The Hoover Institution at Stanford University has devoted its latest edition of Strategika, its online military history journal, to the question of drones. Drones have been important to our national security strategy since the late years of the Bush administration, as former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates chronicles in his memoir, Duty. The Obama administration has made drones even more important–to the exclusion of other tactics.
Both left and right are suspicious of drones, both because of their surveillance capacity and their deadly potential. Indeed, one of the few moments that united left and right in Washington was Sen. Rand Paul’s filibuster in March 2013, when the Kentucky Republican and Tea Party favorite spoke for over thirteen hours to demand a clear answer from Attorney General Eric Holder on the constitutionality of drones for domestic use.
Yet as the authors in Strategika explain, drones are not as unprecedented as they may seem (targeted killing aside), nor are they necessarily as powerful as reports from Afghanistan and Yemen might indicate. Kenneth Anderson and Benjamin Wittes note that drones may be remotely operated, but they still require hundreds of troops to maintain a local base, plus personnel and time to establish human intelligence to use in targeting.
A short article by Admiral Gary Roughead notes that drones have the potential, at least, to remove some of the risk of military and civilian casualties, and could therefore alter the cost and calculus of war. So while the bulk of human rights energy has gone into opposing the new technologies, there are powerful human rights reasons (as well as strategic ones) to consider drones an important part of our arsenal for the foreseeable future.
The broader question–and a political one–is whether the U.S. has now bet too heavily on drones. They take away the thorny moral and legal questions surrounding detention and interrogation, but at the cost of human intelligence gathering. They may remove terrorists from the battlefield but do little to stabilize the societies in which terror networks flourish (and, on balance, drone attacks may do more to destabilize those societies).
It is enough to watch the president and his Secretaries of State flap about ineffectually on key strategic issues like Iran and Syria to understand that there is no substitute for “boots on the ground,” and that what may have been lost in a premature and total withdrawal from Iraq was a strategic advantage that will be nearly impossible to regain. To the extent drones enable the erosion of our will to back threats with action, they are a weakness.