Overblown Fears and Exaggerated Capabilities

(Caveat about using “drone” instead of UAV)

When writing about drones as something new and scary, the most important thing to do is clarify how drones specifically offer something different from a piloted aircraft. That in mind, let’s begin a critique of “The Rise of the Killer Drones: How America Goes to War in Secret” by Michael Hastings. He writes:

The drone that was headed toward Iran, the RQ-170 Sentinel, looks like a miniature version of the famous stealth fighter, the F-117 Nighthawk: sleek and sand-colored and vaguely ominous, with a single domed eye in place of a cockpit. With a wingspan of 65 feet, it has the ability to fly undetected by radar. Rather than blurting out its location with a constant stream of radio signals – the electronic equivalent of a trail of jet exhaust – it communicates intermittently with its home base, making it virtually impossible to detect. Once it reached its destination, 140 miles into Iranian airspace, it could hover silently in a wide radius for hours, at an altitude of up to 50,000 feet, providing an uninterrupted flow of detailed reconnaissance photos – a feat that no human pilot would be capable of pulling off.

A few things, right off the bat: the RQ-170 is an unarmed drone, so comparing it to the F-117 fighter-bomber is at the least misleading. While the stealth is new, radio silence for vessels on covert missions isn’t; that’s been a feature of war as long as there have been radios to turn off. It’s streaming back information in hard-to-detect ways makes it no more threatening than activists sending phone camera pics from a computer with TOR.  As for the actual spying capability, it’s ability to hover for hours the 10% that is new on top of the 90% of already existing capabilities. And by “already existing,” I mean “existing since the Eisenhower administration.” The U-2 spyplane, in service since 1957, can fly up to 70,000 feet and stay airborne for 12 hours. It, too, now uses modern communications systems to transmit its pictures back, so the RQ-170 is not particularly unique in that regard earlier. What this drone adds that a piloted aircraft doesn’t: a slightly longer hover time & no risk of a pilot being captured or killed if it’s shot down. That’s it. If the capability “no human pilot would be capable of” is “having an unpiloted craft,” then the point boils down to tautology. Hastings:

What we do know is that the government lied about who was responsible for the drone. Shortly after the crash on November 29th, the U.S.-led military command in Kabul put out a press release saying it had lost an “unarmed reconnaissance aircraft that had been flying a mission over western Afghanistan.” But the drone wasn’t under the command of the military – it was operated by the CIA, as the spy agency itself was later forced to admit.

That the CIA lies about its assets should be a given; a completely open intelligence service is neither. That the CIA operates drones has been known for a long while; what’s murky about US drone policy is the Title 10/Title 50 division(pdf). While it’s a serious legal issue when it comes to armed drones & targeting, it’s more bureaucratic infighting when it comes to intelligence-gathering aircraft. Hastings:

All told, drones have been used to kill more than 3,000 people designated as terrorists, including at least four U.S. citizens. In the process, according to human rights groups, they have also claimed the lives of more than 800 civilians. Obama’s drone program, in fact, amounts to the largest unmanned aerial offensive ever conducted in military history; never have so few killed so many by remote control.

Hastings here paraphrases Churchill’s famous line about the Battle of Britain, which is an odd choice for making a point about unprecedented aerial assault, as “some 23,000 British civilians were killed between July and December 1940.” If it’s bombing civilians that is problematic, drones are much worse at it than many, many weapons platforms in history (including artillery). If it’s instead the distance of the craft from the target, then we’ve been bombing from at least 30,000 feet since WWII, and the B-52 (still in service!) can do so from 50,000. But I’m guessing the operative word here is “remote,” as the idea of a strike launched from far away is what people fear. Tomahawk cruise missiles, in service since 1983, have a striking range of 1,500 miles and use a precision guidance system, and like any explosive are just as capable of killing civilians if they miss. To bring the point back: drones don’t add a new, terrifying capacity here. In fact, as small & fragile platforms, they carry far smaller payloads than many weapons which have gone before. This doesn’t excuse the killing of civilians, but it’s worth noting that any previous era of war would have used a tool that killed far more civilians.

Also, a caveat about numbers used to assess civilian casualties, specifically in Pakistan: we don’t have good information. Where drone strikes occur, in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), the government of Pakistan doesn’t keep records of even have a tangible law enforcement presence. It’s largely ungoverned, in a way most reminiscent of the American wild west, if the wild west had AK-47s and multiple competing fundamentalist militias. As such, when the Pakistani press, intelligence services, or any academics trying to survey the populace go into the area, it’s easier & more socially acceptable to blame deaths on the US drones than, say, the militia down the street or a Taliban car bombing. The data out of the area is bad. Hastings:

“Drones have really become the counterterrorism weapon of choice for the Obama administration,” says Rosa Brooks, a Georgetown law professor who helped establish a new Pentagon office devoted to legal and humanitarian policy. “What I don’t think has happened enough is taking a big step back and asking, ‘Are we creating more terrorists than we’re killing? Are we fostering militarism and extremism in the very places we’re trying to attack it?’ A great deal about the drone strikes is still shrouded in secrecy. It’s very difficult to evaluate from the outside how serious of a threat the targeted people pose.”

A-ah! Here is a policy question, which is what every drone debate should really be about. Drones are a tool in service of policy, and we have to make sure the policy is good & the aims are just if we’re going to continue to use drones the same way. I’ve written about this before, here. Hastings:

By 2000, the Pentagon was pushing for a massive expansion of the drone program, hoping to make a third of all U.S. aircraft unmanned by 2010. But it was the War on Terror that finally enabled the military to weaponize drones, giving them the capability to take out designated targets. The first major success of killer drones was a Predator strike on a convoy in 2002, which assassinated the leader of Al Qaeda in Yemen. By 2006, the Pentagon had upped its goal, aiming to convert 45 percent of its “deep-strike” aircraft into drones. “Before drones, the way you went after terrorists was you sent your troops,” says Goure. “You sent your Navy, you sent your Marines, like Reagan going after Qaddafi in the Eighties. You bombed their camp. Now you have drones that can be operated by the military or the CIA from thousands of miles away.”

First, in the 1980s we used Tomahawk cruise missiles to go after Qaddafi, so that’s not exactly “Marines.” Secondly, we still bomb camps. We do so with drones, with harriers, with any myriad number of piloted craft in countries where we find al Qaeda or al Qaeda affliate camps to bomb. Afghanistan most obviously, but we also do this is Yemen a lot. Drones did not replace much of that. Secondly, one of the main alternatives to US drone strikes in FATA is the Pakistan army going in & driving militias out. When there is the rumor of that happening, refugees start to pour out, and when the army approaches the flow accelerates. How bad is it? As of 2009, 3.4 million civilians had been displaced and 40,000+ killed, in addition to over ten thousand militants killed and a few thousand Pakistani soldiers dying. That’s an active war, into which a targeted killing program from drones changes very little in the overall scheme of human suffering (That said: being born into FATA is one of the worst things that could happen to someone.) To resolve that would take tremendous effort on behalf of Pakistan, and is a conflict almost incidental to US drone policy. Hastings:

For a new generation of young guns, the experience of piloting a drone is not unlike the video games they grew up on. Unlike traditional pilots, who physically fly their payloads to a target, drone operators kill at the touch of a button, without ever leaving their base – a remove that only serves to further desensitize the taking of human life. (The military slang for a man killed by a drone strike is “bug splat,” since viewing the body through a grainy-green video image gives the sense of an insect being crushed.) As drone pilot Lt. Col. Matt Martin recounts in his book Predator, operating a drone is “almost like playing the computer game Civilization” – something straight out of “a sci-fi novel.” After one mission, in which he navigated a drone to target a technical college being occupied by insurgents in Iraq, Martin felt “electrified” and “adrenalized,” exulting that “we had shot the technical college full of holes, destroying large portions of it and killing only God knew how many people.”

While there were initial fears that drones were easier, PTSD-free, videogame war, the evidence doesn’t hold up. Writing in the New York Times, Elisabeth Bumiller notes:

“Although pilots speak glowingly of the good days, when they can look at a video feed and warn a ground patrol in Afghanistan about an ambush ahead, the Air Force is also moving chaplains and medics just outside drone operation centers to help pilots deal with the bad days — images of a child killed in error or a close-up of a Marine shot in a raid gone wrong.”

While pilots are physically removed from combat, this is a far cry from playing Halo. Remotely piloted doesn’t remove the exposure to trauma, and our assumption that drones are either autonomous or a game ignore that this is a tool used by humans, who then witness it’s effects. Hastings:

Obama actually inherited two separate drone programs when he took office – and at the urging of Vice President Joe Biden, who has pressed hard for a greater emphasis on counterterrorism tactics, he has dramatically expanded them both. The first program, under the purview of the Pentagon, is focused primarily on providing reconnaissance and airstrikes to protect U.S. troops on the ground. “The major success of the drones is in keeping American soldiers alive,” says Goure. The Pentagon’s program, which operates more or less in the open, is based at more than a dozen military centers around the globe, from Nevada to Iraq. In one large hangar at Al Udeid Air Force Base in Qatar, three JAG lawyers are on call around the clock, ready to sign off on drone strikes. The lawyers, who are required to take a class about complying with the Geneva Conventions, follow standard operating procedures similar to those used in calling in a traditional airstrike. “There’s a set of legal checks and balances that the Air Force does each time,” says Pratap Chatterjee, an investigative reporter who sits on the board of Amnesty International. “It’s an open secret – the manual is online.”

No actual disagreements here – when drones are treated as a military weapon and the program follows Geneva, it’s not a problem. Hastings:

The CIA’s drone program, by contrast, has evolved in secrecy. Agency lawyers are required to sign off on drone strikes, but the process remains classified, and oversight is far less restrictive than that provided on the military side. To make matters even murkier, the CIA is conducting its drone strikes in places where the U.S. is not officially at war, including Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan.

The CIA part of the drone program is where it is most wrong. As Joshua Foust notes,

The rapid adoption of complicated technological systems happened at the same time as the shift toward the expanded counterterrorism mission. Lost in the shuffle was an equal focus on human intelligence (HUMINT) and local expertise.

Here it is from Jeremy Scahill:

Giraldi, the former senior CIA officer, expressed concern that in these circumstances, the “CIA is going to forget how to spy.” He also noted the “long-term consequence” of the militarization of the CIA: “every bureaucracy in the world is best at protecting itself. So once the CIA becomes a paramilitary organization, there’s going to be in-built pressure to keep going in that direction. Because you’ll have people at the senior levels in the organization who have come up that way and are protective of what they see as their turf,” he told me. “That’s the big danger.”

Over at Danger Room, Noah Shachtman highlights the evolution of the CIA into a paramilitary, and observes that the mission of gathering intelligence has become somewhat lost in this.

When David Petraeus got the job of CIA chief, he knew what job #1 was: find out everything he could about al-Qaida and its allies — and then assist in their removal from the land of living. Fourteen months and more than 110 drone strikes later, the breaking of al-Qaida’s core that began under Petraeus’ predecessors is almost complete. Yet a major chunk of the nation’s intelligence community remains singularly focused on terrorism.

If there is any narrative that a focus on drones-the-tech instead of targeted-killing-the-policy ignores, it’s the CIA’s singular devotion to its targeted killing program. Hastings:

Over the past year, however, the president’s increasing reliance on drones has caused a growing rift within the administration. According to sources in the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan, Ambassador Cameron Munter was furious that the CIA was conducting drone strikes without consulting him over the potential diplomatic fallout. The strikes had stopped briefly in January 2011 after Raymond Davis, a CIA contractor, was taken into custody for killing two Pakistanis in broad daylight; the day after Davis was released, the CIA drone strikes began again. Munter, according to U.S. officials, complained to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and senior military officials about the drone program, and his concerns were brought to the White House. At issue was a particularly deadly drone strike in March 2011 that the Americans claimed killed 21 militants, and the Pakistanis claimed killed 42 civilians.

As I noted at the time of the Munter crisis, our Ambassador to Pakistan clearly felt that continued drone strikes by the CIA were counterproductive to long-term US interests in Pakistan, but his objections were overruled and ended with him being replaced. That’s a crisis of command, and sign of a very narrowly-focused approach to our role in Pakistan. But, again, it’s not drones that are specifically the problem – it’s a CIA targeted killing program, for which drones happen to be the weapon used. If it were in-person targeted killings, it’d be as objectionable.

Hastings goes on to spend a long time examining the case of Anwar al-Awlaki, the al-Qaeda affliated radical Islamic cleric & American citizen who may have provided material aid to Nidal Hasan & who was killed by a drone strike. There are a lot of long-standing and important legal questions in his death, none of which are relevant to the platform used to kill him & many of which depend on how the laws of war are read. Rather than get into a legal debate way beyond my depth (though I highly recommend Lawfare on this topic, specifically ““War” and the Killing of Al-Awlaki” and
Al-Awlaki as an Operational Leader Located In a Place Where Capture Was Not Possible,”) I will instead turn to Dan Trombly’s discussion of a policy alternative:

Should we be capturing AQAM suspects? Perhaps, but that would likely mean a return to some form of rendition, detention, and capture programs, which would use a plethora of CIA, JSOC, and likely private proxies to snatch up suspects. Capturing, say, Anwar al-Awlaki, would mean more U.S. covert presence in Yemen, and could easily have resulted in his death, as many attempted apprehensions do in warzones and in peacetime. Or should the U.S. be working with local governments to capture AQAM suspects? The brutality of our foreign partners’ security services often make CIA and JSOC operatives look like saints. In any case, it should be clear the real legal, moral, and political problems here have far more to do with U.S. counter-terrorism policy generally, not drones in particular.

Besides the military difficulty and legal questions of re-implementing a capture program, it’s worth noting the political costs. When Obama attempted to close Guantanamo, no state was willing to take in the detainees, either out of fear that a supermax prison could have a harder time holding terror suspects than it does any of it’s existing inmates, or because the political optics of housing suspected terrorists were not great. Similar complaints were raised when trying Guantanamo detainees in civilian courts, and only recently have any trials begun. A targeted killing program is politically efficacious compared to proper legal channels or anything resembling due process.

That is the problem, but that would be a problem regardless of the means by which such a program was pursued. If Congress were to resolve the Title 10 / Title 50 disparity in drone use, that would go a long way to both formalizing the way in which these are used, and also limited their paramilitary application.  It would take courage and an opening, which perhaps the Petraeus Affair allows, but until there is a desire to change policy targeted killings will be pursued, regardless of the weapon used.


About kdatherton

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2 Responses to Overblown Fears and Exaggerated Capabilities

  1. Starbuck says:

    How does an RQ-170 resemble an F-117? An F-117 is painted black and is angular. An RQ-170 is grey or sand colored, smooth and curved.

    Okay, now that I’ve kicked myself in the dick after reading the Hastings reference, back to reading the rest of the article.

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