Military Use of Unmanned Aircraft Undeterred by Drone Backlash
Amidst a raging controversy over the Obama administration’s use of remotely piloted aircraft to kill terrorist suspects, military officials insist drones are valuable tools of war that are used primarily for surveillance.
Only a “small percentage” of RPA missions involve missile strikes, said Air Force Lt. Gen. Larry D. James, deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.
During a panel discussion at the Stimson Center April 24, James insisted that Air Force RPA pilots and unit commanders are obeying orders and not responsible for orchestrating drone strikes.
Chris Anders, a lawyer at the American Civil Liberties Union, asked James whether military leaders get to weigh in on whether a drone strike might be unlawful if civilians were in danger. “What are the responsibilities of uniformed officers in making decisions on whether to strike when the order comes from another agency?” Anders asked.
Calls of whom to attack and how are “not inside my lane,” James said. “Decisions are fully vetted at the right levels,” he said.
The political firestorm surrounding the administration’s targeted-killing policy in areas such as Pakistan and Yemen has put the Air Force — which operates the majority of the nation’s armed RPAs — in a tough spot. The CIA oversees drone strikes in places such as Pakistan and Yemen, while the Air Force has focused on Afghanistan, Yemen and portions of Africa. Incidents of civilian casualties have stirred concerns about the legality of drone strikes outside designated war zones. “The issues in Pakistan get lumped in with the entire military RPA program as a whole,” said Rachel Stohl, senior associate at the Stimson Center.
James said the Air Force is primarily interested in drones as surveillance tools. Despite budget cuts that will affect most Pentagon programs — spending on new drones is projected to reach $2.5 billion in 2014, which is about $1.2 billion less than in 2013 — the Air Force will continue to invest in new sensors for RPAs and data-mining technologies to help analyze the intelligence they collect. The Air Force also is interested in “low observable” unmanned aircraft that could fly undetected in hostile airspace, said James. Current RPAs such as Predators and Reapers would be easy targets if they flew within range of enemy radar and anti-air weapons.
The ability of drones to operate autonomously has made them the target of civil liberties activists and critics of U.S. foreign policy who contend that the technology will make it easier to spy or kill with impunity.
Surveillance missions are easy to automate, James said. This and their ability to stay on station for up to 24 hours is what make RPAs so attractive to the military, he said. Programming drones to independently conduct strike missions is a “totally different equation,” he said. “We are years or decades away from having confidence in an artificial intelligence system that can do discrimination and make those type of decisions.”
Experts on this issue such as Micah Zenko, of the Council on Foreign Relations, have insisted that it’s important to recognize that drones are tools, not policy. Because they have contributed to the decimation of al-Qaida, they will continue to remain in the U.S. arsenal, he wrote in a recent study.
The backlash against drones gained momentum this week as the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights conducted a hearing titled "Drone Wars: The Constitutional and Counterterrorism Implications of Targeted Killing." The star witness was Farea Al-Muslimi, a youth activist and writer from Wessab, a remote village in Yemen that was recently struck by an American drone. “When they [local goat farmers] think of America, they think of the terror they feel from the drones that hover over their heads, ready to fire missiles at any time,” he said. “The drone strikes are the face of America to many Yemenis.”
No Obama administration officials were made available to testify.
Rosa Brooks, professor of law at the Georgetown University Law Center characterized drone operations as a “deep problem” for U.S. planners because it highlights the difficulties of operating in nontraditional battlefields. In conventional wars, she said, “You have uniformed soldiers; you have open acknowledgment of the armed conflict. … On the other hand, once we get off that traditional battlefield, when we're looking at an inchoate, protean enemy such as geographically disperse, globalized terrorist organizations." It becomes hard to say, "Here's where the armed conflict is, here's where the armed conflict isn't; here's who the combatant is in it. … All of those legal frameworks just start breaking down.”
The military chain of command has trouble adapting to fuzzy rules of engagement, said retired Marine Corps Gen. James Cartwright, former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Those who pull the trigger must have “written orders from the National Command Authority, the secretary of defense and the president, to each person in the chain of operation and accountability: who, what, when, where, what capabilities, what restraints and what types of collateral damage, what to do if there is collateral damage,” he told the senators on the panel.
“If we're going to have the military participate in these types of operations for an extended period of time, more than just a one-off type mission, then we need to … have specific units designated and equipped and trained and recruited to do that kind of operation,” said Cartwright. “I could support consolidation of the armed, remotely piloted aircraft under DoD, only if there are fundamental changes in how DoD trains and equips for this mission.”
He urged lawmakers to bring more clarity to issues of oversight and accountability. “If it is to be a covert mission, it should be conducted by the intelligence community. If it is to be a clandestine mission, it should be conducted by the military, and train-and-equip authorities will need to be adjusted,” Cartwright said. “I am concerned we may have ceded some of our moral high ground in this endeavor.”
Decorated fighter pilot Martha McSally, a retired Air Force colonel, was assigned to the Saudi Arabia Air Operations Center when the Predator drone was first used for reconnaissance and air strikes. She said there is an “information operations campaign by al-Qaida going on against us and the word drone has a connotation that we've got these autonomous vehicles flying around and striking at will, without a whole lot of scrutiny and oversight to them.” She explained that it actually takes about 200 people to keep one of these aircraft airborne for a 24-hour orbit. That crew includes operators, intelligence officers, maintenance personnel, equipment people and lawyers.
Photo Credit: Defense Dept., Air Force