Much has been made about the United States’ use of drones to target alleged terrorists within and beyond the Afghanistan warzone. The government has complained of information leaks about the secret program, critics have said the strikes kill more civilians than militants and analysts have surmised what the escalation of lethal drone attacks means for the future of warfare.
Despite the swirling controversies, it appears weaponized drones are here to stay.
“I think this is the future,” said Clinton Watts, a senior fellow at The George Washington University’s Homeland Security Policy Institute.
Critics have described the so-called “drone war” as a symptom of the failure of U.S. strategy on the ground in Afghanistan and caution that the tactic should not be elevated to an overarching strategy. But strikes already have been reported in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. And with the war in Iraq over and the one in Afghanistan winding down, the fight against terrorists will become more decentralized, leaving experts to ponder where the United States will next employ its armed drones.
Watts has been a champion of using drone strikes in tandem with special operations to quell terrorist threats. He co-authored a brief last summer calling for an immediate ramp-up of special operations forces and drone strikes in Yemen to cripple al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. The group’s foreign operations unit led by American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki posed the greatest threat, stated the June 2011 brief.
Three months later, Awlaki was killed by a U.S. drone attack.
“It’s the most effective tool we have in a counterterrorism context,” Watts told National Defense.
The unmanned aerial vehicle has been revolutionary for the U.S. military, first for its surveillance attributes and more recently for its ability to strike high-value targets without putting troops in danger. Armed drones have, along with capture-kill special operations, become the preferred method for eliminating militants.
The fascination with remote controlled systems around the world is sending shockwaves throughout industry as the rest of the world plays catch-up with the United States. A study released in April by the Teal Group projects worldwide spending on drones to double over the next 10 years.
“UAVs have proved their value in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan and will continue to be a high priority for militaries in the United States and worldwide,” said Philip Finnegan, director of corporate analysis and co-writer of the study.
Most of the research, development and procurement will take place in the United States. And hunter-killer drones, such as the MQ-9 Reaper, will proliferate, the report stated.
Armed MQ-1 Predators and Reapers have changed the nature of air combat in peace-keeping operations against insurgent forces, the Teal Group report stated. The value of their dual surveillance and strike functions has been reflected in Air Force inventory requirements for the Predator and Reaper. In 2004, the service maintained five simultaneous Predator combat air patrols. That has increased ten-fold since then.
The majority of drones are used strictly for gathering intelligence, but there is a push to arm more systems.
Textron Systems’ AAI has provided to the Army and Marine Corps about 150 RQ-7 Shadow systems, some of which are being used by special forces. The company is under contract to weaponize the Shadow for the Marine Corps. The first of these armed drones could be fielded early next year. The Army is administering the program, watching closely from the sidelines and may eventually decide to strap weapons on its Shadows, which can carry a 25-pound bomb under each wing. The program’s weapon of choice is currently classified.
AAI’s work with the Marine Corps has coincided with an effort across industry to make lighter weapons for unmanned aircraft that are smaller than the Hellfire-carrying Predators and Reapers most associated with precision strikes.
“Just a couple of years ago, there were a very limited number of weapons less than 25 pounds that had the lethality to take care of a high-value target,” said Steve Reid, senior vice president and general manager of AAI Unmanned Aircraft Systems. “Now a number of well-respected weapons manufacturers have less than 25-pound packages.”
A weaponized Shadow would be a natural fit for special operators, Reid said, noting that the effort attracted a fair amount of attention this spring at the National Defense Industrial Association’s annual Special Operations Forces Industry Conference in Tampa.
Arming Shadow will streamline the kill chain for Marines. On one occasion in 2010, Shadow operators observed a man in Afghanistan implant at least four successful homemade bombs before Marines were able to call in a strike. That wouldn’t have been a problem with an armed drone.
The Air Force’s 3rd Special Operations Squadron is the “go-to” remotely piloted aircraft unit for all special operations forces missions, according to website materials from Cannon Air Force Base, N.M. The squadron uses Predators outfitted with “television and infrared cameras for full-motion video support and the deadly Hellfire missile” to track and eliminate targets.
A promotional video played at the conference touted the surveillance and lethal capability’s of SOCOM’s unmanned aircraft. It showed video feeds from drones and a missile slamming into a vehicle. Officials at the conference said they were always on the lookout for new warheads, seekers and technology for hard-to-hit targets.
“UAVs are integral to any special ops team,” said Chris Pehrson, director of strategic development for General Atomics. “As the demand for special operations increases, UAVs are going to be part of that.”
Because of the budget environment, General Atomics is trying to get as much as it can out of its current platforms. The company wants to extend the wings and endurance of the Reaper and improve sensors and weapons. Smaller missiles and GPS-guided munitions will produce less collateral damage, Pehrson said.
The number of civilians killed by U.S. drone strikes depends on who is keeping count. Some organizations, including the New America Foundation, put the numbers in the thousands. During a recent press briefing, Pentagon spokesman George Little said drone attacks have not resulted in widespread civilian casualties.
“I can assure you that the number of civilian casualties is very, very low,” he said. “We have very good means of assessing the extent to which our weapons platforms for military or counterterrorism operations result in civilian casualties. And we’re very confident that the number is very low.”
Some experts have suggested the United States would rely less on drones as the country shifts its focus to areas where adversaries have the ability to shoot them down. But that doesn’t seem likely. The Teal Group study suggests that there are several secret programs to develop faster, stealthy drones for use in contested airspace. Iranian officials claim to have copied the design of an RQ-170 Sentinel, a sophisticated and stealthy U.S. drone that went down in their territory. However, it remains to be seen when it will be possible to design an integrated computer, flight control and electro-optical sensing system that is as small, intelligent and versatile as a human pilot, the study says.
Air Force scientists have listed autonomy as the “single greatest theme” for future science and technology investments. A Pentagon roadmap for unmanned aerial systems recommends the pursuit of technologies and policies that introduce a higher degree of autonomy and can reduce manpower and budgetary concerns associated with drones.
But software still can’t tell the difference between an Afghan farmer with a shovel on his shoulder and an al-Qaida fighter with a machine gun. The human must remain the most important part of the unmanned system, said Peter Mario Asaro, an assistant professor at the New School for Public Engagement in New York City.
Asaro is a founding member of the International Committee for Robot Arms Control, which recently posted on its website an excerpt from a U.S. Central Command investigation of a Predator crew’s overzealous actions during a 2010 attack that killed as many as 23 Afghan civilians and injured others.
Drone operators claimed to see weapons and militants but not women and children that were riding in the targeted vehicles, according to the investigation report. A captain told military investigators that Predator crews displayed a “Top Gun” mentality. The report also indicates a “desire to go kinetic” among the drone operators.
No better, though, are the decision-making abilities of machines working on algorithms that can never fully understand all of the conditions involved, Asaro said.
An automated system can be programmed to engage everyone who runs out a back door, but it can’t necessarily tell if the people leaving are women, children or fighters trying to surrender.
“The human mind is limited, but I would argue that the UAV has no mind at all,” Asaro said.
When asked if the Pentagon would ever build autonomous machines that can kill by using artificial intelligence, Little said he couldn’t address what the future holds.
“Right now we have a very important human tail that supports the deployment and use of these capabilities. I’m not going to speculate as to what the future might hold,” he said. “But there is absolutely no imminent deployment of a totally unmanned system.”
Little took issue with the term “unmanned.”
“They are human-controlled. They are human systems. There may not be a pilot sitting in the cockpit, but they are supported by human beings who do very important work,” he said. “They’re extremely precise, they’re lawful, and they’re extremely effective.”
But even proponents advocate for more transparent policies regarding their use.
“I do have my concerns that it can go too far,” Watts said. “I’m worried that we don’t have a standard process by which we’re utilizing them and deploying them.”
International standards will be needed as drone technology proliferates around the world, Asaro said. Something akin to a treaty should require a human in the loop, he said.
When asked about reports of the United States helping Italy arm its unmanned aircraft and if the Defense Department had any concerns about the proliferation of weaponized drones, Little said the sharing of such technology would only occur if there was a direct benefit to U.S. interests.
During a webcast earlier this year, President Obama refuted an assertion that the United States was “willy-nilly” in its use of lethal drone technology. “It is important for everybody to understand that this thing is kept on a very tight leash,” he said.
But not all nations will hold the same leash.
“Right now we are the only ones who can do targeted killing,” Asaro said. It remains to be seen how the United States will react when other countries begin using the same tactic on perceived threats to their national security, he said.
The Pentagon is confident it will stay ahead of potential adversaries.
“The United States does have a superior edge right now in this arena, and we’re going to continue to sustain and maintain that edge,” Little said.