The Curve and the Conjuncture

The Conversation
January 20, 2012

Although the United States has led the way in drone proliferation, Americans are not alone in addressing the issues and challenges associated with the new weapons, surveillance, and intelligence systems. This Cato Unbound forum is stirring “strong passions” and “vigorous debate” about the morality and strategic value of drones—passions and debate that Cortright contends are already spreading in America.

While the debate is certainly starting to simmer on this side of the Atlantic—although manifestly not in Congress or within the executive branch—the public policy discussions are fortunately more advanced in the United Kingdom. Our own discussion can benefit from the excellent European publications and forums about drone warfare and drone surveillance.

One reason for this more developed discussion in Europe, especially in the UK, is the convergence of concerns about the “surveillance society” and persisting questions about the British Army’s and NATO’s integration of drones into their overseas operations—along with Britain’s partnerships with Israel in drone manufacturing and testing.

Playing a key role in this debate is a nonprofit group called Drone Wars UK, which released in January 2012 a valuable overview of drone warfare issues in a special report titled Drone Wars Briefing. The briefing includes a helpful review of the noncombatant death reports in Pakistan, discussion of the expanding incidence of extrajudicial drone strikes by the CIA, and a summary of the UK’s program of Remotely Piloted Aerial Systems (RPAS). The report makes a strong case that “we need a serious, public – and fully informed – debate on all these issues and to ensure there is full public accountability for their use.” Aside from the UK’s military intervention in South Asia, another connection, of course, is that its own drones are also piloted from the Creech Air Force Base in Nevada.

The publication last year by Pax Christi/Netherlands of “Does Unmanned Make Unacceptable? – Exploring the Debate on Using Drones and Robots in Warfare” also points to the increasingly vibrant debate in Europe – one that can help inform the incipient public and policy debate at home.

What is striking, at least to me, about this forum is the deep divide that separates Cortright’s concerns from the near-uncritical support of drone warfare expressed by the other responders.

Cortright’s concerns both about the morality of remotely controlled warfare and about the geographical distance and emotional disconnection from killing will contribute to increased military and CIA interventions contrast sharply—shockingly in my opinion—with enthusiasm for the potential of these high-tech systems not only to reduce civilian casualties by precise targeting but also to respond to humanitarian emergencies.

Caution and Skepticism versus Confidence and Enthusiasm

Obviously, the central problem is that the discussion brings together two distinct philosophical and strategic paradigms—which mostly clash, leaving little room for a bit of consensus and concordance.

To avoid this unfortunate breach, we would have benefited if Cortright had anticipated this communication problem by evaluating more forthrightly and dispassionately the strategic and tactical benefits of increased drone deployment across the range of missions—from intelligence gathering and reconnaissance to targeted missile strikes.

But the debate is further obstructed by type of facile dismissal by Wittes and Singh, and by Goure, of the proposition that the emergence of drone warfare changes little.

“Drones are a weapon like any other weapon,” write Wittes and Singh, pointing to a purported direct evolutionary line from spear to Predator. Goure asserts, “There is no evidence that armed drones have reduced the political inhibitions against the use of deadly force.” Such categorical and simplistic conclusions close the door to the kind of public policy debate that this forum should encourage and that is urgently needed in America. If the CIA can kill targets covertly by using drone-launched missiles rather than by initiating covert actions by infiltrating agents or special operations, political inhibitions fade.

The two security paradigms that are loggerheads in this forum were underscored by the concluding sentence of the Wittes and Singh essay: “Indeed, the question is not whether we will live in a world of highly proliferated technologies of robotic attack. It is whether the United States is going to be ahead of the curve or behind it.”

That’s the paradigm of militarism—persuasive if you believe that ever-increasing U.S. military development of new high-tech weaponry ensures our national security (and yet there is recent U.S. security history to assail this traditional assumption by militarists). Then there is another paradigm in which Cortright apparently situates himself, namely that U.S. security is best served when it aims to stay ahead of the curve with respect to arms-control agreements, international frameworks for just wars and interventions, international sanctions, and protection for noncombatants. This counter-security paradigm wouldn’t necessarily dismiss the need for a strong drone and anti-drone capacity within the U.S. security apparatus, although presumably it would place greater emphasis on seeking more diplomatic, economic, and social solutions to security and political tensions.

Thus far, however, the Obama administration has not stayed ahead of this curve in visionary international leadership—the place where the U.S. has historically often been in the vanguard, though in fits and starts.

Earlier this month the president announced a shift in U.S. military strategy, including the shedding of “outdated Cold War systems” in favor of the high-tech instruments and conflicts of the future—including the aptly denominated “shadow wars.” This evolution in military strategy, including the increased reliance on drones and special operations (and presumably a continuing pattern of extra-judicial killings by drone strikes around the globe) may, as its supporters contend, be exactly the course the U.S. military needs to ensure national and global security.

Whether strategically right or not, this is a shift that clearly calls out for the kind of moral, ethical, and legal scrutiny that Cortright advocates. One can only hope that drone proponents will also recognize this need – although so far it’s not in evidence in this forum. Assertions that a weapon is a weapon is a weapon dismiss the evident truth of this new conjuncture in national and global security.

Meanwhile, we can confidently leave any “hand-wringing” about the fears of eroding U.S. military dominance to the busy hands and hearty handshakes of the still thriving military-industrial complex.

Relying on their capable lobbyists and on their congressional and Pentagon sympathizers, General Atomics, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and the other companies in the flourishing drone industry—flush with military and homeland security contracts for drones—will surely do their best, without our help, to keep from falling behind the high-tech weapons curve.

Also from This Issue

Lead Essay

  • License to Kill by David Cortright

    David Cortright argues that drones are making warfare cheaper and less visceral — for us. This may sound like a good thing, but it also means that we may be drawn into more wars, and we may inflict more harm on innocent bystanders. This collateral harm is not only immoral, it’s also against our best interests, because it encourages terrorist retribution against us.

Response Essays

  • Drones Are a Challenge — and an Opportunity by Benjamin Wittes and Ritika Singh

    Benjamin Wittes and Ritika Singh argue that drones certainly do increase the distance at which deadly force can be delivered. In this they resemble the large majority of weapons that have ever been developed. Humanitarians, they add, should welcome drones’ precision, which makes possible a new level of caution in avoiding civilian bystanders. They conclude that the question is not whether the United States can prevent drones from proliferating. It is whether the United States will lead or follow in this new field of military technology.

  • Drones and the Changing Nature of Warfare: Hold the Presses! by Daniel Goure

    Daniel Goure argues that if drones are making warfare more deadly, it’s certainly not showing up in the aggregate numbers. Casualties and warfare itself have declined substantially in recent years—and, he suggests, drones might be one part of the reason why. Drones remain a small part of our overall military forces to date. They are overwhelmingly used for nonviolent purposes such as surveillance. When they do exert deadly force, they often accomplish objectives that would have been impossible without them, barring a full-scale invasion. Legitimate concerns do exist over specific acts perpetrated via drone technology, but there is at least a plausible case that drones in general are making warfare less deadly, not more.

  • Drone Proliferation: Other Chapters and Other Challenges by Tom Barry

    Tom Barry argues that the U.S. Congress and other policymakers have uncritically accepted drone warfare as both effective and cheap, with little regard to its actual costs and benefits. Defense contractors obviously stand to gain a great deal, and they have recently been lobbying to ease restrictions on drone technology export controls. The United States should lead the way in forming international agreements to prevent the proliferation of these high-tech weapons. At home, the proliferation of drones in drug enforcement and other local law enforcement tasks is also a worrying trend.

The Conversation