The Drone Debate September 2013

The Killing Machines

How to think about drones
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Tribesmen stand on the rubble of a building destroyed by a U.S. drone strike that targeted suspected al-Qaeda militants in the southeastern Yemeni provence of Shabwa on February 3, 2013. (Khaled Abdullah/Reuters/Corbis)

I. Unfairness

Consider David. The shepherd lad steps up to face in single combat the Philistine giant Goliath. Armed with only a slender staff and a slingshot, he confronts a fearsome warrior clad in a brass helmet and chain mail, wielding a spear with a head as heavy as a sledge and a staff “like a weaver’s beam.” Goliath scorns the approaching youth: “Am I a dog, that thou comest to me with staves?” (1 Samuel 17)

David then famously slays the boastful giant with a single smooth stone from his slingshot.

A story to gladden the hearts of underdogs everywhere, its biblical moral is: Best to have God on your side. But subtract the theological context and what you have is a parable about technology. The slingshot, a small, lightweight weapon that employs simple physics to launch a missile with lethal force from a distance, was an innovation that rendered all the giant’s advantages moot. It ignored the spirit of the contest. David’s weapon was, like all significant advances in warfare, essentially unfair.

As anyone who has ever been in combat will tell you, the last thing you want is a fair fight. Technology has been tilting the balance of battles since Goliath fell. I was born into the age of push-button warfare. Ivy Mike, the first thermonuclear bomb, capable of vaporizing an entire modern metropolis, of killing millions of people at once, was detonated over the Pacific before my second birthday. Growing up, the concept of global annihilation wasn’t just science fiction. We held civil-defense drills to practice for it.

Within my lifetime, that evolution has taken a surprising turn. Today we find ourselves tangled in legal and moral knots over the drone, a weapon that can find and strike a single target, often a single individual, via remote control.

Unlike nuclear weapons, the drone did not emerge from some multibillion-dollar program on the cutting edge of science. It isn’t even completely new. The first Predator drone consisted of a snowmobile engine mounted on a radio-controlled glider. When linked via satellite to a distant control center, drones exploit telecommunications methods perfected years ago by TV networks—in fact, the Air Force has gone to ESPN for advice. But when you pull together this disparate technology, what you have is a weapon capable of finding and killing someone just about anywhere in the world.

Drone strikes are a far cry from the atomic vaporizing of whole cities, but the horror of war doesn’t seem to diminish when it is reduced in scale. If anything, the act of willfully pinpointing a human being and summarily executing him from afar distills war to a single ghastly act.

One day this past January, a small patrol of marines in southern Afghanistan was working its way at dusk down a dirt road not far from Kandahar, staying to either side to avoid planted bombs, when it unexpectedly came under fire. The men scattered for cover. A battered pickup truck was closing in on them and popping off rounds from what sounded like a big gun.

Continents away, in a different time zone, a slender 19-year-old American soldier sat at a desk before a large color monitor, watching this action unfold in startlingly high definition. He had never been near a battlefield. He had graduated from basic training straight out of high school, and was one of a select few invited to fly Predators. This was his first time at the controls, essentially a joystick and the monitor. The drone he was flying was roughly 15,000 feet above the besieged patrol, each member marked clearly in monochrome on his monitor by an infrared uniform patch. He had been instructed to watch over the patrol, and to “stay frosty,” meaning: Whatever happens, don’t panic. No one had expected anything to happen. Now something was happening.

The young pilot zoomed in tight on the approaching truck. He saw in its bed a .50-caliber machine gun, a weapon that could do more damage to an army than a platoon of Goliaths.

A colonel, watching over his shoulder, said, “They’re pinned down pretty good. They’re gonna be screwed if you don’t do something.”

The colonel told the pilot to fix on the truck. A button on the joystick pulled up a computer-generated reticle, a grid displaying exact ground coordinates, distance, direction, range, etc. Once the computer locked on the pickup, it stayed zeroed in on the moving target.

“Are you ready to help?” the colonel asked.

An overlay on the grid showed the anticipated blast radius of an AGM-114 Hellfire missile—the drone carried two. Communicating via a digital audio link, the colonel instructed the men on the ground to back away, then gave them a few seconds to do so.

The pilot scrutinized the vehicle. Those who have seen unclassified clips of aerial attacks have only a dim appreciation of the optics available to the military and the CIA.

“I could see exactly what kind of gun it was in back,” the pilot told me later. “I could see two men in the front; their faces were covered. One was in the passenger seat and one was in the driver’s seat, and then one was on the gun, and I think there was another sitting in the bed of the truck, but he was kind of obscured from my angle.”

On the radio, they could hear the marines on the ground shouting for help.

“Fire one,” said the colonel.

The Hellfire is a 100-pound antitank missile, designed to destroy an armored vehicle. When the blast of smoke cleared, there was only a smoking crater on the dirt road.

“I was kind of freaked out,” the pilot said. “My whole body was shaking. It was something that was completely different. The first time doing it, it feels bad almost. It’s not easy to take another person’s life. It’s tough to think about. A lot of guys were congratulating me, telling me, ‘You protected them; you did your job. That’s what you are trained to do, supposed to do,’ so that was good reinforcement. But it’s still tough.”

One of the things that nagged at him, and that was still bugging him months later, was that he had delivered this deathblow without having been in any danger himself. The men he killed, and the marines on the ground, were at war. They were risking their hides. Whereas he was working his scheduled shift in a comfortable office building, on a sprawling base, in a peaceful country. It seemed unfair. He had been inspired to enlist by his grandfather’s manly stories of battle in the Korean War. He had wanted to prove something to himself and to his family, to make them as proud of him as they had been of his Pop-Pop.

“But this was a weird feeling,” he said. “You feel bad. You don’t feel worthy. I’m sitting there safe and sound, and those guys down there are in the thick of it, and I can have more impact than they can. It’s almost like I don’t feel like I deserve to be safe.”

After slaying Goliath, David was made commander of the Israelite armies and given the hand of King Saul’s daughter. When the Pentagon announced earlier this year that it would award a new medal to drone pilots and cyber warriors, it provoked such outrage from veterans that production of the new decoration was halted and the secretary of defense sentenced the medal to a review and then killed it. Members of Congress introduced legislation to ensure that any such award would be ranked beneath the Purple Heart, the medal given to every wounded soldier. How can someone who has never physically been in combat receive a combat decoration?

The question hints at something more important than war medals, getting at the core of our uneasiness about the drone. Like the slingshot, the drone fundamentally alters the nature of combat. While the young Predator pilot has overcome his unease—his was a clearly justifiable kill shot fired in conventional combat, and the marines on the ground conveyed their sincere gratitude—the sense of unfairness lingers.

If the soldier who pulls the trigger in safety feels this, consider the emotions of those on the receiving end, left to pick up the body parts of their husbands, fathers, brothers, friends. Where do they direct their anger? When the wrong person is targeted, or an innocent bystander is killed, imagine the sense of impotence and rage. How do those who remain strike back? No army is arrayed against them, no airfield is nearby to be attacked. If they manage to shoot down a drone, what have they done but disable a small machine? No matter how justified a strike seems to us, no matter how carefully weighed and skillfully applied, to those on the receiving end it is profoundly arrogant, the act of an enemy so distant and superior that he is untouchable.

“The political message [of drone strikes] emphasizes the disparity in power between the parties and reinforces popular support for the terrorists, who are seen as David fighting Goliath,” Gabriella Blum and Philip B. Heymann, both law professors at Harvard, wrote in their 2010 book, Laws, Outlaws, and Terrorists: Lessons From the War on Terror. “Moreover, by resorting to military force rather than to law enforcement, targeted killings might strengthen the sense of legitimacy of terrorist operations, which are sometimes viewed as the only viable option for the weak to fight against a powerful empire.”

Is it any wonder that the enemy seizes upon targets of opportunity—a crowded café, a passenger jet, the finish line of a marathon? There is no moral justification for deliberately targeting civilians, but one can understand why it is done. Arguably the strongest force driving lone-wolf terror attacks in recent months throughout the Western world has been anger over drone strikes.

The drone is effective. Its extraordinary precision makes it an advance in humanitarian warfare. In theory, when used with principled restraint, it is the perfect counterterrorism weapon. It targets indiscriminate killers with exquisite discrimination. But because its aim can never be perfect, can only be as good as the intelligence that guides it, sometimes it kills the wrong people—and even when it doesn’t, its cold efficiency is literally inhuman.

So how should we feel about drones?

II. Gorgon Stare

The Defense Department has a secret state-of-the-art control center in Dubai with an IMAX-size screen at the front of the main room that can project video feed from dozens of drones at once. The Air Force has been directed to maintain capability for 65 simultaneous Combat Air Patrols. Each of these involves multiple drones, and maintains a persistent eye over a potential target. The Dubai center, according to someone who has seen it, resembles a control center at NASA, with hundreds of pilots and analysts arrayed in rows before monitors.

This is a long way from the first known drone strike, on November 4, 2002, when a Hellfire missile launched from a Predator over Yemen blew up a car carrying Abu Ali al-Harithi, one of the al-Qaeda leaders responsible for the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole. Killed along with him in the car were five others, including an American citizen, Kamal Derwish, who was suspected of leading a terrorist cell based near Buffalo, New York. The drone used that day had only recently been reconfigured as a weapon. During testing, its designers had worried that the missile’s backblast would shatter the lightweight craft. It didn’t. Since that day, drones have killed thousands of people.

John Yoo, the law professor who got caught up in tremendous controversy as a legal counselor to President George W. Bush over harsh interrogation practices, was surprised that drone strikes have provoked so little hand-wringing.

“I would think if you are a civil libertarian, you ought to be much more upset about the drone than Guantánamo and interrogations,” he told me when I interviewed him recently. “Because I think the ultimate deprivation of liberty would be the government taking away someone’s life. But with drone killings, you do not see anything, not as a member of the public. You read reports perhaps of people who are killed by drones, but it happens 3,000 miles away and there are no pictures, there are no remains, there is no debris that anyone in the United States ever sees. It’s kind of antiseptic. So it is like a video game; it’s like Call of Duty.”

The least remarkable thing about the system is the drone itself. The Air Force bristles at the very word—drones conjures autonomous flying robots, reinforcing the notion that human beings are not piloting them. The Air Force prefers that they be called Remotely Piloted Aircraft. But this linguistic battle has already been lost: my New Oxford American Dictionary now defines drone as—in addition to a male bee and monotonous speech—“a remote-controlled pilotless aircraft or missile.” Even though drones now range in size from a handheld Raven, thrown into the air by infantry units so they can see over the next hill, to the Global Hawk, which is about the same size as a Boeing 737, the craft itself is just an airplane. Most drones are propeller-driven and slow-moving—early-20th-century technology.

In December 2012, when Iran cobbled together a rehabilitated version of a ScanEagle that had crashed there, the catapult-launched weaponless Navy drone was presented on Iranian national television as a major intelligence coup.

“They could have gone to RadioShack and captured the same ‘secret’ technology,” Vice Admiral Mark I. Fox, the Navy’s deputy chief for operations, plans, and strategy, told The New York Times. The vehicle had less computing power than a smartphone.

Even when, the year before, Iran managed to recover a downed RQ-170 Sentinel, a stealthy, weaponless, unmanned vehicle flown primarily by the CIA, one of the most sophisticated drones in the fleet, it had little more than a nifty flying model. Anything sensitive inside had been remotely destroyed before the Sentinel was seized.

James Poss, a retired Air Force major general who helped oversee the Predator’s development, says he has grown so weary of fascination with the vehicle itself that he’s adopted the slogan “It’s about the datalink, stupid.” The craft is essentially a conduit, an eye in the sky. Cut off from its back end, from its satellite links and its data processors, its intelligence analysts and its controller, the drone is as useless as an eyeball disconnected from the brain. What makes the system remarkable is everything downrange—what the Air Force, in its defiantly tin-eared way, calls PED (Processing, Exploitation, and Dissemination). Despite all the focus on missiles, what gives a drone its singular value is its ability to provide perpetual, relatively low-cost surveillance, watching a target continuously for hours, days, weeks, even months. Missiles were mounted on Predators only because too much time was lost when a fire mission had to be handed off to more-conventional weapons platforms—a manned aircraft or ground- or ship-based missile launcher. That delay reduced or erased the key advantage now afforded by the drone. With steady, real-time surveillance, a controller can strike with the target in his sights. He can, for instance, choose a moment when his victim is isolated, or traveling in a car, reducing the chance of harming anyone else.

I recently spoke with an Air Force pilot who asked to be identified only as Major Dan. He has logged 600 combat hours in the B-1 bomber and, in the past six years, well over 2,000 hours flying Reapers—larger, more heavily armed versions of the Predator. He describes the Reaper as a significantly better war-fighting tool for this mission than the B-1 in every measure. The only thing you lose when you go from a B-1 to a Reaper, he says, is the thrill of “lighting four afterburners” on a runway.

From a pilot’s perspective, drones have several key advantages. First, mission duration can be vastly extended, with rotating crews. No more trying to stay awake for long missions, nor enduring the physical and mental stresses of flying. (“After you’ve been sitting in an ejection seat for 20 hours, you are very tired and sore,” Dan says.)

In addition, drones provide far greater awareness of what’s happening on the ground. They routinely watch targets for prolonged periods—sometimes for months—before a decision is made to launch a missile. Once a B-1 is in flight, the capacity for ground observation is more limited than what is available to a drone pilot at a ground station. From his control station at the Pentagon, Dan is not only watching the target in real time; he has immediate access to every source of information about it, including a chat line with soldiers on the ground.

Dan was so enthusiastic about these and other advantages of drones that, until I prodded him, he didn’t say anything about the benefit of getting to be home with his family and sleep in his own bed. Dan is 38 years old, married, with two small children. In the years since he graduated from the Air Force Academy, he has deployed several times to far-off bases for months-long stretches. Now he is regularly home for dinner.

The dazzling clarity of the drone’s optics does have a downside. As a B-1 pilot, Dan wouldn’t learn details about the effects of his weapons until a post-mission briefing. But flying a drone, he sees the carnage close-up, in real time—the blood and severed body parts, the arrival of emergency responders, the anguish of friends and family. Often he’s been watching the people he kills for a long time before pulling the trigger. Drone pilots become familiar with their victims. They see them in the ordinary rhythms of their lives—with their wives and friends, with their children. War by remote control turns out to be intimate and disturbing. Pilots are sometimes shaken.

“There is a very visceral connection to operations on the ground,” Dan says. “When you see combat, when you hear the guy you are supporting who is under fire, you hear the stress in his voice, you hear the emotions being passed over the radio, you see the tracers and rounds being fired, and when you are called upon to either fire a missile or drop a bomb, you witness the effects of that firepower.” He witnesses it in a far more immediate way than in the past, and he disdains the notion that he and his fellow drone pilots are like video gamers, detached from the reality of their actions. If anything, they are far more attached. At the same time, he dismisses the notion that the carnage he now sees up close is emotionally crippling.

“In my mind, the understanding of what I did, I wouldn’t say that one was significantly different from the other,” he says.

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Mark Bowden is an Atlantic national correspondent. His most recent book is The Finish: The Killing of Osama bin Laden. More

Mark BowdenMark Bowden is a national correspondent for The Atlantic, and a best-selling author. His book Black Hawk Down, a finalist for the National Book Award, was the basis of the film of the same name. His book Killing Pablo won the Overseas Press Club's 2001 Cornelius Ryan Award as the book of the year. Among his other books are Guests of the Ayatollah, an account of the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, which was listed by Newsweek as one of "The 50 Books for Our Times." His most recent books are The Best Game Ever, the story of the 1958 NFL championship game, and Worm, which tells the story of the Conficker computer worm, based on the article "The Enemy Within," published in this magazine.

Mark has received The Abraham Lincoln Literary Award and the International Thriller Writers' True Thriller Award for lifetime achievement, and served as a judge for the National Book Awards in 2005. He is a 1973 graduate of Loyola University Maryland, where he also taught from 2001-2010. A reporter and columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer for more than 30 years, Bowden is now an adjunct professor at The University of Delaware and lives in Oxford, Pennsylvania. He is married with five children and two granddaughters.

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