Drones A Military Necessity History Essay
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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016
Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), commonly known as drones, have become one of the most sought-after military equipment in the 21st century. United States alone has increased its drone fleet from 167 in 2001 to more than 5500 in 2009,  while other states are investing heavily in developing drone technology, with Russia said to test its first domestically-produced armed drone as soon as 2014,  and Chinese converting their older 1960s-model fighter planes into UAVs, “with numbers potentially in the hundreds”.  Such a heightened interest by military leaders and government officials in the new technology as well as often reported collateral damage and the secrecy of drone missions flown by the CIA has spurred media and scholarly circles into the debate over strategic utility of using drones as well as raised ethical and legal questions that were often left unanswered by the corresponding governments. In response to those questions, this essay goes on to argue that the use of drones is a military necessity in an environment marked by terrorism and insurgency. It first analyses the rationale and tactics used by insurgents before showing how the use of drones allows turn the strengths of asymmetrical warfare against the perpetrators. The latter part of the essay, however, analyses the associated issues of telepistemological distancing, impact on non-combatants as well as secrecy of CIA strikes that altogether led to claims about use of drones being ‘a step too far’.  It concludes by urging caution in conducting strikes in the future, as unfortunate mistakes can erode the very advantages of UAVs.
Much of the technological development in the area of UAVs are driven by the challenges posed by the current threats and the tactics the states, especially United States as a global hegemon, is facing today, namely terrorists and insurgency. It was not until 9/11 and US War on Terror, or as Obama’s administration prefer to call it ‘Overseas Contingency Operations’ that the need of armed Predator MQ-1, tested only half a year ago became so apparent.  However, the sole use of drones is not a panacea of solving insurgency movements that have region-specific underlying causes. Firstly, as Lt. Col. J. Nagl points out, “counterinsurgency is a long, slow process that requires the integration of all elements of national power”.  Secondly, it requires the support for change not only from present or wannabe political leaders of the troubled-states, but from population as well. To this aim, the calculated use of drones is particularly important, as excessive collateral damage might undermine the civilian support. When these two conditions have been met, only then the possibility of suppressing the insurgency itself can become a viable outcome. Indeed, while eliminating the leaders of terrorist organizations and insurgencies does not solve a problem, it is certainly easier to solve the root causes with them out of the way.  Therefore while drones are useless in solving underlying causes and as it will be explained below, at best problematic in harnessing support, it has proven especially useful in dealing with the tactics of asymmetrical warfare, to which we now turn.
The centerpiece of any asymmetrical warfare movements is not to fight technologically more advanced enemies directly, but simply to outlast them, “dragging the wars on long enough until the publics back home get worn out”.  In western democracies popular support for waging a war usually wanes quickly, especially when prospects of winning a conflict become doubtful, casualties start to creep in, costs become more apparent and the true motive for war and its necessity to country’s national interest begins to be questioned. For the locals, on the other hand, the stakes are usually much higher and thus they are willing to spill more blood on it to achieve victory. Furthermore, they know the terrain better and are able to blend in with non-combatants making them very difficult to target strategically as well as politically. The use of drones is a military necessity as the technology enables to turn asymmetrical tactics against the perpetrators themselves.
Firstly, use of drones decreases the number of troops needed on the ground to tackle the insurgents effectively. The new Reaper drones are not only able to use laser pinpointing the insurgents on the ground for troops to neutralize, but can target them precisely from up the sky with Hellfire missiles. It is not to say that the human presence with the advent of drones is altogether eliminated. Drone operations alone require informants on the ground that risk their lives to provide intel to analysts and drone operators, as well as soldiers, intelligence operatives or contractors at the bases where the drones are launched.  On the whole, however, drones allow a more limited troop presence on the ground, which means that they are less exposed to Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), suicide bombers and ambushes, which greatly limit the number of casualties. Referring to CIA drone strikes in ‘AfPak’, A.R. Deri goes as far as to claim that drones allowed American public to perceive the war as ‘costless’.  Even though she exposes how misleading that notion can be, in terms of collateral damage, there is a positive side to it. As there is less pressure for hasty withdrawal, it gives more time to tackle the root causes and safeguard the regime.
Secondly, in wars of insurgencies, the most difficult part is “finding and fixing foes”, not the actual killing.  Insurgents know the terrain very well and thus are able to hide themselves. They do their best to mix in with civilians, making it harder not only to recognize, but to attack them as well. This is where UAVs are especially helpful, providing an ‘eye in the sky’. They can stay over a target for lengthy periods and have high-resolution cameras that allow them to see such details as what weapons perpetrators are carrying, or the make and license plates of the car. Even more, since drones can scan a particular neighborhood for so long, it gives the analysts the possibility to spot any unusual or suspicious activity taking place and then track whether the suspects would lead them to other members or even their safe houses.  If possible, then they could be taken alive by sending the coordinates to ground troops and then supervising from the air, or if the targets are deemed to be too high value, whereas confrontational possibilities are too high, they might be taken out from the sky. Some claim that by using drone strikes, U.S. deprives itself of the additional intelligence that could be obtained form detained terrorists,  while others go as far as to argue that this is a deliberate strategy because of the problematic nature of imprisoning terrorists.  Both arguments carry some weight. However, given how terrorist networks have evolved structurally from a top-down to cell-based, it is quite unlikely that a cadre would posses any strategic information about the broader movement. Even if one would capture a terrorist of a high command, the chances that he would tell something that could undermine the cause he was fighting for are extremely low. It is not to say that killing a terrorist is better than detaining it. But if capturing a terrorist involves greater risks to one’s soldiers or civilians around, having an option of following the target until the risk of collateral damage is minimized is a beneficial addition to one’s military arsenal.
Thirdly, drones can be used to take away local warrior’s home-field advantage. One of the DARPA’s program called ‘Urbanscape’ aims “to make foreign city as ‘familiar as the soldier’s back yard'”.  It uses a combination of drones and unmanned ground robots to scan the city landscape with every building and the street and then put it all together with the help of AI so that soldiers would have a 3D map with real-time high-resolution video coverage from the sky that allows them to safely patrol through the streets without having to peer over every corner to make sure there is no set up in place. This technology is especially pertinent given a rising phenomenon where literally millions of frustrated young people of various ethical and religious backgrounds merge in “continues belts of informal housing and poverty” to produce what M. Davis calls ‘megaslums’.  The difficulty of fighting in ‘megaslums’ is clearly illustrated by 1993 debacle in Mogadishu.  As the problems of megaslums will only be exacerbated in the future due to rising population levels and widening global inequalities, it is likely that cities will become new hotspots for conflicts, where drones and such tools as ‘Urbanscape’ will become essential assets in avoiding the fate of the ‘Black Hawk Down’.
Fourthly, the same way guerilla’s use stealth to ambush their opponents, drones often operate at heights not observable to the naked eye. So even though many fighters cannot see the drone, they know that they are somewhere up there and might be watching, thus it might act as a deterrence that could stymie recruiting process and complicate the execution of the plots. On the other hand, as soldiers must keep constant vigilance in order to avoid being ambushed, the presence of drones in the air helps them to feel at least a bit safer. As Srg. R. Lyon explains: “It’s a comforting sound on the battlefield, when you’re going to sleep and you hear that sound of the Predator engine, somewhere between a propeller airplane and a lawn mower, knowing it is looking out for you”. 
Finally, the use of drones is able to minimize the human factor, which is often responsible for civilian casualties. If one is flying a drone from thousands kilometers away from any real danger to one’s existence, with verified intelligence and time to track suspects to a point where collateral damage might be minimized, it is much easier to make a right choice. Accordingly, after Gen. S. McChrystal assumed command in Afghanistan in summer of 2009 and embarked on replacing air bombings with drone strikes, the UN has cited a corresponding 28% decrease in civilian casualties.  The problem with many reports in the media about civilian casualties caused by drones is that they juxtapose the damage caused by drones with the alternative of not using the force at all. A more realistic comparison would be between collateral damage caused by drone strikes and by ground invasion. According to New America Foundation, over the life of the CIA drone program in Pakistan, the average non-militant casualty rate has been 15-16 percent, with a markedly decrease over the years from over 60 percent in its peak in 2006, to only 1-2 percent in 2012, which amounts to 2 civilian casualties this year.  At the height of Iraq invasion, on the other hand, it amounted to 34500 civilian deaths in 2006 alone, and still 2405 deaths in 2010 long after major fighting has finished.  Therefore, because the use of drones diminish the possibility of human error and because of the limited, pinprick nature of the strikes that together contribute to the decreased level of civilian casualties, the use of drones are seen as better satisfying the parameters – proportionality of force and discrimination – of a just war principle of in bello.  Nevertheless, as with every new weapon or tactic, there are downsides to it, to which we now turn.
One of the problems with having to operate from a distance is that a drone pilot has to rely solely on what the sensors tell him and hopefully on some additional intel from the ground. Sullins argues, that such a task is difficult enough in the normal daylight situation, whereas in the smoke-filled battlefield where in when enemy is actively trying to disrupt one’s ability to accurately know what is happening, “we have a very complex epistemological problem and telepistemological distancing adds one more layer for possible errors in judgment to occur”.  Secondly, Sullins is worried about the dehumanizing effects of seeing an enemy reduced to ‘a mere blip’ or ‘thermal image’. According to one study by Pike, only about 1% of human soldiers will “actually aim at another human soldier with the intent to kill” while “most just fire in the general direction on the enemy.”  Telepistemological distancing, on the other hand, makes it easier to pull the trigger, as fellow human beings are presented “like the targets in a video game”.  Finally, some suggest that drone operators are more likely to suffer from PTSD than some units on the ground.  In the words of Air Force Major M. Morrison, “when you’re on the radio with a guy on the ground, and he is out of breath and you can hear the weapons fire in the background, you are every bit as engaged as if you were actually there.”  In such a situation the actions by the drone operator might be affected by the strong notion that the lives of fellow troops on the ground depend on his/hers right call. In fact, the empathy for soldiers and thus clouded judgment might be strengthened by the fact that s/he is operating safely from distance. 
While psychological pressure caused by drones patrolling overhead might be seen as an advantage in terms of deterring terrorist activities, civilians are not exempt from it. Some reports suggest that people in the areas densely reconnoitered by drones have developed a feeling of insecurity, such that they are afraid to go out in groups or appear in crowded places, as they fear a targeted attack by drone might affect them, which undermines cultural and religious practices.  Furthermore, reports from civilians reveal how the humming sound emitted by drones have a physical impact on their ability to concentrate at work or in school, with many having trouble falling asleep. Although some of the blame for such psychological side-effects should be attributed to the perpetrators of drone strikes for not taking care to avoid collateral damage at all costs, most of the time, the terrorist organizations themselves are responsible for it, as they often spice up claims about alleged civilian deaths for purposes of propaganda. As for concerns about the noise the drones emit, most of them operate at the heights that make them inaudible, and the ones that fly low enough to produce the humming sound, it is certainly not as disturbing as roaring of a jet-fighter. In the end, the psychological damage to both combatants and non-combatants is an indistinguishable feature of war that is well documented.  However, it is unfortunate that despite the promising UAV technology, U.S. utterly failed to limit its negative impact on civilians. While it is partly because insurgents have quickly understood how to turn unfortunate errors into a powerful weapon to ‘rally around the flag’, the US government shot itself in the foot with the secret nature of CIA drone strikes, to which we now lastly turn.
CIA drone program in North Pakistan is a point of contention by journalists and scholars alike over its legal status and following ethical implications. In terms of international law, CIA is operating on behalf of United States government, which has declared war against the terrorist network responsible for 9/11 attacks and the associated states that embark on sponsoring terrorist activities, under the principle of self-defense.  The principle of self-defense entails two fundamental conditions – proportionality and discrimination – that must be adhered to in order to be recognized as a legitimate activity.  The problem with CIA strikes, is that because of its covert nature, it is very hard to tell whether CIA in fact adheres to those principles, in other words, there is a problem of transparency and accountability. It is not to say that there are no mechanisms in CIA that ensure those principles are adhered to. It is the very fact that CIA secrecy “isolates the American people from military action, undermining political checks” on the use of force that is in itself ethically troubling.  Alleged high number of civilian deaths reported by Pakistani news agencies that cannot be neither confirmed nor denied by the officials together with reported trends of ever-widening target list,  raises concern that government uses CIA as a foreign policy proxy that allows to carry out strategically vital objectives that would otherwise be widely unpopular among the public. This essentially means that citizens are left at the mercy of specific leader’s interpretation of just war principles.  This drives a wedge between the international community that is likely to be left divided about the normative merits of drone strikes. 
To conclude, by analyzing the nature of asymmetrical warfare and the tactics terrorist and insurgents employ, this essay demonstrated that the use of drones allow to turn those tactics against the perpetrators. The presence of drones lessens the troops needed on the ground and thus possible casualties; it allows a better identification of insurgents, especially in future conflicts taking place in ‘megaslums’; it exerts psychological pressure on insurgents that complicates their operations; and by limiting human factor it allows to minimize the collateral damage. These advantages clearly allow to tackle insurgents more effectively and thus drones are indeed a military necessity in fighting against asymmetrical tactics. However, the human factor in drone operations is not entirely eliminated, which give rise to speculations about drones making killing easier; despite promising technology, drones have failed to minimize the psychological impact on civilians; while accountability issues with CIA strikes complicates the fulfilling of just war principles. The future success of the drone technology, therefore, depends not only on its ability to successfully target the combatants, but as well is contingent on harnessing the support of local and international communities. The same way drones aim to reverse the advantages of asymmetrical warfare, if the US continues to refrain from addressing the challenges, we might see our tactics turned against us. Fear and hatred over loses are sufficient reasons for joining the terrorists, while popular pressure might prompt local governments to withdraw the consent for deploying drones, which would seriously compromise further operations. In this scenario, the use of drones would backfire, converting qualities that are deemed ‘a step too far’ into a de facto step backwards fighting the insurgents in asymmetrical warfare.
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