Magazine article Joint Force Quarterly

Controversial Contrails: The Costs of Remotely Piloted Foreign Policy

Magazine article Joint Force Quarterly

Controversial Contrails: The Costs of Remotely Piloted Foreign Policy

Article excerpt

It is well that we find war so terrible--lest we would become fond of it.

--Robert E. Lee

As six unsuspecting young men drove their nondescript van across the vast Yemeni desert on November 3, 2002, a small piston-driven aircraft covertly monitored their activities from roughly 3 miles overhead. Following a great deal of intense data collaboration and synthesis, intelligence confirmed that one of the vehicle occupants was involved in the 2002 bombing of the USS Cole. The aircraft set up for an attack. Minutes later, an AGM-114 Hellfire air-to-surface missile carrying an 18-pound warhead scored a direct hit on the vehicle, killing all occupants. (1)

Located in an air-conditioned Predator ground control station over 100 miles away sat the individual responsible for this violence. From this comfortable vantage point, during the time leading up to the engagement, the operators of the lethal MQ-1 Predator unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) ensured minimal collateral damage, precise weapons effects, and positive target identification. (2) The strike was a politician's dream--objective neutralized at low risk with no visible collateral damage.

Though this was not the first time a UAV employed lethal force, the 2002 Yemen strike showcased the unique strengths of armed UAVs--a persistent surveillance platform capable of precise and lethal engagement at a moment's notice. This successful strike helped pave the way for increased reliance on unmanned strike capabilities by the U.S. Government. This article questions the increasing reliance on armed UAVs by the United States as a foreign policy tool. Though the use of armed UAVs continues to expand, this unabated trend could prove detrimental to U.S. national interests.

Questioning the UAV Trend

Today, the voracious appetite for UAV capabilities remains strong. The recently released fiscal year 2013 Department of Defense (DOD) budget proposal cut a significant number of programs, yet increased UAV investment, directing the Air Force to expand from a current level of 61 Predator/ Reaper orbits to 65 with a surge capability of 85. (3) But as the United States continues to send unmanned machines to execute national security policy, some have begun to question this trend--most notably the Central Intelligence Agency's (CIA's) regular use of lethal force through unmanned aircraft.

Nowhere have unmanned airstrikes become more prolific than in Pakistan. In a 2011 Foreign Affairs article, Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann report that:

from June 2004, when the strikes in Pakistan began, to January 2009, the Bush administration authorized 44 strikes in the rugged northwestern region of Pakistan. Since assuming office, Barack Obama has greatly accelerated the program. ... In just two years, the Obama administration authorized nearly four times as many drone strikes as did the Bush administration throughout its entire time in office--or an average of one strike every four days, compared with one every 40 days under Bush. (4)

Though these strikes have employed solely precision-guided munitions, they have still resulted in tremendous destruction, killing an estimated 300 to 500 people in 2009 alone. (5)

Congress passed an important piece of legislation on September 18, 2001, that indirectly supported this increased use of UAVs. The Authorized Use of Military Force permits the President to use "all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States." (6) After years of projecting lethal force under this authority, the dependence on armed UAVs has grown. In terms of government efforts at targeting al Qaeda and Taliban leaders in their tribal areas, then-CIA Director Leon Panetta went as far as to say UAVs are "the only game in town. …

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