The Perils of Drone Seduction


Outgoing Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has painted a grim picture of the challenges facing an engorged and overburdened U.S. military in the coming decade. In one particularly blunt exhortation back in February, Gates borrowed a phrase from General Douglas MacArthur, telling West Point’s Corps of Cadets that “any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined.’”

Gates of course acknowledged that “we can’t know with absolute certainty what the future of warfare will hold,” but that it will no doubt be “exceedingly complex, unpredictable and […] unstructured.” Gates’ calls for more prudent, scaled down military engagements, particularly with looming defense cuts, make discussing the increased reliance on Predator drones particularly significant.

Unmanned drones are an alluring weapon as the U.S. begins to restructure its military after a decade of costly wars; their use is even more tempting when confronted with popular uprisings abroad, as witnessed in Libya and Yemen. Drones are no doubt convenient, but at the risk of becoming drone-addicted, the U.S. needs to limit their use to addressing immediate national security threats.

Given the present war-fatigued climate, drones are enticing weapons. They prevent the need for U.S. “boots on the ground” and offer more precise targeting than direct air strikes. Beyond their strategic strike capability, they can conduct surveillance in areas where human intelligence is often limited.

Better still, Predator drones are relatively cheap at $4.5 million apiece (a pittance amidst the hundreds of billions spent annually on defense) and only require the coordination of a few C.I.A. staffers sitting at desks in their Langley headquarters. Couple this with their demonstrated effectiveness, particularly in Pakistan, and there seems little question of their appeal. Why not let them dictate the future of war?

As previously explored on PolicyMic by Nathan Lean, Predator drones have led to civilian deaths in both Pakistan and Yemen, infuriating a general public already hostile to U.S. policy. From a legal standpoint, their use in Libya, comparatively less than in Pakistan, is tenuous at best.

If the U.S. intends to keep using Predator drones, limitations must be set immediately. In situations where no declared state of war exists (as in the case of Yemen and Libya), drone strikes ought to be used purely as a counterterrorism tool. In Yemen, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula presents a direct threat to U.S. national security. Even if a state of war did not exist in the Afghanistan and Pakistan theaters, drone strikes target militant groups determined to undermine U.S. security, which would justify their use.

Libya presents the greater challenge. The Gaddafi regime did not pose an immediate threat to U.S. national security prior to, and even after, the anti-regime protests. While a successful drone strike against Gaddafi might rid the world of another autocrat, it would also present the U.S. with a seductive, yet nefarious course of action. If a drone can hit Gaddafi, why not target another undesirable world leader? The C.I.A. went down that road in the 1970s; it ultimately won the U.S. no friends. 

The future of war is unpredictable, as Gates aptly said. But there is predictability in drone warfare: It can easily spin out of control. After a decade of war, it is time to start setting a few limits. 

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons