Drones as Force Protection in AfPak, and the Dream of Drones as Strategic Air Power

Drones as Force Protection in AfPak, and the Dream of Drones as Strategic Air Power

Adam Entous, Julan E. Barnes, and Siobhan Gorman have an outstanding piece of national security reporting on the front page of the weekend Wall Street Journal, “CIA Escalates Campaign in Pakistan: Pentagon Diverts Drones to Afghanistan to Bolster Campaign Next Door.” This is a fine piece of journalism that integrates reporting from AfPak and Washington to present findings that are new to the public, and more than merely a deliberate leak to a leading reporter from a government official or a magazine story rather than hard news.  My congrats to what is emerging as a leading national security affairs reporting team at the news pages of the Journal.  (Update: Here is Greg Miller’s account in the Washington Post, Sunday, front page.)

(Note: I’ve made some lengthy revisions and additions to this post.  Also, I’m not so sure that the contents of this post count as international law, and I’m not sure that our international law readership especially cares about Anderson’s views on strategy, but I decided I should cross-post it from Volokh.  The link, if any, to law is that although we are used to analyzing things like drone attacks from the standpoint of the law of targeted killing and other legal categories, at least once in a while it might help to step back and consider the strategic categories first, and then work our way to the law.)

September 2010 saw another sharp uptick in the number of drone attack missions in Pakistan.  The question behind the raw numbers is what strategic purpose they aim at.  One strategic mission of drone missions in Pakistan is counterterrorism aimed at Al Qaeda leadership.  This uptick in September 2010 points to a quite distinct function – rather than counterterrorism as its own mission, the purpose is, as article says in a telling quote, “force protection” for the US counterinsurgency troops in Afghanistan.  The articles details an increasing impatience of the US military and political leadership with Pakistan’s government, and an increased willingness both to strike overtly using NATO military assets quite openly across the border, as happened in the last week, as well as to use CIA Predator attacks in the border regions.

(Added: Moreover, the “force protection” use of drones described in these articles is distinct from stillanother strategic use of drones, one recounted in earlier articles in the last two weeks, talking about their use to disrupt the planning of attacks against European targets by groups such as the Haqqanis, regional groups thought to be seeking to use people with European or American passports to strike from Pakistan against Western targets; Mumbai shifted further west, so to speak.  As Woodward quotes someone in his new book, “Mumbai changed everything.”  It is because of these overlapping but also separate and shifting roles for drones that it seems to me worthwhile to analytically distinguish them, as I do below.)

But the CIA attacks are now on safe havens for Taliban who are part of the fight in Afghanistan but taking refuge in Pakistan.  Rather than simply a raiding strategy against terrorist leadership in Pakistan as an exercise in counterterrorism, it is now a raiding strategy against the safe havens as part of the Afghanistan counterinsurgency surge.  Hence the desire of the Pentagon to divert drone aircraft – which are in demand in Afghanistan for a variety of missions – from Afghanistan to attacks in Pakistan on bases that are seen as links for attacks on US forces.

This is an important shift, or addition, to the role of drones in Pakistan.  (Added:  And of course it has always been part of the use of drones; I’ve hardened the analytic categories, so to speak, to make them clearer, but really it is a question not of something new, but of scaling up.)  The article makes note of something else, too – that drone aircraft can’t be produced fast enough to meet demand for them in AfPak.  The article has excellent graphics, including a chart on numbers of attacks on a month by month basis, and maps.

As it happens, this article is timely for me, as I am completing this weekend the draft of an essay for the Hoover Institution on a roster of strategic uses of drones.  In bullet point form, here is an analytic breakdown of categories, as I see them, of drone use.  (I’m not providing more than the bullet title, even though the result is overly-cryptic; the full essay will be available once finished and edited at Hoover’s website or SSRN.  Also, if anyone is interested in my earlier published writing on drone warfare and the law, at SSRN’s free downloads, see this book chapter, this lengthy piece in theWeekly Standard, and two pieces of Congressional testimony, here and here.)

  • Surveillance (sometimes policy and legal people forget this in all the controversy over weaponized drones and targeted killing).
  • Drones used by the military or CIA in Afghanistan as part of combat operations and counterinsurgency.
  • CIA drones in Pakistan used in counterterrorism against high value terrorist leadership (ie, against senior leadership such as Mullah Omar or Bin Laden or others in AQ).
  • CIA drones in Pakistan used in counterterrorism against high and lower level operatives, including the current strikes against locations and camps of terrorist groups apparently planning new strikes in Europe or the US (as some of the CIA drone strikes undertaken now are apparently intended to do, such as those against the Haqqanis).
  • CIA drones used in Pakistan in support of Afghanistan counterinsurgency operations against safe havens for Afghanistan Taliban.
  • CIA (or even military) drones used in Pakistan in support of Pakistan government counterinsurgency operations against the Pakistan Taliban, separate from the fight in Afghanistan.
  • CIA drones used in counterterrorism against AUMF targets (ie Al Qaeda or associated forces, in the context of participants in the current non-international armed conflict (NIAC), as legally defined), whether in Yemen, Somalia, or conceivably elsewhere.
  • CIA drones used either as part of the AUMF-NIAC or else as (legally independent) self-defense operations, against US citizens who have taken up terrorist participation and made themselves subject to targeting (operationally not really different, but legally potentially raising different law and policy questions because of the US citizen status).
  • CIA drones used somewhere down the road against terrorists unrelated to anything going today, whether in an ongoing armed conflict or as an operation in self-defense.

The list proceeds more or less according to an expanding political geography starting with Afghanistan; it deliberately leaves aside Iraq for these purposes.  The main internal analytic axes are political geography; who uses the weapon and on whose behalf; and who is targeted by the weapon.  (I’ve added some to that list, making it more complete but, alas, more cryptic.)

The long-term question of drones is whether they are going to remain a remarkably useful weapon in support of a large variety of missions in different ways, or whether instead the US decides to try and leverage them into something much more strategically radical – the new strategic air power.  In other words, the latest iteration of a very old dream, the ability to win wars from the air.  But this time with a twist.

Strategic air power in the past both promised to win because it could deliver apparently huge amounts of kinetic energy, but then tended to lose (or at least not be decisive)  because the huge amounts could not be targeted in order to achieve the required strategic aims.  (Added:  For a discussion of recent, Kosovo war-era debates over the ability to win wars from the air, look at this excellent article from Byman and Waxman; moreover, Israel went down the air power road in Lebanon, hoping to avoid serious ground engagement, and quickly ran into major problems.) Drone attacks and targeted killing, in the full realized sense with a range of vehicles from very large to tiny, with weapons ranging from large to small, and with improved sensors arrays and processing integration, hold out the hope of being able finally to deliver the blows precisely where one wants.  We think of the virtue of targeted killing as being discrimination for its own sake, limiting the damage of war.  In pursuit of strategic air power victory, however, we might do better to think of discrimination in targeting for the sake of (finally) being able to put power precisely where we want it.

It might work out that way; it might not.  Drones have not yet been met in the field with counters – surface to air missiles, for example, of the kind that dealt a crippling blow to Soviet air superiority in Afghanistan.  Or technological counters to the remote-control communications systems that allow drones to be directed from near or far away. What concerns me from a strategic standpoint is that the US might decide that drones are cheap, reduce risks to but also need for manpower, and that it finally has the ability to achieve its aims (as Vice President Biden has implied in his early-on stance in favor of drone counterterrorism rather than counterinsurgency war in AfPak), not through the burden and cost of boots on the ground, but over the horizon using this new iteration of the dream of strategic air power.

It seems unlikely to me that this will work.  I understand the attraction.  And I also understand that it does represent an advance on an earlier version of strategic air power – the post WWII idea that strategic nuclear air delivered weapons meant we no longer needed a large standing army, because of the nuclear deterrent in an over the horizon way.  That version of strategic air power could not work to the end of reducing the need for a conventional army, because the threat of nuclear war was too monumental to be useful at the margins.  You could never actually pull the nuclear trigger over something important but not so important to go to nuclear war over.  So it turned out that you either ceded ground incrementally at the margin, or else you went back to having a conventional army that could respond at the margins.

Drones potentially make that less of a problem, precisely because they allow calibrated responses in a discriminating way.  But it seems doubtful to me that a technology will not rapidly develop technological responses, and that in any case, it is a huge advance, but not a truly decisive one; it seems to me likely to remain a useful tool if regarded that way, not a panacea for having a sizable military.  In any case, history is littered with instances of believing that at last we had found the successful path to strategic air power victory.

Update:  Woodward’s book, which I’m reading now, discusses many issues relevant here.  Four stand out for this topic.

  • First, he notes that the number of drone strikes under Bush was tiny, in large part on account of an enormous fear of the consequences of civilian casualties, even in numbers that the administration believed were entirely justifiable – fears, in other words, of accusations of atrocities, war crimes, etc., from the fear of a de-legitimizing activist campaign.  The Obama administration, believing correctly that it was immune to such campaigns, did not have to worry about such repercussions.
  • Second, the earliest drone strikes in Pakistan under Bush had only limited effectiveness, because the US, out of concerns for Pakistani sovereignty, advised the government of impending strikes; elements of Pakistan’s intelligence service warned Al Qaeda, and they dispersed from the target zone prior to the strike.
  • Third, he notes that Michael Hayden, while embracing the use of drones as counterterrorism against high value targets, did not believe that it could “win” the struggle against Al Qaeda or the jihadist extremists, because the pinpricks were not enough to root out the movement even if leaders were killed.  Hayden thought the drones essentially tactical rather than strategic.
  • Fourth, he says that the reason the drone were, and are, effective is because of a strong effort over five years to create a ground level network of intelligence of critical value – developed it seems out of the CIA from human intelligence.  That, integrated with massive advances in signal and communication surveillance, has enabled drones equipped with still not much more than tactical video surveillance in the air to be directed to the crucial targets.  It is not the surveillance gathered by a weaponized drone that matters so much as the intelligence gathered in a combination of on the ground human intelligence and communications monitoring that allows an effective strike.

One of the biggest implications for drone strikes by the CIA in Pakistan and Afghanistan, as I read the Woodward book, then, is that the CIA, under Hayden and surely the same under Panetta, regards its human intelligence and a certain on the ground presence, as well as communications monitoring outside of the tactical use of the drones themselves, as crucial to their success.  The drones are effective insofar as the ground is prepared by other kinds of intelligence activities and technologies.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
No Comments

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.