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The Appeal of Drones

Are drones an effective tool for achieving the goals of the American national security state?

By Hugh Gusterson Published 2016

This book was written when I spent a year at the Institute for Advanced Study. It is hard to imagine an environment that is more stimulating or more congenial to writing. Many colleagues at the Institute helped shape my thinking, but six deserve special mention—Didier Fassin for his mentorship and remarkable breadth of knowledge and ideas; Joan Scott, who helped me think through the nature of “remote intimacy”; Michael Walzer, also writing on drones, whose questions forced me to think more deeply; Freeman Dyson, who, as smart as ever at ninety-one, is deeply committed to dialogue between the natural and social sciences and, for the founder of the company that makes the Predator and Reaper drones, is surprisingly skeptical of drone warfare; Richard Wilson, who in answer to a stray question over lunch about drones and the law, gave me an impromptu minilecture that provided the framework for my penultimate chapter; and Anver Emon, who was kind enough to review that chapter for legal accuracy and overall acuity.—HG

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.

Politicians, pundits, and military leaders portray the turn to drones as a sign of American strength. As one of the few countries with the technical sophistication and the infrastructure of satellites and military bases that are required to operate drones, the United States is now able to kill its enemies while remaining invulnerable. It is moving toward war that is so asymmetrical that only the other side will incur casualties, so asymmetrical that it is more like hunting than war. 

But another way of looking at this development is that American attempts to occupy Iraq and Afghanistan with ground forces or even to make a single U.S. assault force raid in Somalia in 1993 proved so disastrous in terms of military defeat on the ground and political opposition at home that the United States has been forced to retreat into the air and to cede the terrain it wants to control on the ground to the enemy. Drones have enabled improvements in aerial surveillance and in the interception of cell phone and radio signals on the ground, but insurgents have partly adapted to this by changing cell phones frequently, using couriers, spoofing aerial video cameras, and altering their meeting habits. Sometimes insurgents hide under bridges, where drones cannot see them, then change direction or switch cars. They also take advantage of urban topography, where cars may look alike or be hard to follow as they drive behind buildings, to elude surveillance. On occasion, adversaries have also succeeded in hacking U.S. drones. In 2009, Shia insurgents in Iraq used software available for $29.95 on the Internet to hack into drone video feeds that were not encrypted so that they could use U.S. drone footage for their own battle planning. More seriously, in 2011, Iran succeeded in capturing a U.S. RQ-170 surveillance drove by hacking into its communications and reprogramming it to land— intact—within Iran, where it was promptly put on display to the international media.

Ever since General Giulio Douhet claimed in the early twentieth century that wars would now be won from the air, advocates of air power have repeatedly prophesied the imminent obsolescence of ground forces, but their prophecies remain as yet unfulfilled. 

In the words of the Israeli Eyal Weizman, “The fantasy of a cheap aerial occupation, or ‘aerially enforced colonization,’ is … as old as air forces themselves.” But as former U.S. Air Force pilot Shane Riza writes, “Sole aerial efforts at controlling—the word choice is important—populations or militaries on the ground have not worked ever since the British first tried it in Iraq in the 1920s.” Thus, as well as inquiring into the experience of those who fly drones and probing the implications of drones for democratic governance in the United States, we must ask the question almost all commentators conspire to bury: are these alleged new wonder weapons an effective tool at all for achieving the goals of the American national security state?

Hugh Gusterson, Member (2014–15) in the School of Social Science, is Professor of Anthropology and International Affairs at George Washington University. This article was excerpted from Drone: Remote Control Warfare (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2016), which Gusterson wrote while a Member at the Institute. Gusterson is also the author of two books on nuclear weapons scientists, People of the Bomb (University of Minnesota Press, 2004) and Nuclear Rites (University of California Press, 1996).

Published in The Institute Letter Summer 2016