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Brief: The Prospects and Perils of Drones

Brief: The Prospects and Perils of Drones

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Published by The Wilson Center
Technological changes have altered the conduct of war over the centuries. Early discoveries were intended to inflict maximum damage on the opponent while sparing one’s own troops and treasury. The use of atomic bombs against Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end World War II marked the apex of this approach. More recently, however, the search for greater precision has accompanied public aver- sion to gratuitous destruction and massive loss of life. Instead of a “scorched earth” policy, efforts shifted to “surgical” strikes. Drones are just the latest in a long line of technological advances upon which the U.S. has come to increasingly rely in crisis situations. What is the drone's appeal?
Technological changes have altered the conduct of war over the centuries. Early discoveries were intended to inflict maximum damage on the opponent while sparing one’s own troops and treasury. The use of atomic bombs against Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end World War II marked the apex of this approach. More recently, however, the search for greater precision has accompanied public aver- sion to gratuitous destruction and massive loss of life. Instead of a “scorched earth” policy, efforts shifted to “surgical” strikes. Drones are just the latest in a long line of technological advances upon which the U.S. has come to increasingly rely in crisis situations. What is the drone's appeal?

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Published by: The Wilson Center on Apr 19, 2013
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09/04/2013

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by 
 Ann L. Phillips
Public Policy Scholar,The Wilson Center 
 
The Search for Antiseptic WarThe Prospects and Perils of Drones for the UnitedStates, the Sahel and Beyond
T
he U.S. Government has made clear that stabilization missions requiring deployment of large numbers of personnel—military and civilian—are not onthe agenda for the foreseeable future. Not only budget constraints but also sobering experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan have produced a strategic shift.
africa program brief
 # 
6
 
 April2013
As the U.S. draws down its presence inAfghanistan, it’s fair to say that the lives lostand billions spent to stabilize the countryand provide a foundation for Afghan devel-opment have not produced progress com-mensurate with the effort. In early 2012,the Pentagon released its strategic defenseguidance, “Sustaining U.S. Global Leader-ship: Priorities for 21st Century Defense,”which underscored a new reliance on Spe-cial Forces, technology, and intelligence toprotect and promote U.S. national securityinterests. Drones have become a centerpiece
in the new approach; the ramications of 
which are already visible in hotspots aroundthe globe. In Yemen, Pakistan and Soma-lia, the U.S. deploys drones in increasingnumbers to gather intelligence and to killhigh value insurgent and terrorist targets.
In Africa, drones outtted only to gather
intelligence at this time are front and centerin U.S. counter-terrorism efforts. The under-lying goal of these new efforts is to moni-tor extremist groups and to help shape aninhospitable environment for them in Mali,Nigeria and Niger.
 
Africa Program Brief
Techlgical chages have
altered theconduct of war over the centuries. Early 
discoveries were intended to inict maximumdamage on the opponent while sparing one’sown troops and treasury. The use of atomicbombs against Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end World War II marked the apex of this ap
-
proach. More recently, however, the search forgreater precision has accompanied public aver
-
sion to gratuitous destruction and massive lossof life. Instead of a “scorched earth” policy,efforts shifted to “surgical” strikes. Dronesare just the latest in a long line of technologi
-
cal advances upon which the U.S. has come toincreasingly rely in crisis situations.
What is the
drone’sappeal? Several ad
-
 vantages for the U.S.come to mind. First,drones are unmanned;therefore, whethergathering intelligenceor targeting an adver
-
sary, U.S. personnelare not in harm’s way. An ofcial direct
-
ing the drone may bethousands of milesfrom the conictzone. Second, dronesincrease the range of intelligence gathering;
one can travel to areas
 where U.S. personnel cannot or will not. Third, weaponized drones are directly linked to moni
-
toring and, as such, their targeting is arguably more precise. Equally important, actual strikesrestrict damage; thereby signicantly reducing non-combatant casualties – a vast improvementover more traditional weapons. This is theclaim at least, although the numbers of inno
-
cent civilian killed in drone strikes is unknownbecause U.S. or allied personnel are usually not in the area to check. Finally, unmanneddrones are relatively inexpensive—they notonly spare American lives; they also are consid
-
erably cheaper than other comparable weaponssystems.
1
They sound ideal so why have dronesbecome a matter of debate? Two major con
-
cerns deserve closer scrutiny: mission effective
-
ness and moral hazard.
Fist, missi effectiveess
depends uponthe mission goal. In fragile states plagued by insurgency, experience has demonstrated that aprimary emphasis on killing insurgents merely multiplies their ranks. Military ofcers recog 
-
nized early on in Iraq and Afghanistan that the U.S.could not kill its way to a
solution in either coun-
try. As a result, counter-insurgency (COIN)
doctrine was rediscovered
and attempted in both.COIN doctrine posits theimportance of protecting the local population andhelping to build effec
-
tive and legitimate hostcountry governmentinstitutions. Insurgenciesand conict are rootedin problems of politicsand governance. Only improved governance, justice and opportunities will dry up the extremist recruitment pool. Assuch, sophisticated local knowledge, nuance, dif 
-
ferentiation and nesse are required to addresscrisis situations effectively – qualities that dronesor other technologies do not possess. In termsof mission goal, then, drones may be part of anapproach, but not a primary one.
Given Germany’s skepticism o the military and widespreadpacifst sentiment ollowing World War II, sensitivity to is-sues o moral hazard are high.The use o drones in the UnitedStates and implications o weapons that can be fred romthousands o miles away havestruck a nerve.
 
3
The Search for Antiseptic War
Eve at the
technical level, condence indrones may be misplaced. After all, they are
only as accurate as the individuals who direct
them. Technical intelligence gathering capabili
-
ties have exploded in recent years while humanintelligence capacity has declined. Investing inregional and country experts who understandthe situation and actors in the eld has danger
-
ously lagged. Such experts are essential to siftmassive amounts of information and to pro
-
 vide a qualitative analysis of the situation onthe ground. Drone technology lures decision-makers with the promise of an inexpensive,antiseptic means to counter extremists orinsurgents. But the condence in technology ismisplaced. The results are short-term, incom
-
plete and may be counter-productive. Thor
-
ough discussion of effectiveness in its broadercontext has been largely missing.
2
 
A sec maj
concern is that of moral haz
-
ard. U.S. Administration and Congressional
discussions of drones to date have revolved
around three legal issues: 1) expansion of thejoint Congressional resolution, Authoriza
-
tion for Use of Military Force” (AUMF); 2)authority to determine kill targets; and 3) U.S.terrorists killed overseas in drone strikes. The AUMF, passed just days after the September11th attacks, provided the legal basis for theU.S. counterterrorism campaign against Al-Qa
-
eda wherever it operated. Federal court deci
-
sions expanded the authority to justify attackson groups associated with Al Qaeda. The issuenow is whether AUMF language needs to beexpanded further to justify the inclusion of groups in Libya, Mali, Nigeria and elsewherethat have no direct link to Al-Qaeda and the9/11 attacks or if completely new authoriza
-
tion must be obtained.
3
 
The sec ebate
focuses on President
Obama’s authority to approve a kill list. Oppo
-
nents argue that an independent judicial body should have that authority; not the president. The third concerns the legality of killing a ter
-
rorist who is a U.S. citizen either at home orabroad without due process. An old-fashionedlibuster by Senator Rand Paul on March 6-7,2013 sought assurance from the Administra
-
tion that a U.S. citizen on U.S. soil would notbe subject to a drone strike. That Senator Paulgot so much positive attention for his effortreects an awakened awareness of the potentialrisks of drones to U.S. citizens. These are im
-
portant issues that merit careful examination.
Hweve, e f
them reects any concernabout the people in other countries targeted by drones – some of whom may be falsely iden
-
tied as terrorists or insurgents.
4
Moreover,the most publicized discussions to date fail to wrestle with the underlying moral hazard of killing from a distance; of never experiencing the human and material suffering wrought.
5
 
 This is not a new phenomenon – ghter pi
-
lots, for example, y far above and never seethe faces of those killed. But they are in thetheatre of combat and therefore, vulnerable tobeing shot down. A drone controller is a giantstep removed from combat. He or she goeshome after a “normal” work day. The entireexercise is more akin to playing a violent videogame than it is to real life: easy, antiseptic, andno risk for Americans. The victim, his family,friends and their suffering remain abstract.
Equally important, actual strikesrestrict damage; thereby signif-cantly reducing non-combatantcasualties – a vast improvementover more traditional weapons.

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