The Droneless Counterfactual

David Cortright states that his “objection to drones is not that they ‘keep our forces safer’” as Ritika Singh and I had suggested. “That is a misreading of my argument,” he protests. But read further in his reply and he makes clear that this concern is, in fact, integral to his objection.

“My concern,” he says immediately after protesting our characterization, “is that the availability of these weapons may weaken necessary moral and political constraints against the use of force.” Why? “Because drone weapons reduce the costs and risks of armed action” and thus “lower the inhibitions against using military force [emphasis added].”

Cortright’s example, the use of drones along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, is a case in point. He notes Defense Secretary Panetta’s argument that drones are the “only game in town” and explains why this is: They are more precise than conventional air strikes, and “Ground operations by commando units … would entail severe risks to our troops” (emphasis added). The result is that the availability of drones creates a military option where none would otherwise exist.

Just to be clear, I prefer that American troops be deployed with a minimum of “severe risks.” And Cortright’s confidence that absent drones, policymakers would not perceive “severe risks to our troops” as risks worth taking to confront al Qaeda seems misplaced to me. One cannot assume that because major troop commitments are politically unthinkable given the availability of lesser uses of force that they would be similarly unthinkable in the absence of these alternative military means. Cortright assumes that absent drones, the United States would simply not be engaged militarily in Pakistan. His assumption is naive. Absent drones, American involvement in Pakistan would probably be militarily messier, greater, and bloodier on both sides. It is a mistake that colors his entire argument.

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.