Drone Proliferation: Other Chapters and Other Challenges

There is no doubt that the “accelerating use of drone weapons has opened a new chapter in the history of warfare,” as David Cortright contends in “License to Kill.”

The proliferation of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and other unmanned systems has, however, opened more than one new chapter in the evolution of international security. Paralleling the surge in authorizations of UAV military strikes, the Pentagon, the Department of Justice, and the Department of Homeland Security are successfully opening other drone fronts and obtaining other types of drone licenses—not just the “license to kill”—to facilitate drone deployment and drone sales.

UAVs are proliferating throughout the security spectrum—drug wars, border security, domestic and foreign surveillance, and law enforcement.

Cortright makes a strong case that drones make military action more likely since U.S. lives are not put directly at risk. But he likely overstates the role that drones play in transforming the “meaning of war.” Other factors—including the volunteer army, increased dependence on high-altitude and precisely targeted manned air strikes, and irresponsible fiscal policies—have played key roles in changing the nature of war for America, making the Iraq and Afghanistan wars less than acts of “national sacrifice and mobilization.”

Cortright regards drone strikes as emblematic of our wrongheaded and counterproductive response to terrorism. “Ethical questions about the use of drones concern not only the nature of the weapons but the policies they are meant to serve,” he writes. He observes too that “terrorism is more a political and law enforcement challenge than a threat that can be addressed by military means.”

Regarding counterterrorism as primarily an international law enforcement challenge rather than a military one would be a welcome change. Yet shifting the counterterrorism framework from war to criminal justice doesn’t necessarily imply discarding the options of UAV surveillance and strikes, whether directed by military or civilian entities.

It is not at all clear that drone strikes in Pakistan, despite the ample evidence of many untargeted victims, have served the interests of the Pakistani militants by significantly broadening their base of support and thereby increasing their reach and operations.[1] Nor can recent U.S.–Pakistan tensions be solely attributed to CIA drone strikes. Boots on the ground (January 2011 shootings by CIA agent Raymond Davis in Lahore) and manned aerial strikes (NATO gunship attacks on Pakistani troops in November 2011) precipitated the latest breakdown in relations.

All the problems and risks associated with drone warfare that Cortright underscores deserve close consideration—but within the broader context of why we wage war, how we effectively counter terrorism, and how we as a nation engage abroad.

Discussions of morality—the central theme of Cortright’s essay—shouldn’t ignore the fundamental role of money. The so-called “license to kill” is becoming increasingly accessible as industry attacks on export controls and the Missile Technology Control Regime mount.

Northrop Grumman CEO Wes Bush says that the U.S. economy and U.S. industry—which have benefited from the surge in military drone contracts, rising from $550 million in 2002 to $5 billion in 2011—will soon see the “golden age” of U.S. dominance in drone production end if U.S. export controls and the restrictions of MTCR on drone sales are not eased or reformed.[2]

The Obama administration’s Export Control Reform Initiative and recent end-runs by the drone industry (including slightly modified Predators for export) around MTCR restrictions may help maintain this dominance. Yet other drone-producing nations, notably Israel and China, are also seeking to meet the global demand for both unarmed and armed drones.[3] That is all the more reason to pursue the creation of the international accords and arms-control regimes for drones that Cortright recommends.

It should also be noted that the enthusiasm for drones is not often tempered by cost-benefit evaluations of the multibillion-dollar spending in UAV purchasing and deployment.

UAV proponents, including DHS and DOD, hail drones as being cost-effective. Yet the largest UAVs deployed by DOD, like the Global Hawk remotely piloted by the U.S. Northern Command from Nevada on drug war missions in Mexico, cost as much or more than high-tech manned surveillance missions.

Flush with border security funding, DHS has purchased Predators that come with a $20 million price tag including the costs of payloads and service contracts. DHS is hard pressed, however, to show that their Predators are more than high-tech toys prone to glitches and crashes. And the department has been unable to demonstrate their value in dismantling (or even disrupting) transnational criminal organizations let alone improving the security of the homeland. Marijuana seizures are their main achievement.

Certainly the rush to drone deployment should provoke “strong passions” and “vigorous debate.” But the debate that does exist is occurring largely on the margins of politics in America. It may be that vigorous debate over the morality and legality of drone deployment at home and abroad may only emerge when we see this proliferation in our own airways. The Federal Aviation Administration is facing great pressure by DOD, DHS, local law enforcement agencies, and industry to open domestic airspace to wide-ranging drone flights.

DHS already has a fleet of ten unarmed Predators and Guardians patrolling the borderlands and the southern coasts, while also providing grants to local law enforcement agencies to purchase small UAVs—all in the name of homeland security. Meanwhile, DOJ is paving the way through several criminal-justice programs for police and sheriffs’ departments to add drones to their forces.

Not just killers, drones are also powerful surveillance tools. Like all government power, as the ACLU rightly argues, UAVs need “to be subject to checks and balances.” Just as UAVs have reasonable and justifiable military uses—once the checks and balances are in place—the many potential uses by law enforcement and other government agencies (as well as by individuals and businesses) should be guided by ethnical and legal standards. It will take a vigorous and transparent policy debate to ensure that such standards are formulated and enforced. Such issues as image retention restrictions, public notice of aerial surveillance, democratic control of UAV missions, and evaluation of impact and cost that have been raised by the ACLU need the attention of local and national policymakers.[4]

Thus far, in Congress and in the executive branch, we see mostly uncritical advocacy for increased drone deployment—on vivid display at the annual drone fairs sponsored jointly by the House Unmanned Systems Caucus and the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.[5]

It is widely accepted—in Congress, in the media, and by the public—that drone warfare has been an unqualified success. This perceived success—unsullied by the type of concerns raised by Cortright such as drone blowback—is key in driving drone proliferation around the world and at home. Representative Candice Miller, the Michigan Republican who chairs the Subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security of the House Homeland Security Committee, is a self-declared “huge supporter” of UAVs and advocates deploying the “fantastic technology” that the U.S. military uses “in theater” at home.

“The UAVs are coming,” declared Miller in a recent oversight hearing, “and now you see our military sitting in a cubicle sometimes in Nevada, drinking a Starbucks, running these things in theater and being incredibly, incredibly successful.”

There’s more drone boosterism than oversight and evaluation in Congress, and Miller along with most of her Republican and Democratic colleagues have routinely given a green light to drone proliferation at home and abroad. Miller advocates a pervasive UAV presence for border control, north and south, and law enforcement.

In a political environment characterized by unconditional enthusiasm for drones and other high-tech security instruments, the case for more regulation and oversight needs to be made clearly and forcefully, which Cortright does well. If we are, however, to move toward the ethical and legal frameworks for drone deployment he recommends, we also need to evaluate the persuasive arguments for drone proliferation—holding that drone surveillance and strikes can prevent all-out warfare, lower the costs of a just war, and keep us all more safe and secure.

Cortright’s warnings about the dangers of drone proliferation, while clearly on target, would have more weight if he had presented and then attempted to debunk those positions.

[1] Eric Schmitt, “Lull in Strikes by U.S. Drones Aids Militants in Pakistan,” New York Times, Jan. 7, 2012.

[2] Carlo Munoz, “More Hill Heft Needed on UAS Exports, CRS Says,” AOL Defense, Jan. 9, 2012; Munoz, “Arms Export Controls Killing U.S. Drone Market,” AOL Defense, Aug. 17, 2011.

[3] “Proposed Rules,” Federal Register, Vol. 76, No. 215, Nov. 7, 2011.

[4] Jay Stanley and Catherine Croup, Protecting Privacy from Aerial Surveillance:

Recommendations for Government Use of Drone Aircraft, ACLU, December 2011.

[5] Tom Barry, “How Drone Warfare Took Over Congress,” Alternet, Nov. 30, 2011; Tom Barry, Fallacies of High-Tech Fixes for Border Security, CIP International Policy Report, April 2010.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • 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

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.