The sweeping language in the post-9/11 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) has empowered both presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama to interpret their counterterrorism mandate broadly, to include targets ranging from the Taliban to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), Boko Haram and other Al-Qaeda affiliates around the world.
The U.S. drone program, which aims to eliminate high-value targets from these organizations and disrupt imminent terrorist plots against the United States, has been a key component of their efforts.
However, critics have questioned the program’s effectiveness for some time. For example, U.S. officials didn’t always know whom they were killing or what group the targets belong to — let alone whether or not they committed any grievous crime or posed a meaningful threat to U.S. personnel or interests. Moreover, those killed in the drone strikes were generally not high-value targets, but low-level militants, a term denoting any military-aged male killed in the campaign.
A cache of leaked military documents released last week by The Intercept confirms these shortcomings. But perhaps more important, the documents reveal not only that the drone program is ill-suited to achieve its purported goal, but that it is actually counterproductive in many respects.
Until now, the U.S. drone program has enjoyed overwhelming support from lawmakers and the American public as a way of achieving critical U.S. foreign policy and national security objectives with minimal costs, commitments or complications, notably without putting American boots on the ground.
However, Al-Qaeda, the Taliban and ISIL have all actually been gaining in strength despite unrelenting U.S. strikes due in large part to popular outrage at collateral damage of the strikes and the erosion of governance in the areas most affected. Nonetheless, U.S. policymakers continue to insist that it is possible to remotely contain, degrade and eventually destroy these groups by properly tweaking existing policies.
The Pentagon’s own assessment, detailed in The Intercept’s report, casts doubts on this prospect. The program is inefficient and often misses intended targets, because of a lack of on-site special operations and intelligence support in countries of operation. Drones are best used as a compliment — not a substitute — for boots on the ground. To deprive aerial campaigns of ground support is to condemn them to failure.
Costs of misuse
Warfare is increasingly asymmetrical, fluid and urban. It is no longer feasible to achieve victory by simply bombing enemy formations and other “hard targets.” Identifying critical assets, or even distinguishing combatants from non-combatants, have become complex and fraught. Effective air campaigns require tactical air control party teams on the ground to help identify targets.
Without these assets, the U.S. government is forced to rely extensively on signals intelligence — a typically uncorroborated metadata from phones and email accounts — to identify and track their targets. There are myriad problems with this approach. First, phones and email accounts often have several possible or actual users that shift over time. Moreover, if the target believes they are being monitored, as terrorists usually do, it is easy to obscure information, or even feed misinformation to those eavesdropping. Since this method is so unreliable, potential leads should always be corroborated by other, more trusted means. In this regard, there are few alternatives to deploying intelligence agents to the field.
Overreliance on unmanned systems pushes the government toward military overreach by creating the impression of a ‘clean war.’
Due to limitations in the size of the drone fleet and its capabilities, remote surveillance cannot serve as an adequate substitute. And it would be fruitless to upgrade the fleet because there is also a critical shortage of drone operators; their numbers are insufficient to manage even the existing sorties. Additionally, thousands of analysts would be required to process the deluge of content produced by any expansion and to translate it into actionable intelligence. And then scores of new aides would have to read the resultant reports and advise commanders or policymakers accordingly. The logistics and cost of recruiting, clearing, training and coordinating all of these, especially in an era of budget sequestration, would be prohibitive.
It is also difficult to employ foreign intelligence services in the countries of operation because their methods are often inconsistent with U.S. standards and interests. In some instances host governments have portrayed domestic dissidents and political rivals as terrorists, using U.S. counter-terrorism campaigns to consolidate their power. In many cases, there are even direct lines of communication between local authorities and the militants being targeted, meaning closer cooperation could jeopardize, rather than enhance, U.S. operations.
There are also opportunity costs of overreliance on unmanned systems. It is impossible to capture and interrogate enemies with drones. Nor can drones effectively seize a target’s laptops, cell phones or documents. As a result, even when strikes do kill the intended target, precious intelligence dies with them. In other words, every single sortie destroys troves of actionable intelligence — eroding, rather than augmenting, our understanding of the organizations being targeted.
To be clear, there are complications involved with deploying more assets in the field. The U.S. Special Operations Command is already stretched too thin. Deploying ground personnel along with drone sorties would entail both a significant expansion of special operations and a narrowing in the scope of U.S. global operations to prioritize the most essential leads.
But this rebalancing could ultimately prove advantageous. U.S. forces on the ground would render drone strikes more precise. Moreover, if these teams were able to frequently capture, rather than kill, high-value targets, it would be much easier to determine who and where to strike in order to achieve maximum disruption of an organization and its operations. Fewer strikes would be required, and each one would be far more effective — generating less collateral damage or blowback — all at a lower cost.
However, the primary motivation for replacing human assets with UAVs was never a concern for efficiency, but instead, aversion to U.S. personnel being injured, killed or captured by enemy forces. Increasing the ratio of manned missions inevitably increases this risk but even this is healthy.
Deploying boots on the ground reminds the public of the essential truths that war is always costly, risky, messy and ugly — and its outcomes are always difficult to control, predict or even comprehend. This is why kinetic action, or even the threat of force, should be used as a last resort and only in the service of vital national interests.
Overreliance on unmanned systems pushes the government in the opposite direction, toward military overreach, by creating the impression of a “clean war.” In reality, there is no such thing.