A Drone Strike On Democracy By James Joyner


DeM Banter: Interesting piece…pulling on some earlier DeMarco Banter…that there is no catalyst as of yet to make this an issue… but as China develops their systems for possible use… and subsequently deploys said assets–perhaps dialog will begin…maybe….

New York Daily News
December 6, 2012
Pg. 36

The public has a right to know far more about these attacks

As a theoretical matter, remotely piloted vehicles are simply a tool of warfare, morally indistinguishable from manned aircraft. The more efficiently the U.S. can target and kill its enemies, the better. And drones are cheaper to operate, carry far less risk for American military personnel and make it easier to collect intelligence than their manned counterparts.

In reality, though, the U.S. uses drones differently than it uses traditional weapons. Because they’re small and cheap, they’re in constant operation in parts of Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia — and thus much more likely to be used to deliver lethal strikes. We’ve gone from a policy of firing only on high-value targets, such as senior terrorist leaders, to one of engaging groups of young men who present the mere “signature” of militant groups.

Not only has this increased the percentage of noncombatants killed but, according to at least one major study, it has bred fear and resentment among the civilian populations in those societies — potentially creating more terrorists.

Most problematic, though, is the fact that drone policy is so shrouded in secrecy that it’s essentially impossible to accurately assess the costs and benefits. Because it’s run covertly by the intelligence and special-operations communities, only a handful of people are privy to the details of the drone war — and almost all of them are prohibited from sharing what they know.

What we do know is from the combination of dogged reporting and selective (and quite probably self-serving) leaks. Back in May, the New York Times described the painstaking process President Obama and his national security team allegedly use to decide who goes on its kill list. We were told that the President personally ensured that each strike would “align . . . with American values.”

More recently, The Times reported that, in the weeks leading up to the election, the administration began “pushing to make the rules formal and resolve internal uncertainty and disagreement about exactly when lethal action is justified.”

Apparently, it occurred to the White House that it might be a good idea to have some structure in place in case a President Romney were to take office and inherit the drone program. As one official put it, “There was concern that the levers might no longer be in our hands.”

Of course, Obama easily won reelection; consequently, the enthusiasm within the Obama administration for defining and reining in presidential power is likely to wane. And given the acrimony on Capitol Hill, it’s hard to imagine that the President is eager to have congressional Republicans weigh in on something as sensitive as a kill list. Then again, this seems to be one issue where there’s very little daylight between the two parties. Even the two separate fall 2011 drone strikes that killed Anwar al-Awlaki and his 16-year-old son, both American citizens, in Yemen raised few official eyebrows.

And because it’s all so incredibly classified, there’s not even an opportunity for informed public debate over the use of drones.

Perhaps the news that China has joined the ranks of the drone-possessing community, having unveiled an operational vehicle that looks suspiciously like the American Reaper but reportedly at a fraction of the per-unit cost, will finally force a major debate, much as Russia’s acquisition of nuclear weapons did in the last century.

It’s one thing for an American President to have the ability to control flying killing machines in disparate corners of the globe.

It’s quite another to put that power in the hands of an authoritarian regime in Beijing — much less those of any number of despots around the world who might be lining up as customers.

Joyner is the managing editor of the Atlantic Council and writes at outsidethebeltway.com.

4 Replies to “A Drone Strike On Democracy By James Joyner”

  1. Hi Bill,

    Drones and other “at length” tools have been used in warfare for a very long time. “Recent” history showed drone use in Vietnam, the Arab-Israeli conflicts, Gulf wars etc. Across the spectrum of technology that is available, there really isn’t much difference between MQ-1 and Tomahawk save the particulars of the aerodynamic performance, the choice of payload, and the command and control systems used. Both systems can go “somewhere” and do something all by themselves. One system is better suited to a more persistent presence, and the other for a shorter mission profile.

    The issue today is not about drones themselves so much as it is the willingness to send drones into places where we do not have declared wars, and traditionally haven’t gone, in order to kill people. In the past, other more personal methods may have been used to more or less effect to accomplish the same objective(s). Now with an array of drones deployed all over the world, it seems that some grey line on “enough” has been crossed and that we are now playing God as opposed to just doing surgery on a cancer here and there. Since the technology employed is very much at arms length, there is temptation to do more with it than would have been done if other means were attempted on the same targets.

    Don’t get me wrong, I like technology and would much rather replace that technology when it gets “caught” than to try and replace the human that would have been there but for the technology. There are some ethical questions that need to be ironed out though. There needs to be balance and proportionality as well as a consideration of collateral damage. It is important to consider the level of conflict such as whether or not there is a declared war in the employment area as part of the decision process before the pickle button is pressed. That leads me to wonder if the difficulty of reaching some targets by other means, or the host’s relative inability to strike back, implies that there should be a higher bar to the use of drones, in other words, the target better be really really worth it.

    It is interesting that the author focuses on China as the entity that may stoke the conversation on when and where it is OK to use drones from a nation-state perspective. (Lets leave non-state actors like narco-terrorists etc out of the dialogue for now.) I can think of at least two other examples that may get there first. Can you?



    1. Ben: Overall…. I agree with you, but we can not fail to recognize what these RPAs enable a nation to do… that a tomahawk can not do. Enter a nations sovereign airspace and surveil without permission… an act of war really… now couple that with actual attacks and yeah…that’s a bit different. I know we had similar issues with the U2 and even with satellites initially. A tomahawk is more potential energy whereas the RPA is more kinetic. US Navy off the coast (messaging) vs a robot over your head.

      Yes I can see 2 potential entries into the RPA World… in fact, no doubt they are already in it. What do we do when they act as we are acting? UCAS? So we send in our “fighter” drones to shoot down their attack drones? Now, “they” counter with “fighter” drones…That will be interesting… and what of the issue of sovereign airspace?

      Thanks for the thoughts Ben…

      1. Bill,

        The unpermitted violation of sovereign airspace by a war machine is very provocative, any attack is an act of war in the usual sense. In a sense the use of drones, regardless of the platform used, to deliver an attack is currently an economical idea only because those upon whom that is inflicted are not able to return the favor. You ask about drone fighters to protect sovereign airspace…. A far more effective response would be to send a drone to the source country and return the favor. How would citizens in NYC feel if a drone showed up and blew up the new World Trade Center?

        Jus’ sayin…,


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