Drone Hysteria is Stupid

The Reaper drone above is fitted for death and destruction by retail. The weapons mounted on those wings are designed for accurate destruction of specific targets, not carpet-bombing a valley. Anyone who raves about a Reaper drone annihilating entire villages is full of horse shit: that’s not what they’re for, and it doesn’t describe what they do.

“UAV operator” has been the hottest job in the US Army since the mid-1990s. I vividly remember front covers of Stars & Stripes declaring as much while I went through the Combat Electronic Warfare Equipment Operators Course (CEWEOC) at Fort Huachuca, Arizona. I could also look up from the triangulating antennas I was learning to erect and watch an actual Predator drone flying back and forth over the airfield all day; Huachuca is now the Army’s drone training center. Back then, defense experts constantly cited the drone as the most important new development in warfare.

So anyone who decries a “new surge” of military interest in drones is just admitting they never paid attention before, that they don’t know what they’re talking about, and that they are riding on the word “drone” because it’s trendy and scary. Such opinions should carry exactly as much weight as a paper airplane, because they aren’t really about drones at all but war in general. There is nothing a drone can do that could not be done up close and personal, though at greater risk. A drone merely removes risk from the attacker — which is what warriors have been doing since the invention of the bow and arrow.

I have been seeing some ridiculous comparisons out there: a drone is like mustard gas, or the atomic bomb, in that it requires some new moral scrutiny. This is patently silly. A chemical or nuclear battlefield is an unmitigated horror on an epic scale. The worst photograph of a Hellfire explosion’s aftermath in Waziristan is nothing compared to, say, photos of Saddam’s Anfal Campaign against the Kurds, or Hiroshima. People should try donning a MOPP suit before they say such ignorant things:

(Noel) Sharkey and others believe that autonomous armed robots should force the kind of dialogue that followed the introduction of mustard gas in World War I and the development of atomic weapons in World War II. The International Committee of the Red Cross, the group tasked by the Geneva Conventions to protect victims in armed conflict, is already examining the issue.

Mind you, an autonomous robot isn’t operating on its own, even if it is autonomous. No commander in his right mind would turn loose a human pilot to select and destroy random targets; much less would they send a drone without instructions. The obvious exception would be if the drone came under fire, in which case one would certainly expect it to fire back with at least the same impersonal alacrity as a human pilot. Few commanders will want to use a plane that doesn’t serve their very specific mission requirements, so don’t expect human hands to lose control of the drone fleet anytime soon. In other words, no Terminator Judgment Day Skynet. Sorry.

Nor do I find arguments about the “impersonal” nature of drone warfare the least bit convincing. War is not sporting. As I have said before, the art of war is mainly about creating unfairness. A pilot dropping a bomb on infantry in a P-51 Mustang is not less unfair than a drone dropping a Hellfire missile on them. Unfairness is the point. If it’s gallant sportsmanship you desire, try charging machine guns on horseback like the doomed cavalry unit in the movie War Horse. What? That doesn’t sound better than a drone strike?

Indeed, the most salient thing to know about World War I is that machine guns and mustard gas merely exacerbated a battlefield created by artillery. The trenches were dug to get away from high explosives rapid-fired by new high-angle tubes which, unlike the field cannons of a previous era, were capable of killing masses of men the cannoneers never even saw. That wasn’t “fair,” either.

Indirect fire — whether from a plane or a howitzer or a rocket — was responsible for the vast majority of all casualties in wars of the 20th Century. UAVs are merely the newest platform for the same old indirect fire. If they are a revolution, it is mainly in terms of accuracy: compared to carpet-bombing with B-52s, a Hellfire is precision itself. Kinder? Gentler? Of course not, but it is actually less destructive:

What the history of war makes clear is that the administration’s embrace of “remote control warfare” does not signal an abolition of restraints on war’s destructive power. Using technology to strike safely at an opponent is as old as war itself. It has been seen in eras of highly-controlled and restrained warfare, and in eras of unrestrained total war—and the present day, thankfully, belongs to the first category. Ultimately, restraints upon war are more a matter of politics than of technology. If you are concerned about American aggression, it is not the drones you should fear, but the politicians who order them into battle. (Emphasis mine)

Also at Fort Huachuca, I observed a dirigible operated by the Border Patrol. Tethered a few miles to the West of the reservation, it rose thousands of feet into the air every morning, allowing the crew to watch many miles of the Mexican border just a few klicks to the South. If the Border Patrol buys a UAV and flies it up and down the limiting parallels of the United States, how is that substantially different? In what new way does it challenge civil rights differently from, say, a blimp?

The answer is that it doesn’t. Among the most fallacious notions current among drone hysterics is that drones will enable a new wave of repressive police statism, as if law enforcement never ever violate civil rights now with the tools they already have. Suppose a drone follows your car around town while you make cocaine deliveries: how were your rights challenged in any way different from using a helicopter?

In fact, the most frightening thing about UAVs is that they are so widely available. You can buy one on the internet for $300. I personally used a ground-based remotely-operated vehicle in 2002 when I was working as a private investigator. The company was experimenting with a remote-controlled helicopter at the time. We only did Worker’s Compensation cases. So if anyone should frighten you regarding drones and privacy, it should be your weird neighbor, your angry ex-employee, or your estranged spouse.

For that matter, governments have just as much to fear from drones as their citizens, especially when it comes to secrecy. UAVs are already a thoroughly democratized technology, and technology liberates those who liberate themselves. It is only a matter of time before someone uses a mail-order UAV to take pictures of Area 51 and declare themselves a hero of liberty. Watch the skies!

H/t David Bell

ADDING: Today begat something of an epic rant on Twitter. My pal @dvnix put the tweets together in a Chirpstory, which is epic of him.

About Matt Osborne

Veteran blogging the culture wars from Alabama. Video journalist, mash-up artist, aspiring novelist, and metalhead. Expect bunnies, geekery, dark humor, and snarky empirical analysis to annoy idealists of all stripes. You can follow me on Twitter, but be ready 'cause it might get loud.
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  • Anonymous

    “If you are concerned about American aggression, it is not the drones you should fear, but the politicians who order them into battle.”

    Exactly right, and I think that this is the real purpose of people who are opposed to warfare by electronic drone. It’s a purpose, by the way, that I’m highly sympathetic to – while I think war is sometimes the least bad option, I rarely think it’s ever a good one.

    People who are upset over drones are also upset over the use of commando units to take out targets like OBL, and they’re upset that there are wars in general. I’ve never met a person who was in favor of war in Afghanistan who was opposed to drone warfare – I’m sure they exist, but they’re most likely an extreme corner case, like one of those people who voted for George W. Bush because of his “strong environmental record.” (Yep.)

    What drones are, are a relatively new innovation in the theater of warfare, and I think that’s why people have a vested interest in defining the general emotional impression they give while public opinion is somewhat soft. If you’re anti-war, you sure don’t want anyone to see drones as a positive when they’re used by the Air Force more and more every year. Painting with a broad brush has the unfortunate side effect of painting all unmanned craft equally, which this post carefully illustrates the errors of. If unmanned aerial vehicles are an abomination, we need to Occupy Radio Shack.

    Good post, Matt. By the way, I’d add napalm to the list of “things used in war that are worse than drones,” after reading Howard Zinn’s haunting recollection of the time he dropped drums of “sticky fire” in the Second World War, the event he says led him to become a near-absolute pacifist. Zinn was way to my left, but if I’m allowed to accept the points of view of politicians to my right – hello there, Mister President – it should go the other way, too.

  • http://twitter.com/Norbrookc Norbrook

    Back in the day, I took the Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical Warfare Officer/NCO course.  That’s where you spent a week learning how to calculate blast radii, fallout patterns, and “safe time to entry” for tactical nukes, followed by a week on the details of chemical weaponry and how to protect/decontaminate the various agents.  All of which I can look back at and realize that anyone who is comparing a drone strike with a Hellfire to that is a complete moron. 

    Are they “unfair?”  Sure, and I doubt you’ll find any military person who wants a fair fight.  The idea is to stack the odds as heavily in your favor as you can.  Patton’s line about it’s not dying for your country, it’s making the other son-of-a-bitch die for his still holds true.

  • http://www.osborneink.com OsborneInk

    NBC was my least favorite training scenario because it forced me to admit that such horrors existed.

  • http://www.osborneink.com OsborneInk

    Napalm is an awful weapon. Strangely, flamethrower man remains popular. http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_5wkMFMMQMAc/TBxnoe7DIUI/AAAAAAAABb4/WpfWn2_mOfI/s1600/276813a~Toy-Soldier-Posters.jpg