Academic journal article Military Review

Death from Above: UAVs and Losing Hearts and Minds

Academic journal article Military Review

Death from Above: UAVs and Losing Hearts and Minds

Article excerpt

This article expresses the opinions of the author and does not reflect the official position of any agency of the Department of Defense. It was originally published in the May-June 2011 edition of Military Review.

ARMED UNMANNED AERIAL vehicles (UAVs) or drones are in constant use over Afghanistan and the Pakistan tribal borderlands, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. As Washington and the U.S. military see it, the ideal use of Predator and Reaper drones is to pick off terrorist leaders. In 2007, hunter-killer drones were performing 21 combat air patrols at any one time, by the end of 2009 they were flying 38, and in 2011 they increased to about 54 ongoing patrols. In 2009, the Air Force reported that for the first time they would be training more joystick pilots than new fighter and bomber pilots, creating a "sustainable career path" for those Air Force officers who fly UAVs.

Wonder Weapons

Perhaps out of fear of strategic loss of national will over unpopular U.S. and coalition casualties, Central Command seems to have accepted drones as the current weapon of choice in the fight against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Drones are reportedly "knocking off the bad guys right and left." (1) According to one estimate, by March 2011 at least 33 Al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders (high value targets) had been killed by the drones and from 1,100 to 1,800 insurgent fighters had been killed as well. (2) Tom Engelhardt observes in Drone Race to the Near Future that the UAVs are the "wonder weapon of the moment," and "you can already see the military-industrial-robotics complex in formation." (3) In fact, as James Der Darian describes in Virtuous War: Mapping the Military-Industrial-Media-Entertainment Network, drones are already part of a massive and expanding "military-industrial-media-entertainment network." (4)

The hype and hubris surrounding this technology is immense, and the mainstream media has been full of glowing reports on the drones, some of which imply that their use could win the war against terrorism all by itself. For example, an April 2009 report claimed that the drones were killing Taliban and Al-Qaeda leaders and "the rest [of their numbers] have begun fighting among themselves out of panic and suspicion." "If you were to continue on this pace," counterterrorism consultant Juan Zarate told the LA Times, "al Qaida is dead." (5) In an uncritical 60Minutes report on U.S. Air Force drone operations in May 2009, the officer in charge was asked if mistakes were ever made in the drone attacks: "What if you get it wrong?" "We don't," was his response. (6)

The Air Force declares that its priority is to precisely target insurgents while avoiding civilian casualties. They strongly aver that they are very concerned about civilian casualties, that they take extreme measures to avoid them, and that "casualty avoidance can be the targeting team's most time-intensive task." (7) At the Combined Air and Space Operations Center, Middle East, a military lawyer (judge advocate) is always on duty to provide advice reflecting the Law of Armed Conflict, the international treaties that prohibit intentional targeting of civilians and require militaries to minimize risks to civilians. The Air Force also asserts that a strict NATO protocol requires high-level approval for air strikes when civilians are known to be in or near Al-Qaeda or Taliban targets, and when civilians are detected, strikes are called off. The U.S. military claims its targeting is extremely precise, and that it has called off many operations when it appeared that civilian casualties might result. (8) Such claims are consistent with counterinsurgency (COIN) tactics outlined in Field Manual 3-24.

Today, UAV use is being hyped as "the future of war," the "only good thing to come out of the war on terrorism," and an effective and highly discriminate counterterrorism and counterinsurgency weapon. No one doubts that robots will eventually occupy a central role in the U. …

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