Friday, October 21, 2016

The Appeal of Drones

Less than fifteen years after the first use of an armed drone by the United States, over 50 percent of the pilots being trained by the U.S. Air Force are drone pilots, and the proportion of remotely piloted aircraft in the U.S. fleet went from 5 percent in 2005 to 31 percent by 2012. This is an extraordinary turnabout. Drones have proved attractive to the U.S. military for four principal reasons. First, they are far superior to both satellites and manned aircraft as tools for reconnaissance. Manned aircraft run out of fuel after a few hours, satellites pass over a site and then move on, but drones can linger over a location for a day or more, watching who enters and leaves a building or tracking the movements of people and vehicles that seem suspicious. They can also use infrared cameras to track people at night. And the video footage they generate can be archived so that it can be searched after attacks for signs of insurgent preparation. In such ways, drone surveillance helps in the mapping of insurgent networks and patterns of life as well as in locating arms caches and hiding places. The holy grail for drone advocates is a massive archive of drone surveillance footage that can be rewound so that analysts can work backward along an insurgent network—beginning with the explosion of a buried improvised explosive device and moving back to the insurgent who buried the device, the person from whom he collected it, and the bomb maker. So far, however, the enormous quantity, and often poor quality, of imagery has largely stymied attempts at this kind of data mining.

Second, in the words of General David Deptula, “The real advantage of unmanned aerial systems is that they allow you to project power without projecting vulnerability.’’ Because the drone operator is safely ensconced in a trailer in Nevada, no American is killed or injured if a drone crashes or is shot down. This is beneficial in that the military does not like to see pilots killed, but also in the political sense that a war without American casualties is more likely to be a war without American opposition. Admiral Dennis Blair, former director of national intelligence, describes drone warfare as “politically advantageous.” Saying that drone warfare enables a president to look tough without incurring American casualties, he adds, “It plays well domestically, and it is unpopular only in other countries.” In the words of British commentator Stephen Holmes, drones have “allowed the Pentagon to wage a war against which antiwar forces are apparently unable to rally even modest public support.”

Third, drones are cheaper than other aircraft, even after the costs of large support crews are considered, according to most analysts. Manned planes cost more to build because they have added features and redundant systems for the safety and comfort of their human occupants. (Drones, for example, have only one engine.) A Predator drone costs about $4.5 million, and a Reaper around $22 million. By comparison, an F-16 is about $47 million, and each new F-35 is projected to cost the American taxpayer between $148 million and $337 million. And training a drone operator costs less than 10 percent of what it costs to train a fast-jet pilot. Even though up to 50 percent of the U.S. Predator fleet has been involved in crashes, many of which destroyed the plane, they are still a bargain.

Finally, their video surveillance capability and laser-guided munitions afford drones high levels of precision in the execution of attacks. Ground artillery certainly cannot match the precision of a Hellfire missile. Although other aircraft with laser-guided bombs may be able to achieve comparable levels of accuracy, the drone can linger for hours waiting for a good shot. Reportedly, this has been particularly important to President Obama. The New York Times said that “the drone’s vaunted capability for pinpoint killing appealed to a president intrigued by a new technology and determined to try to keep the United States out of new quagmires. Aides said Mr. Obama liked the idea of picking off dangerous terrorists a few at a time, without endangering American lives or risking the years-long bloodshed of conventional war.”

It is important to understand that the drone is not just a new machine that has been slotted into existing war plans in a space formerly occupied by other kinds of airpower. Instead, in concert with special forces on the ground, it is a pivot around which the United States has created a new approach to counterinsurgency warfare and border policing that is organized around new strategies of information gathering, precision targeting, and reconceptualizing enemy forces as a cluster of networks and nodal leaders.

by Hugh Gusterson, IAS | Read more:
Image: AP