The Drone Debate, Cont'd

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A few readers use hello@ to join in:

It is interesting seeing your debate on drones, as I am reading Rick Atkinson’s history of the invasion of Sicily and Italy. The Second World War he details was incalculably devastating, messy, and rife with errors on both sides due to lack of communications and general SNAFU. Bombing was the opposite of the idea of “precision,” especially the kind of carpet bombing that happened in places like Dresden. As a Vietnam vet, the fateful phrase “friendly fire” carried more of the same, the idea that the Fog of War brings with it inevitable errors that take lives of our own soldiers, or friendly civilians, let alone innocent civilians.

Now we have laser-guided bombs and the idea of “precision strikes” and targeted killings by drone Hellfire missiles—take out the really bad guys, one at a time!

Of course this is a good thing, in a larger sense of saving innocent bystanders (at least in theory), but it carries with it a heavy load of irony, since no bombing can by definition be clean and precise in its very act of devastation. And one man’s precision strike may be another family’s wrong victim—chosen by some faceless drone operators. We have put moral and physical distance between ourselves and our “terrorist” targets, many of whom, granted, are bad people.

Interesting that the drone operators, despite sitting thousands of miles away from their targets, seem to feel emotional flak just as dangerous as the flak coming up to hit B-24 pilots of old, judging from the stories about them.

And here is the kicker: I think it is inevitable the tables will be turned. Given advances in easily copied technology, someone will fly a drone and hit a U.S. target, giving us a taste of our own lethal medicine. What happens when that strike is unleashed? How will we feel? Talk about Pandora’s Box.

Another good take on the subject:

In response to the reader who sees drones as an extension of risk-minimizing military technology, I have to point out a flaw in their reasoning. While it is true that we have deliberately invented weapons that permit us to wage war more and more remotely, the accepted rules of warfare as established in international protocol do not absolve us from deploying them against verifiably legitimate targets. That verification has, until the emergence of drones, been contingent on establishing direct, distinguishable line of sight: gunmen see the targets of their guns, pilots dropping bombs have visual and radar confirmation that they are flying over the political jurisdiction of a sovereign state adversary, missiles strike at GPS coordinates verified to reside within jurisdictions of this same kind.

The problem with drone warfare as implemented by the U.S. government is that (1) our adversary is not a state actor and (2) that direct visual confirmation is eschewed in favor of more convenient, though markedly less reliable, signals intelligence. Up through the end of the Cold War, the U.S.’s enemies have been state entities, whose cities and bases of operation were geopolitically static. If we wanted to bomb our enemy, we had only to pick a target within their borders and fire away. On the contrary, our adversaries in the war on terror are bound not by shared geography but merely by shared ideology, and they use their decentralized geography to force us into the tough choice we are not taking seriously enough: how to target enemies who hide among civilians (with or without their direct support).

On top of that, the only verification performed on a drone target before a strike is carried out is whether identifying numbers on a phone held by the target, its IMEI and SIM serial numbers, are present where that target is thought to be. The signals intelligence used to make these determinations is incredibly unreliable, and militants who suspect they are being targeted by drones routinely switch, borrow, or leave their phones behind to undermine this practice. Even in areas of declared U.S. military operations (i.e. Iraq and Afghanistan), where signals intelligence is augmented by human intelligence, strikes hit their intended target with wild inconsistency. They have even less reliability in theaters like Yemen and Somalia, where only signals intelligence is available.

These two obstacles to striking legitimate targets means that drone strikes too often accidentally hit civilian targets, or incur great civilian casualties even in successful operations, where preexisting weapons used along internationally recognized guidelines of warfare do not carry such inherent risk to unnecessary or excessive loss of civilian life. And given that the war on terror is one fought over hearts and minds more so than over territory, it is incumbent on us, as the voluntary wagers of this war, to prevent as many civilian deaths as possible, even if that means the deployment of troops, lest we create extremist sympathizers faster than we can neutralize extremists.

If we don’t want to commit troops, with human discretion, to a conflict whose battlefield our military acknowledges to be anywhere and everywhere, then we shouldn’t be fighting that war.