Recently, a friend of mine challenged me on the issue of drones. We had what must be considered a brisk debate and yet it was a useful one, since it did give me the opportunity to spell out what has troubled me about the debate on drones for quite a while. In a nutshell: The critics of drones tend to make really stupid arguments while failing to recognise what problems might actually exist. What is worse, every argument against drones is usually being carried by at least a single note of hypocrisy, which I am happy to point to. And with that, I'll fire away:
The New Weapons/De-Humanised War-Argument
Let us take a step back at first and reflect for a moment on what a drone actually is. Even an armed drone is nothing else than a plane, carrying a weapon. The difference between a drone and, lets say, a B-2 is that it is being piloted remotely. That in and of itself is not distinction of much consequence. In terms of capabilities it is too often forgotten that the payload of a B-2 or B-52 still is a far more devastating than the Hellfire-missile attached to a Predator drone. A drone is, hence, nothing more than a delivery system and it has been developed to carry a very small weapon into the target area. And that weapon is designed specifically to kill fewer people.
But proponents of this argument believe that since the pilot and weapons-officer of a drone are piloting the plane remotely in front of a computer screen, the Western way of warfare is becoming so de-humanised that the nature of war is about to change in a fundamental way. The only problem with this argument is this: virtually no sophisticated modern weapons-system brings the soldier into direct contact with the enemy, unless of course the soldier is a part of the brave infantry (as yours truly once was). A navy soldier directing a cruise missile from a guided-missile destroyer launches his weapons from an ops-room on that destroyer, sitting in front of—you've guessed it—a computer screen. A submarine launching a ballistic missile or cruise missile is receiving target coordinates, but no officer aboard that ship actually sees the target. Even in the army, it would be difficult to argue that a tank howitzer firing a grenade into a target some thirty or forty kilometres from the howitzer's position is so close to the action that the soldiers are exposed to enemy fire or are in a position to see the target. If they were exposed to enemy fire something would have gone horribly wrong. It is true, drones have increased the distance between operating officer and target, but this is hardly anything of a juncture in military history. Its only one more step in a historical development that has always pointed in this direction. If you're looking for a game-changer here, I would humbly point you to the introduction of artillery onto the modern battlefield.
To the contrary, I am tempted to argue that the increasing distance is a rather positive development in ethical terms. Having to implement a complex set of rules of engagement, who is more likely to implement a firing decision precisely along the lines set forth in the rules of engagement? A drone pilot who is in a position to reflect on the target and the rules and check his notes on a clipboard or the bomber pilot multitasking firing solutions and a modern fighter jet at the same time? It would appear to me that friendly as well as misdirected fire is likely to decrease would drones substitute bombers, which by the way, they have not on a great scale, precisely because their payload is limited.
One final comment here, if I may. I have often been confronted with the argument that the number of civilian casualties is on the rise because drones are being used (I'll pick that apart next), yet the very same people often argue that drones exhibit the sort of “clean” warfare, which they consider a big moral fallacy. All I am saying to my critics here is: you cannot have it both ways. Either more people die and as a consequence the sort of warfare for which drones are being made is less “clean”, or it is in some way “cleaner” but that would have to entail fewer casualties.
The Civilian Casualties and Morality-Argument
Much of the criticism against the use of drones is based on the idea that their use leads to an exceedingly great number of civilian casualties. Yet, many who criticise drones fail to make an important distinction. While it is true that the number of casualties of non-combatants in relation to combatants increases, the overall number of casualties is in fact declining and dramatically so. That is of tremendous importance, since drones are first and foremost instruments – nothing more, nothing less.
In reverse order: Against the background of the public outcry over drones and the number of civilian casualties their payload can inflict, it is important to remind people how few people actually die. I am often being accused of callousness on that account, but as a historical reality it cannot possibly be denied that the war on terror outside Afghanistan has produced practically so few deaths that it has barely qualifies as a war at all. Nobody knows for certain how many people have been killed by the use of drones, but even the greatest critics don't think the number exceeds five thousand. For a global war that lasts for more than a decade that is a historical low. Just to give you a sense of proportion, the Vietnam war left more than four million dead. If this represents a new form of warfare, which I doubt, it would have to be welcomed on moral and ethical terms, that is as long as you believe that killing fewer people in wartime is something good (which a surprising number of pacifists don't).
At the same time the relation between death among combatants and non-combatants among the casualties is in fact changing. Now that might be considered something of a juncture, only that I would caution against that as well. The reason that more non-combatants die in relation to combatants has less, actually nothing to do with the specific military instrument that is being chosen, but with the nature of the target itself. Terrorists don't appear in large infantry formations. By the very nature of their business they hide often enough among civilians. Sometimes they might even deliberately seek the protection of civilians, which is why it is important to remember one thing: We still measure success by how few people we kill, terrorists do the exact opposite. Terrorists could be targeted by other weapons, but any twenty kilo-bomb or cruise missile inevitably would have killed more people. So clearly, its the nature of the enemy that is the problem, not the drone itself.
Now, it might reasonably be asked whether terrorists should be targeted by military means at all. But that is part and parcel of an overall argument on the war on terror and not an argument that can be directed against a specific instrument of warfare. I will make try to make an additional comment here, which is at least indirectly linked to the argument I am picking on. There is a major inconsistency in the arguments that critics of drones usually put forward:
Some have argued that the use of drones is an unlawful execution of suspects, who are entitled to due process. The premise of this argument is that fighting terrorists is a law-enforcement challenge. I still disagree with that premise—which is an altogether different topic—but critics argue in essence that drones are being used in what they consider a police-mission. Yet, it is often the exact same people that argue that in pursuance of the war on terror, the intelligence services operating drones are being militarised. For consistency's sake, please pick a side.
The Threshold to War-Argument
One of the arguments my friend confronted me with is that drones lower the threshold to war. This argument is often being made and particularly within the German debate this has been put forward with deafening repetition, see here and here. (Just one suggestions here, issues of war and warfare is among the areas the church should really shut up about.) In fact, recent publications on that matter by the German churches rather indicate that they have absolutely no clue. Nevertheless the argument has been made and it goes somewhat like this: Because drone strikes do not risk the life of the pilot, the threshold for entering a war is being lowered. There are a number of problems with this hypothesis:
1. The only war currently being fought predominantly with drones is the war on terror or long war, as some prefer to call it. It is important to keep in mind that the onset of this war predates the use of drones. It took a while before drones turned into the instrument of choice in pursuing this war. Drones are a typical example of how warfare can drive innovation, just as the tank was only introduced in World War I after the war started to deal with trench warfare, drones were developed for a particular challenge: the need to limit casualties among non-combatants.
2. For the hypothesis to be true, the threshold for going to war would have had to be lower in the wars the United States or the West were involved in ever since the war on terror began. Now, that certainly is not the case. Neither the war in Iraq, nor the intervention in Libya were launched because drones were available. In fact, both wars were being pursued by and large with the traditional arsenal of modern armies. In response one could limit the argument to saying that drones lowered the threshold in military confrontations that are of a smaller scale, what a little while ago was being dubbed military action other than war. But here again the thesis does not live up to evidence. The U.S. is currently involved in the hunt for warlord Joseph Kony and his Lord's Resistance Army in the Central African Republic (CAR), Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Chad. But this military involvement, which was undertaken only after drones became available, is being executed by special forces, not with drones.
3. Finally, everybody with even the slightest idea of war and warfare knows that wars by their very nature are unpredictable and can easily escalate. When NATO intervened in Kosovo in 1999 it limited itself to an air campaign, yet the danger of eventually having to go in on the ground loomed large. The same danger of escalation is present in any military confrontation, even if the military action is initially being pursued by limited means only. Its the inherent nature of war that they tend to escalate, or as Donald Rumsfeld, the former Secretary of Defence of the United States put it in one of his famous rules: “No plan survives contact with the enemy.” Put differently, any power entering any military scenario needs to be aware that it might not be able to limit the confrontation. And though it might sometimes feel otherwise, most military advisers, and believe it or not, politicians are.
What Critics Fail to See
After having picked on the arguments that are usually being hurled at me by the critics of drones, I feel the need to say that I actually do have problems with the use of drones. Its just that the critics are so bone-headed that they fail to see what the problems with drones are. There are three problems, which I would like to explain in a little more detail:
1. In the war on terror, drones have been used on an ever-increasing scale. The number of drone attacks has increased sharply (somewhat around tenfold) ever since Barack Obama entered office. They have indeed turned into a instrument of choice. Their success in taking out al-Qaeda operatives is so impressive that the U.S. administration felt little need to evaluate the war on terror itself. The result is devastating. While drones can (and should) be an instrument in implementing a strategy against al-Qaeda ad/or radical terrorist networks, they have in fact been used as a substitute for a strategy. This is troubling, since it has allowed the Obama-administration to ignore the most important task of civilian leadership in wartime: setting strategic objectives.
2. Drones have had a troubling impact on intelligence. I have argued elsewhere that the availability of drones has created a bias towards the collection and in fact over-reliance on signal intelligence. Yet the war on terror has demonstrated time and again that what is needed is far more human intelligence, particularly when it comes to designating someone a legitimate target for a drone attack. So far the U.S. administration has done little to rectify this structural bias.
3. Here is a Rumsfeld rule worth knowing: “The secretary of defense is not a super general or admiral. His task is to exercise civilian control over the department for the commander in chief and the country.“ In execution of the war on terror the state of civilian control has been troubling. Executing a decidedly military programme such as the drone programme through the CIA does not strike me as advantageous for the indispensable civilian control. On a cautionary note, however, the administration is trying to rectify that and move the programme to the Department of Defense. And while on matters of national security Senator Rand Paul is often a bit nutty, his recent filibuster demonstrates that it is still the Republican party that is controlled by civilian supremacists.
Even though these problems need further elaboration, it seems pretty clear to me that drones—just like any other weapons-system—have their upsides and downsides. But in pursuing the war on terror it might actually be the right weapon. In politics as in warfare, it is often a question of alternatives.