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Posts tagged ‘Drones’

Are Drones More Likely to Inflict Civilian Casualties?

By Taylor Marvin

MQ-9. US Air Force photo by Kristi Machado.

MQ-9. US Air Force photo by Kristi Machado.

At Duck of Minerva, Charli Carpenter highlights a recent Guardian piece by Spencer Ackerman relaying the claim by a classified Department of Defense study suggesting that drone strikes over a yearlong period in Afghanistan “caused 10 times more civilian casualties than strikes by manned fighter aircraft.” The study suggest that this higher incidence of civilian casualties is due to insufficient training of drone pilots compared to their in-the-cockpit counterparts. Carpenter notes that if this is true, the argument that drones are a more humanitarian option than crewed aircraft would be substantially weakened.

(Though, importantly, drones strikes within Pakistan are often held up as the more humane option compared to Pakistani military action, not US airstrikes conducted by crewed aircraft, so the study’s findings would not necessarily affect this higher-profile controversy over the ethics of drone strikes.)

There are numerous reasons to doubt the validity of these findings: First, as Carpenter remarks, the study itself is classified — making its data and methods impossible to verify. Secondly, as Dan Nexon argues, there are many within the DoD, and particularly the US Air Force, that find the prospect of a future where fighter jocks take a backseat to drones deeply unattractive and have an incentive to discredit UCAVs. Finally, there’s an obvious potential bias here: as other commenters noted, in the last decade the United States has disproportionately used drones to conduct signature strikes in civilian areas, while crewed aircraft are more often used in more traditional combat strike roles. It’s entirely possible that the manner in which drones are used, rather than operator training or anything inherent to remotely piloted aircraft, is more likely to cause civilian casualties. Unless the study in question is made public we won’t know if this bias is accounted for.

But beyond these issues it’s important to remember that this study has little relevance to the debate over drones themselves. There is little reason to suspect drones are inherently more prone to collateral damage than crewed aircraft, at least in the manner which they have recently been utilized. After all, when conducting signature strikes in undefended airspace — drones’ signature mission in the last decade — there is little qualitative difference between remotely piloted aircraft and crewed strike aircraft. Instead, what makes drones different is their political baggage, which is typically understood as less restricting than crewed strike aircraft. In many situations — in particular, contested airspace — remotely piloted aircraft will likely suffer more from limited situational awareness and other operational limitations than crewed aircraft, limitations that may make them more prone to killing civilians. But there is again little reason to suspect that the limitations of contemporary unmanned platforms have affected drones’ propensity for inflicting civilian casualties today. Instead these civilian casualties are more likely due to the United States’ division of labor between crewed and uncrewed strike aircraft, rather than the inherent qualities of each platform.

Drone strikes will remain controversial, as they should. But it’s important to untangle debates over the consequences of UCAVs themselves, and of their applications. I’d argue that this study is more relevant to the latter than the former.


Drones and Commitment Thresholds

By Taylor Marvin

US Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Brian Ferguson, via Wikimedia.

US Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Brian Ferguson, via Wikimedia.

Glenn Greenwald takes issue with the Pentagon’s move towards awarding drone pilots combat medals:

“Whatever one thinks of the justifiability of drone attacks, it’s one of the least ‘brave’ or courageous modes of warfare ever invented. It’s one thing to call it just, but to pretend it’s ‘brave’ is Orwellian in the extreme. Indeed, the whole point of it is to allow large numbers of human beings to be killed without the slightest physical risk to those doing the killing. Killing while sheltering yourself from all risk is the definitional opposite of bravery.”

The Obama Administration’s drone strike programs are enormously problematic: it’s unclear if the immediate benefits gained from killing al-Qaeda leaders are worth the long-term costs of very publicly eroding Pakistani and Yemeni sovereignty, and whether frequent drone strikes create more militants than kill. “The unintended consequences of our actions are going to outweigh the intended consequences,” former CIA Station Chief Robert Grenier recently said, arguing that Obama administration’s enthusiasm for discriminant strikes is counterproductive. But complaining that the use of drones over manned aircraft isn’t “brave” is just silly — the point of war isn’t to demonstrate macho bravado by risking soldiers’ lives, it’s to force the enemy into submission. Complaints about “bravery” are a juvenile criticism of drone warfare.

Greenwald’ second point — that the low-cost nature of drone warfare encourages aggression — is more on point. “The rapid proliferation of drones, beyond their own ethical and legal quandaries, makes violence and aggression so much easier (and cheaper) to perpetrate and therefore so much more likely,” Greenwald notes. UCAVs’ lack of physical risk for those doing the killing is a feature, not a bug, at least to those on those on the trigger end. But while the operational capabilities of UCAVs differ from their manned counterparts by degrees, their risk avoidance is an absolute — no drone pilot will ever be killed by a SAM. Greenwald’s right to worry that increased use of unmanned aircraft will lower policymakers’ threshold for initiating armed conflict.

Arguing that more lethal military technologies increase the incidence of aggressive wars by lowering their expected costs aren’t new, and make sense. In operational terms, UCAVs are not distinct from manned aircraft, and require the same extensive local support networks. However, while other military advances — guided missiles, body armor — lower risks to individual soldiers on a continuum, in a strict sense unmanned drone warfare negates it entirely, at least from the perspective of policymakers looking to placate domestic audience. This is an important point.

American policymakers’ choice to utilize drones in Pakistan and Yemen is driven by the desire to minimize risk. It’s difficult to make firm arguments about how US military policy would differ if drones were not available. Presumably airstrikes, restricted to manned aircraft, would be a higher risk strategy than it is today, making politicians less likely to utilize them. It is unlikely that the United States would wage an strike campaign in Pakistan anywhere near as comprehensive as it does if unmanned aircraft were not available. However, drones aren’t a perfect substitue for manned aircraft, and the decision to use drones is costlier than Greenwald recognizes.

Greenwald underestimates the difficulties and local infrastructure requirements of drone warfare, and overestimates the military capabilities of UCAVs. Drones like the widely-used MQ-9 Reaper are smaller and slower than fighter jets, giving military planners reason to utilize manned aircraft over UCAV in low-risk theaters. The US Air Force flies manned F-15Es in Yemen, despite the low-profile of American military action there. Drone warfare is cheaper and less risky than manned airstrikes, but the difference is marginal — American policymakers do not make the decision to deploy UCAVs lightly, and there is no firm line between drone and other forms of warfare. These costs mean that when policymakers make the decision to engage in drone warfare they have already passed a relatively high commitment threshold, challenging the notion that “the temptation to use it regularly is virtually irresistible.” While the absence of drones would marginally raise the commitment level required to prompt agressive US military action, the change would be nowhere near as dramatic as critics of drone warfare imagine.

Hunting Drones with Google Maps

By Taylor Marvin

Google Maps’ satellite imagery is an amazing public record, and it’s astonishing what you can find with a little patience. US military assets are no exception, especially aircraft that spend large amounts of time on flight lines and visible to satellite imaging. Let’s go hunting for drones, shall we?

Here’s a trio of RQ-4 Global Hawks at Edwards AFB, California.

And here’s a MQ-9 Reaper at Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti, alongside a pair of F-15E Strike Eagles. While the resolution isn’t great, you can distingish the MQ-9 from a similar but smaller MQ-1 Predator by comparing the wingspan to the F-15Es — a  MQ-9’s wingspan is 67 ft and a F-15E is 65ft nose to tail, indicating that this is in fact a Reaper. These F-15Es are likely the aircraft involved in the Pentagon’s largely-secret war in Yemen.

And  as a bonus, a trio of F-15Cs in aggressor colors for training purposes at Nellis AFB, Nevada. There’s a number of F-22’s visible at Nellis AFB as well, along with an entire squadron of Royal Air Force Panavia Tornado strike aircraft.

Also of interest: a number of B-52 strategic bombers at Diego Garcia in the Indian ocean.