Among them: What are the martial and moral implications of remote killing? Does imperfect precision create enemies faster than they are eliminated? Does the fact that drone use reduces risk for U.S. troops justify their use? And, because no nation maintains a monopoly on weapons technology, is proliferation inevitable — including to terrorist groups currently in the cross hairs?
One would expect these and other ethical and efficacy questions to be debated on the campaign trail. But so far, slogans and sound bites seem to suffice for policy positions.
Hard questions are being asked at the cineplex, where“Eye in the Sky,” a riveting film released Friday, examines the drone dilemma.
The film’s taut plot is built around how a drone attack on would-be suicide bombers in Kenya is weighed against the likelihood of killing civilians.
While the film is fictional, it seems cinema verite. Especially when the themes reflect real drone dynamics, including the depiction of how legal, military, diplomatic, public-relations and ethical decisions (or buck-passing indecisions) are made, and how the film seems to foreshadow news like last week’s drone strike in Somalia that killed up to 150 Al-Shabab terrorists allegedly plotting an attack.
In some cases, drones are a “necessary evil,” said Michael O’Hanlon, co-director of the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence at the Brookings Institution. “If you are not sure of your safety, and don’t want to tip off your potential target, and you only have a fairly limited window of time when you can see them, then the drones often have huge advantages.” And, added O’Hanlon: “For the most part, they’ve helped us make our application of lethal force much more precise and much less likely to cause civilian casualties.”
But drones aren’t that discreet, argues Andrew Cockburn, author of “Kill Chain: The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins.” The U.S. military, Cockburn believes, is “so locked into their technology and the apparent precision that they won’t admit even to themselves that they make mistakes.”
And it may be a mistake not just tactically but strategically as well, Cockburn said. “The record seems pretty clear that we are producing more enemies than we are eliminating. … Drones arouse fantastic antagonism among the targeted population.”
Even when they are precise, Cockburn said, “intelligence studies show that when you kill a [high-value target], he is immediately replaced, and the replacement turns out almost invariably to be more dangerous, more aggressive and more effective than the person they replaced.”
What happens when these high-value targets get their own drones is yet another asymmetric threat.
Although he questions U.S. drone policy, Cockburn acknowledges drone reality. “They are our principal counterterrorist weapon, which means our principal military weapon at the moment, because counterterrorism wars are the only ones we are fighting.”
Even with drone use, boots on the ground are an enduring legacy of the “War on Terror” era.
“People started to think about this era of antiseptic warfare, but since 9/11 we have not really been living in that world,” O’Hanlon said. “We’ve lost more than 7,000 forces in combat and another 60,000-plus seriously injured. We are not really using drones as an alternative to military force; we are using them as a complement to manned platforms. I don’t think there is any particular doubt about our willingness to still put lives on the line, and I wish we could use unmanned systems even more — especially against the kind of enemies we’re currently fighting.”
Drones have been used extensively during the last several years, which seems to reflect President Obama’s caution on conflicts in the Mideast. His reticence is just one of the subjects of “The Obama Doctrine,” an Atlantic magazine analysis by journalist Jeffrey Goldberg that gives context to the president’s complex calculations on Syria and other crises. The article is fodder for supporters and critics alike, yet regardless of readers’ interpretations, at least there’s a recorded rationale.
That’s more than can be said of most of those hoping to succeed Obama. They owe voters more specifics, but so far foreign policy — except for globally related issues such as trade and immigration — has not had a focus commensurate to its increasing importance. And beyond geopolitical strategy, there’s been little to no talk of tactics, including how drones are shaping events.
O’Hanlon would welcome more debate about Syria and Afghanistan policy options, but he believes that drones are “only properly understood in a broader context.”
And yet this context is missing from the campaign, Cockburn said. Recalling Ted Cruz’s bellicose rhetoric, he said that there have been “promises to carpet bomb and make the desert glow. … But I’m not sure military strategy is being clearly annunciated on the campaign trail. But they certainly should talk about it, and whoever becomes president is going to have to deal with it.”