Analysts: Drone Warfare Becoming Overrated

By Sandra I. Erwin
Another senior al-Qaida commander in Yemen was killed this week by a missile fired by a U.S. drone. Such news continues to buttress the notion that remote-controlled air strikes are the answer to keeping U.S. ground troops out of future quagmires.
Proof of that is the shockingly high approval rating that drones receive from the American public. “Drones are polling favorably at 65 percent,” says Peter W. Singer, director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative at Brookings, a Washington think tank.
But Singer and other analysts caution that the Obama administration might have become too comfortable with its use of unmanned strike aircraft as the go-to weapon to kill suspected terrorists. For both political and technological reasons, drone warfare might be about to reach its apex, they warn.
One of the misconceptions that fuel support for drone strikes is that they are a low-cost alternative to conventional military weapons such as fighter jets operated by human pilots, or a substitute for ground forces, says Michael O’Hanlon, director of research for foreign policy at Brookings.
Most people are not aware that drone operations, in order to be successful, require a massive backup infrastructure including large support crews and ground bases, and also are dependent on the United States’ gigantic intelligence community, O’Hanlon says Sept. 10 during a panel discussion at Brookings.
“Drones are only effective when backed up by extremely good intelligence,” he says. That is a costly proposition, considering that the United States is estimated to spend $80 billion a year on intelligence. “They’re only effective in Pakistan because of the presence of ground troops in Afghanistan, or they wouldn’t have bases from which to operate from or the human intelligence,” says O’Hanlon. Those ground bases in Afghanistan cost tens of billions of dollars a year to operate and staff.
The U.S. military also has to soon begin to invest in a new generation of drone technology if it intends to continue fighting this way, says Todd Harrison, senior fellow at the Center on Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. Current remotely piloted aircraft are relatively low tech compared to stealth fighter jets, and could easily be shot down by enemy surface-to-air missiles, says Harrison. Al-Qaida operatives, while tough to locate and identify, are not equipped to defeat U.S. drones. That could change in the future as more countries and non-state groups gain access to modern drones and force nations to arm themselves with air defenses.  
“The drones we have today are only useful in permissive environments,” says Harrison. “They cannot operate in a ‘denied’ environments with surface-to-air missiles. … If we’re going to maintain this advantage we’ll have to invest in stealth aircraft and stronger communications links.”
Technological challenges aside, an even bigger concern for drone warriors is the increasingly hostile climate on Capitol Hill, Singer says.
“Members of Congress on the right and left are becoming more uncomfortable about their lack of input and oversight” in drone-based counterterrorism operations, he says.
The wariness about Obama’s unchecked use of drones is bipartisan, Singer says. Regardless of the outcome of the November election, he adds, “more questions will be asked … than Obama has faced in the past four years.”
An attempt by lawmakers to have a greater say in how drone warfare is executed is also part of a bigger push by Congress to regain its role as the branch of government that gets to declare war. “Congress hasn’t declared war since 1942 against the Axis powers,” says Singer. The 1972 War Powers Act was intended to counterbalance rising executive branch authority, but has not been implemented. “Congress has been largely quiet on these issues,” Singer says. That is likely to change in the next administration, he says.
Anotherbacklash against U.S. drone strikes comes from human rights groups that point to the growing numbers of civilian casualties that result from these attacks.
“Those opposed to drone strikes often cite the June 2009 one that targeted Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud at a funeral in the tribal areas. That strike reportedly killed 60 civilians attending the funeral, but not Mehsud,” writesRAND Corp. associate political scientist Patrick B. Johnston. Menhsud was killed later by another drone strike in August 2009. His successor, Hakimullah Mehsud, developed a relationship with foiled Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad, who cited drone strikes as a key motivation for his May 2010 attempted attack, says Johnson, who is also the author of "Does Decapitation Work? Assessing the Effectiveness of Leadership Targeting in Counterinsurgency Campaigns.”
Despite its controversial nature, he says, the U.S. counterterrorism strategy has “demonstrated a degree of effectiveness. … The Obama administration is committed to reducing the size of the U.S. military's footprint overseas by relying on drones, special operations forces, and other intelligence capabilities. These methods have made it more difficult for al-Qaida remnants to reconstitute a new safe haven, as Osama bin Laden did in Afghanistan in 1996, after his ouster from Sudan.”
Recently declassified correspondence seized in the bin Laden raid, says Johnson, shows that the “relentless pressure from the drone campaign on al-Qaida in Pakistan led bin Laden to advise al-Qaida operatives to leave Pakistan's tribal areas.”
Zachary Miller, adjunct junior fellow with the American Security Project,contends in a white paper that the “consensus on drone technology has not been fully developed and it remains to be seen how effective these weapons are in achieving long-term counterterrorism objectives.” While the tactical prowess and relatively low costs have been a “source of comfort for policymakers,” Miller says, “There is evidence that drones will produce political blowback, and be counterproductive in long-term scenarios.”
Photo Credit: Air Force

Topics: C4ISR, Counterinsurgency, Robotics, Unmanned Air Vehicles

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