This, my friends, is the General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper. It is an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) capable of both remote controlled and autonomous (can fly by itself a programmed route) flight. The Reaper is the first of its kind. Far more advanced than its predecessor, the MQ-1 Predator, it is a “hunter-killer” UAV designed for long-endurance, high-altitude surveillance.
While there are many other UAVs, the words “Predator” and “Reaper” have taken on another name“drones.” As you all are probably aware, this has been a hot topic for a while now; the development and implementation of these “drones” has led to heated debate surrounding their legality under international and domestic law. In fact almost every debate I have come across has focused on that. But you do not need another person telling you whether it’s legal or not. I’m not saying that I don’t think it’s important, but I find the costs and consequences of their continued use and development far more interesting…and troubling…
The drone program cannot be fully understood unless you first take a quick crash-course in some Cold War history. It is likely that the idea of UAVs had been floated around as early as we were able to put a man up in a hot-air balloon, but it had to have been seriously considered in the wake of the 1960 U-2 Incident during the Eisenhower presidency. In 1960, an American Air Force pilot flying a reconnaissance mission for the C.I.A. was shot down over Soviet airspace and captured shortly thereafter, resulting in a diplomatic fiasco. The incident inevitably led to the development of faster and more elusive recon aircraft like the SR-71 Blackbird (It’s at the Intrepid in New York, check it out!) And while the U-2 is still being used in the 21stCentury to support U.S. military operations in theatres like Afghanistan and Iraq, the 1960 incident was a tipping point for aerial recon; it was probably at that point when strategists seriously started to consider developing something that could be flown remotely, without having to risk a perfectly good pilot. Fast-forward to 2011 with the loss of one of our RQ-170 Sentinels over Iran; while it’s not clear to the public whether our UAV was shot down or suffered a mid-flight equipment failure, no one was killed or captured, and Iran was unable to exact concessions. Imagine the diplomatic fallout of an American pilot being shot down and captured…in Iran…Scary thought, I know.
In short, the drones of today are a byproduct of the Cold War. Building off of that, with the fall of the Soviet Union, it became clear that major threats could now originate in any corner of the world. But it wasn’t just the USSR that was being carved away, it was also the U.S. defense and intelligence budgets. The mentality at the time was “the Soviet menace is gone, how can we still justify this enormous National Security budget?” Satellite imaging was expensive and slow, and their utility was limited in the sense that they operate on a particular orbit that covers a particular path along the Earth (in this case, Soviet missile silos, airfields, military installations, etc). These orbits couldn’t simply be diverted to new trouble spots, at least in a timely manner; and even if they could, the new threats of insurgencies, terrorists, and transnational criminal organizations do not generate the same kinds of signature (intel-talk for patterns of behavior that are detected through signals intercepts, human sources and aerial surveillance, and that indicate the presence of an important operative or a plot against U.S. interests) as the construction of a missile silo or Soviet-bomber runways. The footprint/signature of many of the Post-Cold War threats are much smaller, subtler and lighter. Aerial recon aircraft like the U-2 and SR-71, though valuable, faced their own problems, the most important of which were survivability (we don’t want another 1960 U-2 Incident), cost (if sold today, one SR-71 would go for around $250 million), and technological capacity (high altitude + fast plane with a camera = blurry pictures). It is in this context that the MQ-1 Predator was developed in the 1990s, though it was originally strictly used for recon purposes.
What makes the drone so special?
From an operational standpoint, slow-flying manned planes like the A-10 and the AC-130 have been particularly useful in places like Fallujah and other complex urban environments, and they will continue to serve in many capacities. Pilots and gunners can get a good sense of the situation from on high, and it’s for that reason they coordinate with platoon commanders and Special Forces team leaders engaged in tactical operations on the ground. But while those manned planes still must fly at 180 knots (~207mph) to stay airborne, the unmanned Predator can fly at 75 knots (a lot less than 207mph). And while many other UAVs have to fly low, drawing attention with that annoying buzzing sound, a Predator flies at 15,000 feet—almost three miles up—where no one on the ground can hear it or see it. Then someone in the U.S. National Security community got the bright idea to strap a missile to it, and after a few successful tests the Predator became a self-contained multi-purpose unit that was able to transmit real-time imagery intelligence (IMINT) and if needed, engage the enemy. Lt. Col. Jay Stout, USMC (retired) quotes Lt. Gen. Walter Buchanan III, U.S.A.F., U.S. CENTCOM in a piece he wrote for the U.S. Naval Institute that speaks to the level of development and integration of our drones into close-air-support roles: “I have seen our UAV force evolve from one that was principally an intelligence-collection platform in Bosnia to one that today has a very potent air-to-ground capability and represents a truly flexible, combat platform.” I think it’s pretty clear that UAVs have shown itself to be an effective instrument for low intensity conflicts, whether for surveillance, assault, or both. And they will forever be in the toolbox of its users.
When people say that they are debating the “Drone Program,” what they’re really talking about is the post-9/11 implementation of using U.S. armed UAVs like the Predator and the Reaper, to kill leaders of al-Qaida, in Afghanistan, Iraq and later in Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia (the three “covert action” campaigns that we know of). Since assuming office, President Obama has greatly accelerated the program, and in just 2 years authorized nearly 4 times as many drone strikes as did the Bush administration throughout its entire 8 years in office. The drones are launched from air bases in Afghanistan and Pakistan but are controlled by pilots in the U.S. After Sept. 11, 2001, U.S. President George W. Bush ordered U.S. drones to kill leaders of al-Qaida, in Afghanistan and later in Yemen and Pakistan. Since assuming office, Barack Obama has greatly accelerated the program. In just 2 years, the Obama administration authorized nearly 4 times as many drone strikes as did the Bush administration throughout its entire time in office. The most comprehensive list of U.S. drone bases abroad that I’ve come across was from Micah Zenko’s column in Foreign Policy, where he reconciled news sources with satellite photos to determine where the U.S. has kept 12 of its UAV bases. Although most were in Afghanistan, Zenko’s pointed out that we base our UAVs in Turkey, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Seychelles, Qatar, the Philippines, the United Arab Emirates, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia. The African continent’s US UAV launching bases are so many that it deserves its own hyperlink (the majority of these are used for surveillance flights.)
The implementation of UAVs in the Post 9/11 has enormous costs and consequences that I do not think have been seriously considered. And like I discussed before, I think we have a responsibility to ask more questions besides “is this legal or not?”
What do other people think about it?
Internationally, on a scale of “1” to “Greek mom who can’t let it go that I forgot to take out the garbage last week” lots of people are really, really mad about our drone program. One popular claim that is made is that the program violates the country’s sovereignty; for example, the Pakistani government has condemned their use as such a violation of sovereignty, but evidence that they’re allowing the strikes to happen is pretty clear. To get a better grasp on this, let’s go back to the Cold War: In July 1957, U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower requested permission from Pakistan’s Prime Minister Huseyn Suhrawardy for the U.S. to establish a secret intelligence facility in Pakistan and for the U-2 spy plane to fly from Pakistan. Fast forward to the drone debates of today and it seems impossible to not conflate the words “drone” and “Pakistan.” So in fact, our “drone program” in Pakistan that everyone’s been talking about actually has quite a long history, going back almost 50 years! And the drones we have operating in Pakistan are being held in the old baseswe used decades ago. And the sites were built by Pakistani laborers and are guarded by Pakistani security forces. The Yemeni government has also agreed to the strikes, though some opposition has been beginning to emerge. It is unclear how many of the average citizens in these countries deplore the campaigns, since it is likely that they don’t particularly care for mass shootings and bombings by radical jihadis either. One thing is clear: the host governments silently agree for the continued use of American drone strikes in their countries, but publicly denounce them. It is not clear how sustainable this model is, since drones can certainly subject host-governments to high levels of political pressure that make compliance with US requests more costly.
Do our drone strikes “create more terrorists?” that is, do we create more terrorists than we kill? Excellent question, and to tell you the truth, I do not know. By asking this question I am also making the point that we do kill terrorists with these things, lots of them. Imagine showing up to work one morning at your company and the boss tell you that you’ve been promoted to No. 2 because old No.2 got killed by a US drone. If you Google “al Qaeda number 2,” you’ll find this story, but it’s one of many others. In fact it looks like the average is a little over one-a-year.
But unfortunately, we cannot have a complete, enlightened debate on the drone’s actual effectiveness (or ineffectiveness) without the official numbers, which have yet to be disclosed. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has committed itself to trying to get their own numbers, and the New America Foundation’s database if also often cited. Sen. Lindsey Graham became the first public official earlier this year to have his own number, some 4,700 total deaths attributed to our Pakistan/Somalia/Yemen program. Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations put the number at closer to 3,500. All of the projects from advocacy groups, other non-profits and think tanks that cite numbers cannot be independently verified. Though we do know that Faisal Shahzad, the man responsible for trying to set off the car bomb in Times Square in 2011, cited America’s drone program killing civilians as a reason for his actions. Arguments of their accuracy (killing terroritsts) and their inaccuracy (killing civilians) have been butting heads. I can see where someone can be coming from though: “A man in Yemen walking back from a hard day’s work, just in time for dinner, only to find what’s left of his wife and children, maybe even some good friends too, under a pile of rubble that used to be his home. He finds out that it was “the Americans” who blew up his home because they mistook the gathering of so many people in one area “suspicious”. He was pro-American at first; he hates the terrorists that make it unsafe for him and his family to move up in the world. But now his enemy is America, because it’s personal now, they killed the people he loved.” There are too many of these narratives to dismiss all of them as untrue, but it is unclear as to how many civilians have been killed. The Obama administration insists that civilian casualties have been minimal, despite the expansion of these strikes under his tenure. When you see photographs of women and children mangled, it could have been a hellfire missile, but it could have very well been shrapnel from a terrorist’s bomb. The kicker to all of this is that the program remains shrouded in secrecy, and that although there may be some evidence, there is not enough to accept it (or reject it).
What are the implications for the victims and the pilots?
An eye-opening study was done by students at Stanford and NYU that focused on the psychological effects of living under drones, with a focus on Pakistan. The study is certainly an eye-opener, whichever “side” of the debate you happen to be on. But it seems that not enough is asked about the UAV operators, the pilots who are operating these vehicles from cubicles thousands of miles away in the United States. Are they detached and desensitized from the task of taking someone’s life? Has it turned the “human element” of war to a video game of “joystick killing”? We had a similar debate about the sniper, and the aerial bomber before that, and all the way back to the longbow. Recent numbers show that these pilots are just as prone to mental illnesses like PTSD and Psychosis as those who get into the cockpit and fly overhead on conventional runs. High operational stress is still there.
One epidemiologist was quoted saying: “[Drone pilots] witness the carnage. Manned aircraft pilots don’t do that. They get out of there as soon as possible.”
Proliferation and the future
The technology itself, since it’s now readily available to the public, is only limited by the imaginations of those who wish to be innovative. The most recent military development was just this summer, when the X-47B drone successfully took off and landed on an aircraft carrier. In the next decade drones will have their own floating bases in the form of US Carrier Strike Groups. But Peru is using them for geological surveying, since the terrain is quite rough and human pilots don’t come cheap, especially since the terrain is not suitable for safely landing in an emergency. Even here in the U.S., drone technology is being implemented by the agriculture industry to monitor crops and spray pesticides. For kids, they’re the new racecars and kites. Maybe one day they can even serve as flying billboards in cities. These observation vehicles were around before; it just so happens that someone in the government got the idea to rig one with a hellfire missile and see what would happen. It was bound to happen at some point.
But a natural consequence of our drone program is that by us being the first to design and implement one (especially on the military front), other nation states can do so as well. And they are. China, Russia, Israel, Iran, India, the UK and Turkey all have their own drone programs. Though not as sophisticated as ours, they are all making strides. In reality though, if there’s one thing I’ve learned about China, it’s that they are not particularly innovative when it comes to hardware; if anything, the recent NY Times story about the People’s Republic’s efforts to hack our networks to acquire our latest drone technology secrets tells me that we are still on top. Granted, this does not mean I am not concerned. Given the advantages of using drones, these countries may be inclined to use them in disputed territories or national airspace to test the resolve of their regional rivals. Just this month Japan scrambled some fighter jets to address an “unidentified drone” near the Diaoyus islands which China claims is rightfully theirs, along with several others. With the already existent potential for miscalculation and escalation, we could see more conflicts with drones as the instigator.
We all remember Sen. Rand Paul’s blitzkrieg of a filibuster that was covered by C-SPAN from start to finish, and perhaps for the first time in a long time, that channel was entertaining television. And once that happened it became pretty clear that the debate about America’s drone program was not going to go away. But elements of the existing debates do not consider the second-order consequences. Do drones subject governments to high levels of political pressure that make compliance with U.S. requests more costly? Do they create more insurgencies and resentment for the U.S.? What does our embrace of drones mean for their proliferation by our allies, but more importantly for our adversaries? Many of these consequences are also discounted in analyses of drones that focus exclusively on how many terrorists are killed relative to civilians. I do not see using UAVs in U.S. counterterrorism tactics going away anytime soon. But beware of the consequences because you will always reap(er) what you sow.