Many commentators are questioning the legality, efficacy and appropriateness of using Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA)-also referred to inaccurately as “drones.” The truth is, RPA are the most precise means of employing force in a way that reduces collateral damage and minimizes casualties.
The critics don’t understand the reality of “drone” operations, nor do they comprehend that our adversaries are most certainly conducting an aggressive perception management campaign on this issue – a very effective one if the recent hysteria over RPA use is a measure of effectiveness. In military parlance, a “drone” is a flying target.
The media like to use it because it is only one word and they don’t have to explain what a “Remotely Piloted Aircraft” is. But the word “drone” connotes a degree of autonomy that RPAs simply do not possess. It takes over 200 people to operate a MQ-1 Predator or MQ-9 Reaper RPA orbit for 24 hours. This little-known fact among the RPA naysayers is one of the reasons that the use of “drones” allows for more ethical oversight than any other weapon. Drones allow us significantly greater control, oversight, and review before a shot is fired than occurs using manned aircraft or other operations conducted by soldiers, sailors, airmen or Marines.
The persistence, situational awareness, and degree of control possible with an RPA allows for the immediate suspension of lethal engagement if circumstances change or questions emerge – even after a weapon has been released or launched. RPA are networked aircraft and their data can reach any spot on earth in less than two seconds.
Hence, in addition to the hundreds of operational, maintenance, and intelligence personnel, many lawyers and senior leadership are directly involved with RPA lethal engagements. That kind of oversight is rarely, if ever, the case with the use of manned aircraft or with boots on the ground or sailors at sea. The power of our intelligence networks allows RPA essentially to carry around their own command and analysis center and legal counsel as an integral part of their payload.
How can I argue that RPA are the most precise means of employing force in a way that reduces collateral damage and minimizes casualties? The accuracy of weapons employed from a RPA is nominally less than 10 feet. The accuracy of a 155mm howitzer is around 1,000 feet, and mortar accuracy ranges from 200 to 800 feet.
None of the procedures governing the use of artillery, mortars, missiles from ships, or manned aircraft employ the oversight associated with the use of networked RPA. Furthermore, every second of an RPA’s high-fidelity video footage, communication, and aircraft parameters is recorded and stored for very precise review and evaluation. This, ironically, is one of the reasons there is so much attention on “drones.” Imagine if one could see the results of every missile, artillery, mortar, and rifle round fired.
A principal value of RPA is that they provide a perspective only available from operating in the air and persistence to a degree much greater than an aircraft occupied by a person, like the F-18 or F-16. The drones’ ability to fly over one spot for a very long time allows those flying it to observe, evaluate, and act very quickly, or to take all the time necessary to be sure they can do what they really want to do.
That precise engagement is simply not available to other types of weapons. Several well meaning, but misguided, commentators are calling for a new doctrine to guide “drone” warfare. Some have even gone so far to suggest that, “We are in the same position now, with drones, that we were with nuclear weapons in 1945.” (That’s David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker). “Drones” do not define warfare. They are tools used as part of its conduct.
Accordingly, they should be regarded and employed as all other “tools” of war are, in accordance with the laws of armed conflict and congruent with the Geneva Conventions. With respect to warnings on consequences, some have gone so far to postulate that the use of an RPA allows the adversary to paint us as “distant, high-tech, amoral purveyor[s] of death.” Doing so ignores the real motivation of our adversaries in decrying their use.
A significant advantage of RPA is that they allow us to project power without projecting vulnerability-something that can’t be done when ground forces are put in harm’s way. This capability provides us with an asymmetric advantage that our adversaries find difficult to counter. Because RPA are so effective, our enemies try to manipulate us to do what they cannot — limit the use of one of our asymmetric advantages – by spreading falsehoods that “drones” cause reckless collateral damage or are somehow not accurate.
The fact of the matter is that “drones” are one of, if not the most, accurate means of employing significant force in our military arsenal. Airpower, in the form of RPA, is the one allied capability that the Taliban in Afghanistan, Al Qaeda in Pakistan, Yemen, and around the globe cannot defeat directly. By creating international focus on civilian casualties, and attributing those casualties to “drones” vice the biggest cause of those casualties-themselves, they create political and societal pressure to limit the use of “drones.”
Adversary falsehoods regarding inaccuracy and collateral damage divert attention from the fact that the massive intentional damage, intentional killing of civilians, and intentional violations of international law are being conducted by Al Qaeda and the Taliban – not U.S. “drones.” Adding to the desired effects of adversary actions in decrying the use of “drones” is the inordinate amount of time and concern spent in recent commentary regarding the “rights” of traitors to America.
This “discourse” obscures the fact that Al Qaeda is at war with the U.S. That makes any member of Al Qaeda – U.S. citizen or not — an enemy combatant, and that makes them subject to engagement using lethal force. An American passport doesn’t allow anyone to take up arms against his own country and remain immune.
The recent frenzy associated with the supposed legal rights of traitors is a distraction from the fact that the Taliban are responsible for the death and maiming of most of the innocent men, women, and children in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Another disturbing implication of many of the “anti-drone” commentaries is that our standard of warfare should come from some form of “fairness” in dealing with our opponents.
War is not about “fairness;” it’s about inflicting damage on your enemy without suffering damage yourself. RPA provide one of those asymmetries for the U.S. today. The use of RPA has substantially boosted our effectiveness in accomplishing our critical national security objectives – with zero RPA operator casualties, at significantly less cost, and with significantly less collateral damage than have the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade.
The anti-drone crowd keeps saying how much ill-will drones generate, but never discuss how much ill will the alternatives generate. If the people harboring Al Qaeda around the world don’t like drones, do you think they like U.S. boots on the ground more? That said, while introducing enormous capability and employment advantages, RPAs are not a panacea for warfare or replacements for our military services. But let’s not assist our adversaries by limiting our most effective weapon against Al Queda and the Taliban — the asymmetric advantage of our use of RPA.
Dave Deptula, a member of the Breaking Defense Board of Contributors, is a retired Air Force lieutenant general. He was the first general in charge of Air Force intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance, which included Remotely Piloted Aircraft. He directed air operations for Operation Enduring Freedom during the first combat use of a weapon fired from a drone in 2001. He is currently an independent consultant and senior military scholar at the Air Force Academy.