it is tempting to downplay the impact that casualties (or potential casualties) have on policymakers. Doing so is folly, however. The relative marginal effect of casualties on public support for U.S. troop deployments has steadily increased since World War II. That is, the public was more tolerant of U.S. casualties in World War II than Korea, in Korea than Vietnam, Vietnam over the most recent war in Iraq. Avoiding U.S. casualties was one of the primary drivers of U.S. decision making around the 1990–1991 Gulf War, leading both to the large (and long) deployment of U.S. forces, and the decision to curtail operations after liberating Kuwait (rather than going to Baghdad, e.g.).
Casualty-avoidance is a good thing for numerous reasons, including that it encourages the safety and protection of U.S. personnel. It also reduces the likelihood that policymakers will rely on force—or significant amounts of force—for fear of evoking the ire of the public (over U.S. casualties) and facing electoral sanction.
But offering policymakers a use-of-force option like that of drones, which promises nearly cost-free (or casualty-free) use-of-force is problematic. First, it may lead policymakers to wrongly believe that drone strikes are in fact insulated from casualties. As noted early, these strikes often involve spotters on the ground who may become casualties. We have already witnessed one suicide bombing that directly targeted drone operations. Second, it may lead policymakers to rely on force in situations where force is either unwarranted or warranted yet ultimately counterproductive to the overall mission—whatever that happens to be. Indeed, the extent of the drone campaign in Pakistan, and its growing scale in Yemen, suggests that the United States is already using force in situations it would not have previously. There are second order effects of such frequent uses of force—for instance, the frequency of drone strikes in Pakistan likely placed the United States in an armed conflict in Pakistan, making the civilian (CIA) drone operators unprivileged belligerents there. Third, the brilliance of the virtues of drones may obscure their costs, leading policymakers to rely on drones when a riskier means of using force may be more appropriate. Fortunately, in at least one high-profile situation (the killing of Osama bin Laden), the United States chose to rely not on drones (or manned air systems), but on a higher-risk deployment of SEALs.
UPDATE: Dan Trombly kindly took the time to both link and respond to my post at his own blog. I'm (mostly) off the grid for work so I've only skimmed it. It's a solid post and I hope to respond in the coming days. In the meantime, go read it.
UPDATE2: Buried at the end of the Joe Becker and Scott Shane's excellent piece in the New York Times on President Obama and Targeted Killings is this bit from former Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair:
Mr. Blair, the former director of national intelligence, said the strike campaign was dangerously seductive. “It is the politically advantageous thing to do — low cost, no U.S. casualties, gives the appearance of toughness,” he said. “It plays well domestically, and it is unpopular only in other countries. Any damage it does to the national interest only shows up over the long term.”