Deadly Drones: The Real Problem

It's not about drones. The current controversy over the use of drones in combat is misguided. Drones, or more correctly unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), are distinguished from other aircraft due to the location of the pilots. But where the crew sits is not the right issue. This debate is another example of blaming technology for human misdeeds.

The real problem lies with the decision makers who choose to go to war when American national interests are difficult to articulate or better alternatives exist. An integral part of that equation is inadequate understanding of the consequences of those decisions by political leaders. When coupled with lack of personal accountability for the death and destruction they sow, it is a recipe for disaster. Too frequently we have taken the short-term tactical view while disregarding the strategic implications to the operations.

There is little doubt that advances in technologies play an important role in those war-making decisions and the controversy that follows. Employing drones, or other robotic weapons, lessens the personal risk to the operators. Improved weapon precision guidance also provides a relative degree of comfort that collateral casualties can be, if not eliminated, at least minimized. Thus having these capabilities encourages strikes against high value targets (known or suspected terrorists) that could not be accomplished by other means. The problem is the innocent people in the vicinity at the time of the attack. Rarely considered is the negative strategic value those collateral casualties will play thereby raising sympathy for the adversary's cause. Photos of dead children do not engender empathy for the U.S., even when the terrorist was a really bad guy.

As the public has wearied of extended conflicts, many legislators have become sensitive to the commitment of American boots on the ground. Therefore, having robotic weapon systems that do not place troops in harm's way appears as an acceptable alternative and more easily deployed.

Dirty, dull or dangerous missions are ideal for remotely controlled combat systems. In addition to pilot safety, an important advantage of large drones, such as Predator or Reaper, is their endurance. They can be flown for as long as fuel is available while crews can be rotated as often as needed. As the loitering, unblinking eye in the sky, through comparative analysis, computer software programs can determine changing situations that might be missed by bored or inattentive operators.

To date military commanders have not relinquished the decision to fire on a target to any unmanned systems. Concern about the capability for automated lethal decision-making goes back decades. When I was the Director, Advanced System Concepts Office (U.S. Army Laboratory Command) in the 1980's, there was language in the Defense Appropriations Bills specifically prohibiting even research on robotic systems that would automate the decision to launch a weapon. Automation, however, is a system enhancer, not a root cause for concern. That domain is in the province of human decisions. Times are changing, and along with that concepts of legality and morality.

Perspective is needed to examine the real issues. A quintessential point may by the fundamental constructs of our war on terror/terrorists. From a teleological perspective a war on terror may be, in fact, an oxymoron. In other publications I've addressed the metamorphosis of the definition of the concept of war. Terrorism brought yet another dimension to the controversy; the attempt to treat it as a crime. In general, the perpetrators are viewed as criminals rather than enemy combatants. Therefore, when captured, they are afforded certain legal rights. With drone strikes there is both a presumption of guilt of the suspect and the authority to execute the mission. It must be noted that some jurists hold these actions are extrajudicial in nature. The citizenship of the targeted person is of concern to many observers. Lengthy debates on that topic are available but the bottom line is the attacks occur and people die, but a significant number are innocent bystanders by current standards.

The concept and acceptance of collateral casualties have change dramatically since World War II during which an estimated 50 to 55 million civilians were killed. While that was a war of national survival, targeting civilians was tolerable and intentional. Consider the bombing of Dresden, Germany which had little military value. On the nights of 13 to 15 February, 1945, 769 RAF and 527 USAAF heavy bombers leveled the city leaving an estimated 22,000-25,000 civilians dead. The attack producing the highest number of casualties was neither Hiroshima nor Nagasaki, which heralded the advent of Atomic warfare. Rather it was Operation Meetinghouse, the fire-bombing of Tokyo. On 9-10 March, 1945, 279 B-29 bombers conducted the most destructive air raid in history. Knowing the structures were mostly wooden, jellied gasoline bombs were employed, intentionally incinerating an estimated 100,000 people; nearly all civilians.

Clearly the sense of responsibility for violence has shifted dramatically in the past century. That is a key factor in questioning or condemning specific actions. During WWII collective responsibility was assumed. Thereby all Japanese and Germans, be they military or civilian, were considered adversaries and could be targeted. Without culpable evidence, the U.S. extended suspicions to our own citizens and created internment camps for those of Japanese ancestry. That action was racially motivated as Americans of German heritage were not confined.

The Vietnam War brought another set of identity problems. The Viet Cong were South Vietnamese and physically indistinguishable from those we supported. New rules of engagement were created and geographic areas known as free fire zones established. Anyone traveling in those zones was automatically assumed to be an enemy and subject to being killed. Democide, the murder of a person by their government, was used extensively against people believed to be Viet Cong, but mere suspicion was sufficient to evoke a death sentence.

The exact number of civilian casualties for the Vietnam War is impossible to know and estimates vary by huge amounts. It is certain that hundreds of thousands of people were killed, and a majority of those came via the massive U.S. air campaign. While the war became increasingly controversial, collateral casualties were acceptable from a U.S. military perspective.

The use of human shields has been contentious throughout the history of warfare. Now, while outlawed by the updated Geneva Conventions, a relative new context for shields has emerged; the willing hostage. This was epitomized in the October, 1993 battle in Mogadishu, best known as Blackhawk Down. In an attempt to rescue the helicopter crews, Rangers and Special Forces engaged in a vicious close-range battle in which thousands of civilians, including women and children, chose to participate by joining the fighters of Mohamed Farrar Aidid. As a result several hundred of them were killed or wounded. Despite a staggering imbalance in casualties, for political reasons the U.S. soon decided to leave Somalia.

It has been stated correctly that "distance creates indifference." For those of us who have engaged in close combat there is a visceral understanding that cannot be conveyed to those who have not been there. Over centuries lethal engagement ranges have been extended. Evolving from hand to hand combat, to longbows, then from small firearms to artillery, and eventually aerial systems combatants have been progressively distanced from personal contact with their opponents. Each ensuing step made it easier to kill. Drones have come to epitomize distancing.

But there has been other technological changes that directly impact the concept fighting; optics and precision guided weapons. Aerial bombardment traditionally has been to whom it may concern engagements. For decades bombers flew over targets, dropped their loads and returned to their assigned bases. They knew not whom they killed or wounded. Again, with collective responsibility, anyone in the vicinity of the bursting bombs was by fiat considered a bad guy or at least culpable or negligent. We often call them terrorists or insurgents because we killed them, not necessarily because of any concrete knowledge of their orientation or intent.

From a trigger-puller perspective, personal accountability for killing has changed. One senior general discussed the topic with me while we were working on an Army Science Board study. He had interviewed soldiers from both the Vietnam War and Somalia and asked each if they personally had killed someone. In general the Vietnam vets didn't know. They had fired at the enemy, found bodies but could not identify who in their unit actually killed that person. In Somalia, however, they tended to answer that they had. When asked how they knew that, the response was that they fired at close range and saw the person fall. Contrary to media-infused bravado, such actions weigh heavily on many soldiers returning from war, some more than others.

Improvement in optics has brought personalizing effects to drone and gunship strikes. The displays are so graphically well-defined that operators often can see the people they target and follow the missile until it strikes. When the smoke clears the bodies may be visible. The personal response to this activity varies. For some weapon system operators it has little emotional impact; but on others it imparts an immense psychological toll.

Assignment of objectives is critical. With advance sensor systems available, most military operators have an unstated assumption of near-omniscient intelligence when it comes to the viability of targets. When releasing weapons they rely on external sources and superiors to make the adjudication as to whether or not the target is legitimate. The problem has been that too frequently mistaken identity is determined post hoc. Wedding parties, funerals, and even friendly units mistakenly have been attacked. Recently, a number of U.S. service members were reprimanded for firing upon a hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan run by Doctors Without Borders, killing 42 patients and staff. In combat mistakes are going to happen but that begs the most important question, should they have been there at all.

Most future conflicts will by asymmetric, or hybrid as some call them, but certainly of increasing complexity. We are partially a victim of our own successes. The overwhelming military capabilities displayed in Desert Storm and the initial phases of Iraqi Freedom made it clear to the world that traditional unit-on-unit combat with the U.S. would have disastrous consequences. Thus, to avoid annihilation, adversaries have converted to terrorism and irregular warfare. Unfortunately, we have not kept pace with contemplation of the strategic implications of our actions or changes brought about via ubiquitous media coverage.

During WWII there was extensive censorship of news. We learned of the war in approved news releases. Given the millions of combatants directly involved in fighting, there also was vicarious exposure from returning veterans. However, there was little media coverage that provided the graphic details of death and destruction incurred. What was learned was sterilized and considerably delayed for both security reasons and the length of time needed for communication. Today's speed of light contact was unheard of, if not unthinkable.

Vietnam changed that and current events were splashed across the evening news on a daily basis. For the first time in our nation's conflicts people at home were getting nearly immediate reports from the battlefield and were party to a modicum of the carnage being wreaked. While far from the primal experience of soldiers in combat, it had the effect of allowing people to decide whether or not they supported the war. Television, with scenes directly from the battlefield, was a key factor in turning away American support for the war. Unfortunately, they also transposed their displeasure against those of us returning from fighting the war.

Today, traditional news outlets have been supplanted by social media. Anyone with a cell phone can record events in near-real time and upload them onto the Internet. Often context is missing or even fabricated, but the images are emblazoned on the minds of millions. They are used to support any narrative that speaks first and/or loudest.

Searching for someone or something on which to affix blame for unwarranted deaths, drones have become an archenemy for many people. But the problem is not drones. In reality a collage of technologies has coalesced, all of which both enhance and complicate war-making. They include avionics, optics, precision guidance, space-based geospatial and communications systems, and information technology with the proliferation of social media. They have all have melded to influence public morality and sensibilities.

What has not changed or evolved is antiquated decision making as exemplified by lack of strategic thinking and planning. Political leaders often adopt the prevailing business model that places value on only quick profits or results. Too frequently emotion trumps logic; a recipe for continued chaotic engagements. Sorely needed are greybeards who can envision the long game and understand the geopolitical consequences of armed conflicts. Their council should be sought and heeded by political leaders, the current lot of whom have been failing demonstrably in that regard. Blame not drones or pilots, no matter where they sit, for carnage wreaked upon others. Responsibility belongs to politicians who unwisely send young women and men off to war and their naïve constituents who clamor for it.