There's little question that unmanned aerial vehicles or drones are helping to save the lives of U.S. and NATO troops in places like Afghanistan while aiding in the killing of terrorist suspects in regions largely inaccessible to ground troops.
But the bigger question is whether drones are in any way decisive to the war effort. Put bluntly, are they helping us to win wars, or are they essentially prolonging wars that are ultimately unwinnable?
So far, it appears that drones aren't decisive. They're merely instrumental. They're instrumental in keeping us in a losing cause. They keep our military's casualty rate at a "sustainable" level, low enough so as not to rankle the folks back home, while they give us an illusion of progress in the sense of a body count of suspected militants killed.
But is sustainability a good thing if you're sinking deeper and deeper into a quagmire? Is killing "militants" a good thing if in the process you alienate and terrorize the people, turning them against you and sowing the dragon's teeth of further militant action and more war?
Think here of the Vietnam War. Had we had drones in the skies over the Ho Chi Minh trail, surely we'd have seen with greater clarity the Viet Cong (VC) and North Vietnamese Army (NVA) coming. Surely we'd have killed more VC while losing fewer U.S. troops, at least in the short term. But would this technological advantage have translated into victory in Vietnam? Or would we have sunk even deeper into the Vietnam quagmire, bugging out not in 1975 but in 1985?
In our military's general embrace and praise of drones, we need to be careful not to lose sight of the larger realities of war. New weapons that keep us in a losing cause longer are nothing to praise. Weapons that generate resentment and blowback among peoples we say we're trying to win to our side are nothing to embrace.
In our eagerness to lower the immediate cost of war to ourselves, we may very well be elevating the long term costs of war both to ourselves and to others. But our military has great difficulty seeing this precisely because our focus is so tactical, so focused in the weeds. Much like our numerous drones, we focus on small slices of the battlefield, losing sight of the bigger picture, the larger battlespace, the reality that winning a war requires something more than a discrete set of killing operations.
Drones, in other words, are reinforcing the U.S. military's tendency to favor tactics and short-term expediency at the expense of strategy and long-term effectiveness. How long will it be before drones become merely a crutch that keeps us hobbling along in a losing cause? Or are we already there?