Drone Warfare and Its Limitations

There’s a nice TNR piece by James Joyner on Obama’s drone warfare doctrine and its role in the action-repression-recruitment cycle.  I see drones as the natural evolution of Clinton-era “fire and forget” foreign policy, which relied on smart weapon strikes to achieve policy outcomes rather than commit to politically costly force deployments.

Although drones have figured large in engagements with Al Qaeda, the massive manpower involved in Bush’s two wars helped mask the extent to which future warfare will be fought by robotic weapons fired from robotic delivery platforms operated at a safe distance.  The most bizarre development (for me at least) is that nobody in Congress in either party has seemed to question why the “drone air force” is largely in the hands of the CIA’s murky-by-design Special Activities Division rather than the Joint Chiefs and their multiple layers of oversight.

(Like extraordinary rendition, giving the CIA its own military force is something Democrats criticize when Republicans do it and suddenly shut up about when one of their own are in office.  But that’s a different debate — I just want to remind my liberal friends that this is not a “Bush era problem,” it’s a Washington one.  Note that left-liberals like Glenn Greenwald have been consistent in their critiques.)

Of course, drones have their place, and cost-benefits wise, they’re cheaper, stealthier, and more efficient than manned aircraft, which, more often than not, have become military industrial complex pork.  (Witness the challenges faced by pre-crazy Dick Cheney and Bob Gates during their tenures as SecDef when they attempted to slash the procurement budget.)  Drones don’t risk the life of a pilot, and because the operators can be “switched in flight,” human endurance is not a factor in drone warfare.  Yet we have to ask whether drones, like smart weapons before them, have created the illusion of no-cost military action.

From a humanitarian perspective, robotic weapons, rather than loosening the rules of engagement, require them to be tightened, since it is too easy for policymakers (and the American public) to accept collateral damage when looking at the battlefield through digital rather than human eyes.  Please read Joyner’s piece for some of the stats involved, but do note that even the drone-friendly figures posit a higher rate of collateral damage than we would accept from soldier-on-soldier engagements.

At the same time, our leaders overestimate the ability of drones to produce results.  Dispatching high value targets, as Joyner says, is a no-brainer, but having drones always on standby to suppress enemy forces is no substitute for, say, having an effective local police force, strong national government, or even American boots on the ground.  Moreover, by transitioning from being the global policeman to the global Robocop, we are not improving on the flawed premise that American foreign policy must be interventionist.  Indeed, we are only amplifying the problem by giving policymakers another tool with which they may go abroad in search of monsters to destroy.