DEFENSE SECRETARY Leon Panetta recently announced a new Pentagon strategy: fewer troops, and a 30 percent increase in the US fleet of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), such as Predator drones. In an age of unconventional warfare and an increasingly cash-strapped military, this approach has obvious appeal. Drones are much cheaper than boots on the ground; they avoid putting American troops at direct risk and allow us to target enemies wherever they may be. By using unmanned weapons, the argument goes, we can avoid the kind of protracted, costly wars that have been so disastrous in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The perceived low risk to our own forces makes it much easier to launch armed attacks. But in the absence of declared war, it is not clear who is in charge or accountable. Robotic warfare has enabled the United States to dramatically expand the number of covert, unofficial attacks we carry out - without any formal declaration of war, explicit congressional authorization, or budgetary oversight. Unlike a decade ago, we now have the technical ability to fight “mini-wars’’ in multiple locations. When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003 it had only about 60 unmanned aircraft. Today we have more than 7,000, as well as 12,000 ground-based robots.
The Pentagon runs a “regular’’ drone program to protect US troops in established war zones such as Iraq and Afghanistan. But there is also a vast unofficial CIA-run program that targets suspected enemies around the world. Because there is no formal declaration of war, the CIA is not required to disclose anything about where it operates, how it selects targets, or how many people it has killed. The budget for these operations is highly classified.
Without any formal congressional authorization, the legal basis for drone warfare is also murky. Under the UN Charter, to which the United States is a signatory, member states are permitted to defend themselves from an armed attack but prohibited from choosing war as a method to settle disputes. Predator drones alone have flown more than 80,000 missions in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, and Somalia. When do these operations constitute a war? In Pakistan, we have launched double the number of strikes that we deployed (using manned bombers) in the opening round of the Kosovo War. By the old standards, the CIA’s operations in Pakistan would be viewed as war.
The United States also needs to consider legal questions about “extra-judicial’’ killings, such as the US drone attack that killed Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born Muslim cleric, in September 2011. Al-Awlaki was an enemy of the United States and most Americans celebrated his demise. But that should not prevent us from questioning whether the government should kill an American citizen without due process.
Moral considerations aside, many military experts question whether drones are effective or counterproductive over the long-term. Unmanned area vehicle strikes frequently kill innocent civilians, stoke anti-American feelings, and feed recruits to militant groups. Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani has pointed out that the strikes “create sympathy for the victims’’ and undermine public support for his government’s efforts to thwart terrorists.
Yet another critical factor is the security of unmanned systems. In 2009, US forces discovered extensive drone footage on the laptops of Iraqi insurgents, which they had apparently been able to hack into by purchasing a $26 piece of software. Last year the UAV operations center in Nevada was infected by a computer virus that is still not solved. Richard Clarke, one of the nation’s top counterterrorism experts, doesn’t rule out the possibility that Iran could have intercepted the Sentinel drone that mysteriously came down there, fully intact, in December.
The proliferation of “remote-control’’ warfare poses difficult questions about the morality, legality, effectiveness, security, and long-term utility of this technology. Throughout history, humans have invented ever more sophisticated ways to kill each other - from bows and arrows to gunpowder, machine guns, fighter jets, and nuclear weapons. Robotic warfare is opening a new chapter in the arms race. It is only a matter of time before the Chinese, the Russians, and others develop UAVs with potentially even more advanced technology. A world of drone wars between countries - including next-generation miniature “nano’’ drones that cannot be easily detected - is a chilling (but plausible) scenario.
While the United States is drawing down in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is ramping up the number of unannounced, unofficial, undeclared wars around the world. We should be asking whether this progressive militarization of our foreign policy is making us more secure - or simply setting ourselves up for a new era in which there is no guarantee that the United States will be the ultimate winner.Linda J. Bilmes is a senior lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School and co-author of The Three Trillion Dollar War: The True Cost of the Iraq Conflict.