Attack of the Military Drones

Peter W. Singer
Peter W. Singer Former Brookings Expert, Strategist and Senior Fellow - New America

June 27, 2009

Imagine opening the paper next week to find one of the following two headlines. The first: “OSAMA BIN LADEN KILLED: US Predator drone takes out terrorist leader in precision strike.” Or the second: “BIN LADEN DEAD: Pakistani tribal militia corners terrorist leader in violent shootout. Three wives and 11 children killed.”

The result is the same: a murderous criminal, who has proudly taken credit for the killing of thousands of innocents, is now dead.

But which of these stories would represent a “victory” in the so-called “war of ideas” being waged against violent extremists and their supporters? Would it be the precision, high technology robotic strike from afar or the messy human battle on the ground? The answer is far from simple – and the complications in answering it illuminate not only the challenges of warfare today, but the contest of philosophies that seems to drive 21st century conflict.

Technologies that were once science fiction are today very much reality: the US military alone fields 7,000 unmanned drones in the air, like the Predators that fire missiles into Pakistan – and roughly another 12,000 on the ground, like the Packbots that hunt for roadside bombs in Iraq.

One US Air Force general has predicted that conflicts in the near future will involve “tens of thousands” of robots – and not the robots of today. The current Packbots and Predators are just the first generation of battlefield robots; they are like the Model T Ford or the Wright brothers’ Flyer when compared to the prototypes already under development. Much as the earliest designs for the automobile and the aeroplane spread rapidly around the globe, so too is the revolution in military robotics. 44 countries are building robot systems today, including the UK, France, Russia, China, Israel, Iran and the UAE

Since the start of last year, US drones have hit more targets in Pakistan – over 50 – than Nato’s manned bombers did during the opening round of the war in Kosovo a decade ago. By one measure, these strikes could be considered incredibly effective: reports indicate that the US has killed 14 top al Qa’eda or Taliban leaders without losing a single one of its own soldiers in the process. Imagine, by contrast, if thousands of US troops had been sent into the rugged terrain of Pakistan’s north-west frontier on the same mission – they would have suffered great casualties, killed fewer militant leaders, and killed or displaced many more civilians in turn.

Yet, instead of being lauded, these drone strikes have been increasingly questioned, largely due to controversial claims about the civilian casualties they have caused. In the Pakistani media, it has been widely reported that some 700 civilians have been killed in the last year. American officials, of course, strongly dispute these figures: they cite the precision of the technology, the lack of any firm evidence for these casualty numbers (which are cited without sources) and the fact that terrorist leaders often hide among civilian populations and deliberately cause collateral damage.

Adding fuel to the fire, all too typically, the Pakistani government long tried to play a double game with these strikes. For months, it angrily decried the civilian losses and blasted the supposed violations of its sovereignty. Then it was revealed that the US drones carrying out the strikes were actually flown out of the Shamsi airbase inside Pakistan. The government then shifted its tone: it went from stoking public anger to asking for its own drones from the United States.

While the casualty figures remain contested, this narrative of robots killing civilians has taken on a life of its own in both Pakistan and the United States. The News of Pakistan recently declared that “Predator attacks against extremists inside Pakistan [have] now moved America into the position of ‘principal hate figure’ and all-purpose scapegoat”. At the same time, a recent New York Times op-ed, citing the well-publicised casualty figures, suggested that the death toll of 700 civilians and 14 terrorist leaders represented a ratio of 50 civilians for every militant target. The writers Andrew Exum and David Kilcullen, two exceptionally wise and influential counterinsurgency experts, then called for the end of the strikes, arguing that “the persistence of these attacks on Pakistani territory offends people’s deepest sensibilities, alienates them from their government, and contributes to Pakistan’s instability”.

Go back to those two scenarios at the start. Clearly, for many, the second scenario, the killing of Osama bin Laden in a messy battle on the ground, would be more of a victory in the “war of ideas” than a clean precision strike from afar, even if the former left far more civilians killed.

The reason is that while we most often focus on the narrative of collateral damage in discussions of these drone strikes, our interpretations are not only shaped by whether civilians get in the way or not. There is something more at work. The meaning of these strikes – and the battle to define their morality and efficacy – cuts to the heart of the narratives by which each side in the “war on terror” defines itself.

The most basic rationale for the use of unmanned systems is to reduce the user’s risk of casualties: American commanders I have interviewed reflexively cite this as the most important benefit of the new technology. As one soldier put it: “When a robot dies, you don’t have to write a letter to its mother.”

But as Peter Feaver, a Duke University professor turned Bush Administration National Security Council adviser, asks: “What is Osama bin Laden’s fundamental premise if not the belief that killing some Americans will drive our country to its knees?”

The conflicts now raging in places like Iraq and Afghanistan are being fought by combatants with vastly different understandings of war, the role of the warrior and the meaning of sacrifice. As Christopher Coker of the London School of Economics has put it: “opposites in the psychology and emotions of war” are colliding. One side looks at war instrumentally, as a means to an end, while the other sees it metaphysically, placing great meaning on the very act of dying for a cause.

It is for this reason that completely different interpretations are made of the same act. To some, a person who blows themselves up along with a hotel full of civilians is a shaheed carrying out a noble act of jihad. To others, that same person is a fanatical murderer committing an ignoble act of barbarity. Similarly, a pilot who uses a drone to strike with precision from thousands of miles away may see himself as a warrior fighting in full respect of the international laws of war. But 7,000 miles away that very same pilot is described by others as a coward engaging in an act of “heartless terrorism”, as the lyrics of a Pakistani pop song put it.

The use of unmanned systems may therefore provide the most graphic illustration of the “war of ideas” that underpins much of the conflict currently underway. The very value of robots in war is their ability to diminish human loss for the side using them: they are the ultimate means of avoiding sacrifice. But the side that turns to robots is fighting against those who see death as something to be celebrated, and not merely for themselves, but also for those around them. The loss of civilians to a member of al Qa’eda is not something to be lamented or apologised for, but viewed as a victory. So, with the growing use of remote technologies and terrorism, the warriors of the two sides meet less and less in battle – whether actual combat or the battle of ideologies. Each side has its own worldview, but it is one that the other side views as not only irrational, but also contemptible.

Thus, when we bring together those who fight with robotics and those who see themselves as martyrs targeted by them, a powerful irony is revealed. For all our growing use of machines in war, our humanity remains at the centre of it. The dilemmas of modern warfare may seem to be driven by technological advances, but they are rooted in our all too human politics and psychology. If we want to understand the impact of using robots to wage war, we should really look within ourselves.