The Risks Of Relying On Drones By Kurt Volker


DeM Banter: the genie is out of the bottle…or maybe I should say genies…because, they are all going to be different depending on the nation and the interest. All 4 points below have been discussed on this blog ad nauseam…but 10 years from now, 2022… things are going to look very different in terms of drone warfare, cyber war, and the info age…it doesn’t have to be ugly, but unless the US jumps up and takes a leadership role…it’s not going to be pretty.

Washington Post
October 28, 2012
Pg. 17

As documented in the recent Post series “The Permanent War,” the United States increasingly relies on drone strikes as a principal and permanent component in fighting global terrorism. This is effective at killing terrorist leadership and is relatively painless politically at home, as it does not require massive military engagements or put U.S. soldiers or pilots at risk. There appear to be no short-term consequences.

Yet as necessary as some drone strikes have been — and will be in the future — over-reliance on drones raises problems. In establishing a long-term approach, a good rule of thumb might be that we should authorize drone strikes only if we would be willing to send in a pilot or soldier to do the job if a drone were not available.

There are four principal issues with excessive reliance on drones.

The first is moral. More people have been killed in U.S. drone attacks than were ever incarcerated at Guantanamo Bay. Can we be certain there were no cases of mistaken identity or innocent deaths? Those detained at Guantanamo at least had a chance to establish their identities, to be reviewed by an oversight panel and, in most cases, to be released. Those who remain at Guantanamo have been vetted and will ultimately face some form of legal proceeding. Those killed in drone strikes, whoever they were, are gone. Period.

The second is consequences. U.S. reliance on drone strikes allows our opponents to cast our country as a distant, high-tech, amoral purveyor of death. It builds resentment, facilitates terrorist recruitment and alienates those we should seek to inspire. Drone strikes may decapitate terrorist organizations, but they do not solve our terrorist problem. In fact, drone use may prolong it. Even though there is no immediate retaliation, in the long run the contributions to radicalization through drone use may put more American lives at risk.

Third, our monopoly on drone warfare will not last. Others, from European allies to Russia, China and Iran, are acquiring and beginning to use drones for surveillance — eventually, they will use them for killing as well. What would we say if others used drones to take out their opponents — whether within their own territory or internationally? Imagine China killing Tibetan separatists that it deemed terrorists or Russia launching drone strikes on Chechens. What would we say? What rules would we urge them to abide by?

Then there is the question of national identity: What do we want to be as a nation? A country with a permanent kill list? A country where people go to the office, launch a few kill shots and get home in time for dinner? A country that instructs workers in high-tech operations centers to kill human beings on the far side of the planet because some government agency determined that those individuals are terrorists? There is a “Brave New World” grotesqueness to this posture that should concern all Americans.

This is not to say that the United States should never use drones for targeted attacks. We should. But we should also be creating standards and practices that are entirely defensible, even — and perhaps especially — if others were to adopt them.

There is no doubt that the United States is under threat from terrorists who would not hesitate to kill innocent Americans. The Sept. 11 attacks in Benghazi should not have surprised us. The American people need to understand that we are in an armed struggle and that we must be prepared to meet and defeat our enemy with whatever force is necessary.

Yet exactly how we conduct this warfare matters considerably. Ultimately, the objective is to bring humanity together on the side of humanity. Our current use of drones does not meet this standard.

Standards such as U.N. approval and adhering to “international law” ring hollow, as they do not deal with the reality we face. Russia is single-handedly blocking U.N. action on Syria. International law — where it exists — is followed by law-abiding countries but used as a shield by those who reject the whole premise.

A more useful standard comes from our country’s basic approach to warfare. For a conventional military engagement, we would take into account the costs and risks of: sending a force to carry out the strike; generating public support; seeking congressional authorization; attracting allies to the cause; the regional effects of military action; and the duration and end of the mission, not just the beginning.

We must be careful not to adopt rote formulas for restricting drone use. But we also must avoid writing blank checks. Applying the general considerations used in launching military operations should be the start of a new doctrine guiding drone warfare as well.

Kurt Volker was U.S. ambassador to NATO from July 2008 to May 2009. He is executive director of the McCain Institute for International Leadership at Arizona State University and a senior adviser to the Atlantic Council of the United States.

9 Replies to “The Risks Of Relying On Drones By Kurt Volker”

  1. I think that this article misses the point- how many of these criticisms would still hold equal weight if you substituted “F-16” for “drone”? It seems that it’s not how we’re using drones, it’s how we’re using force that really draws criticism, not the delivery vehicle.

      1. We definitely have manned assets in Pakistan, and the horn of Africa. But my point is not so much that we would choose to use drones or F-16’s, but that the criticism applies equal to both of them. If we used an F-16 in Mali instead of a drone, the criticism would be equally valid. Just because doctrinally we choose the drone over the manned aircraft, there is no significant answer to the criticism. The subjects still won’t be put on trial (didn’t know that was a requirement in war/conflict). We’re still an abstract purveyor of death (do you think those getting bombed know who hit them?)..Drone monopoly is irrelevant, but the use of drones is not. But if we bombed people with F-16s, don’t you think that other countries would equally see that as ethical precedent? China is looking at how we use force as a precedent, not at the delivery vehicle. Do you think they care about which type of plane they use to suppress their dissidents (if it comes to that?) Finally, does the kill list really care about how those that need to be killed are killed? The author makes no compelling case (to me at least) about how drones are unique from any other use of force. We just tactically choose drones in many of the cases that apply to the above criticism because it is convenient.

      2. I think your points are valid but I disagree that we are striking targets with manned assets often… I know much is not for open discussion, but I also know these manned strikes are not an option at least not as often as a drone strike. The issues: are we at war with these countries? …the answer is no, yet we enter sovereign airspace and strike targets at a time and place of our choosing… That is in violation of international law. As Volker notes, we would go ballistic if any other nation did this.

        These strikes appear to be done with less thought when we use unmanned assets….so yes, you are correct, but the RPAs give us less pause in conducting the strike, I do believe that is a fact.

        What will this look like when we gain land and sea assets? They are right around the corner.

        Good thoughts Brian and I think your points are very valid it is a new form of warfare. Did we “win” in Iraq? Or did we leave as we could not get a SOFA…so we were told to leave, not necessarily of our choosing. Because we say it is over, does mean it is over, the enemy has a vote and can freely move country to country…there will never be a treaty.

  2. Some very good points made by Brian, and I tend to agree with him. To Brian’s point that interested parties are watching, there was a letter from two Dutch parliament members in the Dutch newspaper read by highly educated, business people – read ‘the elite’ – last week touching many of the points made in this and earlier posts. They openly criticize the current offensive use of drones and ask NATO representatives to do the same. My summary of their argument – stop immediately because the action is making matters worse (ie. growing resistance and hate) in the near, mid and long-term. Say what you will about small countries, but it is usually their diplomats massaging the compromises that hold alliances, like NATO, together.

    1. Brian is a VERY smart man…I think we are all agreeing on the points you make Roger. My point is these strikes are enabled by RPAs. I believe Brian’s point is…the weapon system is irrelevant…it is a new age of war…to which I agree. The point is small, but drones enable us to attack countries that we are not at war with at a very low cost…a manned asset presents a much higher moral cost (as such we use those much less frequently). So in the end, as we see the rise of the machines, I believe there will be more conflict as we assume less risk. This will become exacerbated as we present drone forces on the ground and at sea. Next countries will rise to counter and better our drone force as we are already witnessing (clip from an article this AM below)… As Volker notes, drones are a valuable asset and they are not going away, so we need to ponder how to deal with them on a global level…perhaps akin to how we deal with nukes (not that this is a perfect system, but it might be better than no system). But like I said…Brian is a VERY smart man…fingers crossed as he is hopefully selected for the USAF PhD program shortly.
      October 28, 2012

      Iran Has Advanced Drone Technology: Defense Minister
      By Yeganeh Torbati, Reuters
      DUBAI — Iran possesses drones that are far more advanced than the unmanned aircraft Iranian-backed Hezbollah launched into Israeli airspace this month, Iran’s defense minister was quoted as saying on Sunday.

      Iran’s military regularly announces defense and engineering developments though some analysts are skeptical of the reliability of such reports.

      Earlier this month, Israel shot down a drone after it flew 25 miles into the Jewish state. Lebanese militant group Hezbollah claimed responsibility for the aircraft, saying its parts had been manufactured in Iran and assembled in Lebanon.

      1. Sir, I think you give me too much credit.

        I don’t see the difference in moral cost- where do you think this lies? Pakistan clearly has evolved to accept the drones more than manned aircraft, but why is that? Is it because drones are less obvious/intrusive? No loud noise? We have people on the ground supporting these drone strikes- so it’s not like we don’t have ‘boots on the ground’, yet, politically speaking, manned airstrikes are not feasible, but drone strikes somehow are.

        But more important in our use of drones is reduction in material risk/cost. If a drone is shot down, that is the end of it. A machine is gone- but that is it. A lost F-16 has the potential loss of life, POW/recovery situation, and political ramifications of obvious American presence.

        You’re right- we do seem more inclined to use drones in all of these different places, but I think the focus should be on when/where it’s ok to blow things up instead of the method.

        Roger- I agree with the significance of the smaller nations in the alliance; they often build the bridges between opposing views.

        I think that there is further danger in America’s recent use of force in that we seem more like an empire than a nation state. If we are perceived as an empire, that completely rewrites the rulebook in how we interact with other people outside of the US, and I don’t think it will work in our favor.

      2. That is a great question Brian… sounds like a SAASS Paper… probably mental, physical, and spiritual reasons and justifications. Mental… it is just a machine… we can rationalize that, physical… if it gets shot down… like you mention, no recovery, no notification of next of kin, no real second guessing, press is minimal, no torture or pilots getting dragged through the streets, no Hanoi Hilton… Spiritual… it is so much cleaner mentally… detached, removed, now… it is not clean for the guys on the ground, but when have we ever seen that on the news? I believe the answer is much deeper than the above, that is just mindless DeMarco Banter.

        Your thoughts on Empire are key and it seems like more and more we are taking up that banner. A bud at Hoover pondered…. are we becoming more like the USSR and China more like the US of old? I don’t necessarily agree, but it is an interesting thought to pull on.

        It is important to understand perceptions from other nations… not necessarily to act on those perceptions… but very important to understand and acknowledge.

        Just my 2 cents… and probably not worth that much.

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