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National Defense > Blog > Posts > Political Backlash Not Likely to Diminish U.S. Appetite for Armed Drones
Political Backlash Not Likely to Diminish U.S. Appetite for Armed Drones
By Sandra I. Erwin



The Obama administration’s clandestine drone war once again is at the center of a political firestorm.

But controversy over the legality and long-term efficacy of drone strikes against suspected terrorists is not likely to dampen the demand for these weapons, analysts and foreign policy experts said.

The president’s national security adviser John O. Brennan is expected to defend the administration’s “targeted killings” by armed drones in counterterrorism campaigns when he faces members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Feb. 7. The panel will consider Brennan’s nomination to become CIA director.

U.S. intelligence agencies, the military services and special operations forces are certain to increase their use of remotely piloted aircraft — both for surveillance and strike operations — as the United States is currently the only country that has a global intelligence apparatus in place to make drone strikes possible, analysts said.

Suppliers of drones and associated equipment will continue of see booming business even in these times of political backlash and Pentagon budget cuts, said Michael Blades, senior industry analyst at Frost & Sullivan, a market intelligence firm.

The Defense Department has bulked up its inventory of unmanned aircraft over the past decade and will not be purchasing significant new quantities, he said. But there will be fresh demand for improved sensors, communications links and ground control stations, Blades said. “The military is getting away from being wrapped in purchasing platforms and [will focus on] figuring out how to employ the platforms it has, and increase the capability.”

Plug-and-play cameras, radar and other spying devices — referred to in the military market as “payloads” — will be a growth industry, Pentagon officials have said. “We are focusing a lot more on payloads than we are on platforms,” said Navy Adm. James A. Winnefeld Jr., vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “We need a new payload on a UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle] about every month,” he said during a presentation at the Atlantic Council. “I’m looking for what I call the ‘payload czar’ who will be able to very quickly, in a nimble way, develop payloads to meet emerging needs as they come out.”

The Pentagon also is seeking to buy new workstations with an “open architecture” that can be used to control any UAV, regardless of which branch of the military owns it, said Blades. The current fleet is operated by a mishmash of ground control stations that are made by different contractors. “The military wants to consolidate,” he said. “Proprietary stuff costs too much, and the logistics tail is a nightmare.”

Another item that is high on the wish list are long-endurance batteries and high-definition video and still-image cameras that can help identify targets more precisely, said Blades. “The most sought-after technology for UAVs now is HD.”

High-quality HD payloads currently are not available for small drones, he said. Special operations forces, which are rapidly expanding their small-drone fleets, are in the market for new payloads, said Blades.

The role of special operations forces vis-à-vis the CIA likely will be on Brennan’s agenda after he wins Senate approval to take over the agency. Insiders speculate that Brennan will push to get the CIA out of the drone strike business and put the Defense Department in sole charge.

“If you were starting from scratch today, you would put almost all of these [drone operations] under Title 10 Defense Department authority, and I think that is where they belong, in part because it gives you one single chain of command, on single justifications,” said Micah Zenko, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Bureaucratic infighting aside, analysts suggest, the administration should develop reliable ways to measure the tactical and strategic impacts of drone strikes. “From a tactical level, drones have been incredibly successful at killing high-level terrorist leaders everywhere they are used,” wrote Joshua Foust, a research fellow at the American Security Project. “But from a strategic level, drones present long-term challenges that are not yet fully accounted for in U.S. policy decisions,” such as civilian casualties, Foust said.

“The Obama administration’s strategy for how it uses drones is poorly articulated and not very transparent,” said Zenko.

The first U.S. “targeted killing” by a drone strike took place Nov. 17, 2001, in Afghanistan, said an ASP report.

Retired Navy Adm. Dennis Blair, a former director of national intelligence, said drone technology should be viewed as part of the larger arsenal of U.S. weapons. “We should think about drones as long-range snipers in the military sense,” he said in a conference call with reporters.

Drone technology simply has too many “inherent advantages” that make UAVs the weapons of choice today, Zenko noted. Drones’ “responsive persistence without putting your own pilots or your own personnel at risk” means states will use lethal force more often, he said. Approximately 97 percent of all targeted killings by the United States so far was conducted by drones, he said. “What I’m mostly worried about is when these proliferate” outside the United States and possibly end up in the hands of U.S. enemies.

Photo Credit: Defense Dept.

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