Droning on: the American bolt from the blue

The latest Quadrennial Defense Review promises to increase the numbers, sophistication and use of unmanned aerial vehicles, known as drones. Their use has rendered the boundaries of the theatres of war more fluid, requiring the rapid integration of this weapon to be piloted more carefully than ever before.

By Shashank Joshi for RUSI.org

Weeks after being hit by a missile fired on January 14 from an unmanned American drone, it has emerged that the leader of the Pakistani Taliban (TTP), Hakimullah Mehsud, may have died. That attack was one of over a dozen such American drone strikes in Pakistan in January alone. If he is indeed dead, which seems uncertain, Mehsud was a casualty of the same technology that led to his promotion. The previous TTP leader, Baitullah Mehsud, became one of the most high profile drone victims in August 2009, after over a dozen unsuccessful attempts. The two Mehsuds were the most prominent targets of what has been an unceasing string of aerial attacks, with, for instance, a  barrage of eighteen missiles directed at a single village in early February.

As if in timely recognition of those successes, the US Department of Defense's 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), a detailed report that informs Congress of Pentagon activities and sets defence priorities for the next four years, was released on the same day that the latter Mehsud's death was widely reported.  Nearly 10 per cent of the document's pages made reference to unmanned aircraft systems, commonly known as drones. It promised to increase their numbers, sophistication, and use, specifying that the number of Predator and Reaper 'orbits' (flights that last over twenty four hours) would rise from thirty-five today, to fifty in the fiscal year 2011, and to sixty-five in 2015. To understand the scale of these changes, consider that Predators and Reapers alone clocked up around 138,400 and 12,800 combat hour respectively in 2008, The report made the case that 'the increasing precision, persistence, and autonomy of unmanned systems hold great promise', adding that 'as these systems grow in capability and number, we must ensure that our policies on use of force advance accordingly'.

America's force structure has already begun to adapt. The military as a whole logged 800,000 flying hours for drones in 2008, a staggering rise of 2,300 per cent over the preceding five years. The US Air Force (USAF) projects that its drones alone (separate from those of the other service arms) will log a quarter of a million flying hours in 2010. And, symbolically, the USAF not only trained more drone pilots (in other words, ground operators) than manned aircraft pilots last year, but also spent more on the drone systems themselves than on their piloted counterparts. The range of unmanned aircraft spans the headline-grabbing 'hunter-killer' drones, such as the Predator and the (newer, faster, and better armed) Reaper, to dedicated surveillance platforms such as the Global Hawk, to smaller vehicles - comprising the bulk of the US fleet - that can be launched by soldiers on the ground with catapult like devices. Unsurprisingly, their use has mushroomed, with over three-dozen states and, non-state actors like Hezbollah, wanting a piece of the action. Israel's drone fleet, for instance, has tripled over the last two years and is set to swell larger, with 'almost all' of IDF land operations said to benefit from drone support.

Drone advantages

Drones enjoy a slew of advantages over manned aircraft. For a start, they represent good value for money on a platform level alone. Predators and Reapers cost $4.5 and $17 million respectively, compared with, say, $100 million for the F-35 fighter. Moreover, by 2013, one ground controller will be able to fly three Reapers at once. The cost per flying hour of Israel's drone fleet is less than five per cent of the comparable cost of flying a fighter jet. Smaller drones can be as cheap as $50,000 (though larger drones are still expensive, and ground support teams can be extensive, with the Global Hawk requiring a team of twenty to thirty). And although current in-service drones aren't up to aerial combat, their performance otherwise is not unimpressive; the F-16 fighter has a range of 500 miles, whereas the Reaper can manage 3,000 miles with 1.5 tonnes of weapons. Drones now compete, in one sense, even with the $350 million F-22, whose production was halted in April last year.

Drones cannot refuel in-flight and remain vulnerable to losing contact or being intercepted, but their endurance is remarkable. A Global Hawk recently flew for thirty-three consecutive hours on a reconnaissance flight for operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan. An Eagle-1 is able to remain airborne for over fifty hours. Their altitude and smaller engines afford security from shoulder-launched missiles (except during take-off and landing), but the technology is advancing at such a gallop that a Global Hawk can 'gather data on objects reportedly as small as a shoebox, through clouds, day or night ... from 18,000 metres' which is 'almost twice the cruising altitude of passenger jets'. The Reaper can supply thirty simultaneous video feeds, and smaller drones can be launched and controlled in the field for tactical purposes (though given that a $26 piece of equipment allowed insurgents to intercept drone video feeds, there clearly remain outstanding issues with communications security). Intelligence officials have also indicated that Predators are more accurate than manned jets, although this can hardly be verified with open source information.

Above all, unmanned flights preclude the possibility of a pilot being captured, allowing operators to 'project power in combat without projecting vulnerabilities'. This allows missions to assume greater risks (especially in terms of human costs) and collect commensurately more valuable information and perform more hazardous tasks. In this, drones have been immensely successful. In Iraq, the use of drones to observe and prevent the planting of IEDs, and to scout ahead of convoys, produced a noticeable fall in casualties. In Pakistan, the CIA runs what must surely be the worst concealed clandestine operation in the world, targeting suspected Taliban and Al-Qa'ida militants in a programme intensified by the Obama Administration. The results of that, and the publicly acknowledged drone campaign in Afghanistan, have been intensely debated. Up to a half-dozen leaders of militant organisations may have been assassinated, along with 250-400 less-valuable targets. This may be why the CIA Director Leon Panetta referred to Predator as 'the only game in town'. The looming spectre of missiles pushes Al-Qa'ida off balance, disrupting their operations and eliminating their upper echelons. Yet Panetta's choice of phrase reflects a sense of realism.

On one considered estimate, 'the average civilian fatality rate is between 35 and 40 percent', roughly between 250 and 320 civilian deaths since 2006. This is greater than the US government has suggested but far lower than the figures implied by Pakistani sources. The strikes are publicly condemned but tacitly sanctioned by the Pakistani military (who select some targets), and highly valued in the US. Drone attacks have also provoked a severe reaction in Pakistan, with only 9 per cent nationally in favour of their use, and counterinsurgency experts David Kilcullen and Andrew Exum urging their discontinuance to stem the 'public outrage'. Drones, they have argued, were 'part of the problem' rather than solution, and imperilled 'local partnerships' against terrorists.

A survey of 550 FATA residents by a Pakistan based organisation found that 52 per cent of those surveyed considered the drones accurate. 58 per cent did not think anti-American sentiment had been inflamed by drone attacks, 70 per cent thought the Pakistani military should carry out targeted strikes, and 60 per cent judged that militant organisations were being damaged. If accurate and reliable, these figures fly in the face of popular reports. Farhat Taj, a researcher from the organisation conducting the study, argued that the people of Waziristan 'see the US drone attacks as their liberators from the clutches of the terrorists into which, they say, their state has wilfully thrown them'. This does not directly address the claims made by Kilcullen and Exum, who stress how casualties and drone use are perceived across Pakistan as a whole, but it does imply that more nuance is required in assessing the impact of these programmes.

More extensive and careful analysis is still needed to understand the strategic and political tradeoffs of drone use relative to comparable counterterror methods.  This is alongside the separate but important questions of whether drones are reducing US sensitivity to civilian deaths, whether intelligence agencies ought to be running such extensive military operations, and whether America's legal and humanitarian obligations allow for the use of drone strikes at all.

The future of drones

Unmanned flight appears to have a bright future. European contractors now enable smaller countries to use surveillance drones, and the wider trend towards the privatisation of defence functions indicates this will flourish. The People's Liberation Army (PLA) emphasis on information-enabled warfare is likely to see it expand its fleet, whose size is underreported today. And drones' low cost and apparent effectiveness accords with growing calls for the US to adopt a 'light footprint' in its efforts against terrorism, allowing a withdrawal of troops and a focus on the attrition of command structures from afar. As the US grows increasingly impatient with the Pakistani military inaction against, or connivance with, the spectrum of militants in the border regions, they have threatened to expand attacks outside the tribal areas to Balochistan, almost certainly the home of the Afghan Taliban

But this process has natural limits. Militants of all stripes have increasingly moved to urban areas, beyond the reach of Predators, and have beefed up their operational security. Nor can the US ignore the public reaction while remaining dependent on Pakistan for local intelligence (a necessary input to successful targeting) and the protection of supply lines into Afghanistan. Drone attacks can destroy valuable intelligence at the target, and their use might lead to atrophy in human intelligence sources and methods. In particular, armed drones are qualitatively different to a squadron of fighter-bombers in that their use is easier, more deniable, lower key, and less likely to be widely perceived as an act of war. It might seem as though we have seen this movie before, with cruise missiles and Special Forces used in precisely the same theatres of war. But the former could hardly be used in the way that drones are in Pakistan, and the latter, when actually employed, have provoked a far fiercer reaction than aircraft (which is not to say that they have not played important roles in laying the groundwork for aerial attacks). And so, drones make it easier for the US to violate sovereignty by assassinating across international borders with or without the permission of the targeted state. A threshold is lowered. Both the fact of extrajudicial killings (of drug lords as well as terrorists) and their transnational ease raise severe ethical questions, as suggested above, but there are also far-reaching political consequences of this structural shift.

The first drone attacks not directly related to an active theatre of war took place in November 2002, in the Marib province of Yemen, when a Predator assassinated Qaed Senyan al-Harthi, the Al-Qa'ida member who had planned the earlier attack on the USS Cole in Aden. Yemen is back in the spotlight, and in January 2010 a senior Democratic senator called for 'the use of drones or air attacks' in Yemen by the US, conditional on intelligence concerning a 'high-value target' and the support of the Yemeni government. Surveillance drones have certainly cut through Yemeni airspace since Christmas Day. The potency of drone technology and its central role in the American arsenal, as evidenced by both the QDR and Mehsud's killing, may have rendered the boundaries of the theatres of the 'war on terrorism' more fluid, requiring that the rapid integration of this weapon of war be piloted more carefully than ever before.



Shashank Joshi

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