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One of the most misleading ideas in
commentary on modern weapons and warfare is that of the karmic theory of new
weapons technology, particularly with regard to drones. Despite the many legitimate concerns about the legality, morality, and efficacy of targeted killing programs, commentators and analysts all too often engage in threatmongering about unmanned systems proliferation. We see it most often in
articles like this one by
Michael Ignatieff, or this
by Steve Clemons asking ominous questions such as “What Happens When
They Get Drones?” Adam has
noted similar veins of commentary about cyberweapons. These arguments are
doubly aggravating because they misunderstand both the nature of the platforms
they discuss and the logic of strategic behavior in international relations,
leading to a conclusion that cannot distinguish blowback or proliferation from karma, replacing what should be a debate centered on policy and empirical assessment with prophecy centered on instruments and unrealistic hypotheticals.
Many - and not just Clemons or Ignatieff - have worried about the proliferation of military technologies, and for good reasons. Some advantages are structural, but technological advantages are dynamic and impossible to preserve. In the case of drones, commentators and analysts have feared a coming “drone arms race” where someday Americans might face rival fleets of foreign drones, and concerns that U.S. policies policies of using drones to conduct targeted killings might somehow result in rival powers unleashing it on us.
But what does the U.S. really have to fear from Russian or Chinese drones, or a new norm of targeted killing? Whatever it does, it certainly won’t resemble what we’ve meted out to the rest of the world in the past decade, contrary to Ignatieff’s and others’ portentous warnings. I’ll venture a bold prediction here: in our lifetimes, no foreign power will ever deploy drones in a targeted killing campaign against the United States as it has employed drones in Pakistan or Yemen. To believe they would first requires misunderstanding the technology.
Firstly, drones capable of launching armed attacks from over-the-horizon are not extremely cheap, they are about as expensive as manned strike craft, as Winslow Wheeler has noted. Why AQ would want to spend dozens or hundreds of millions of dollars on a drone when they could furnish a martyr with a Cessna or bring in enormous quantities of operatives, firearms, or explosives in for the same price is completely beyond me. We’ve seen the face of the day when “the enemy has drones,” and it’s a nincompoop who thinks he can collapse the Pentagon with RC planes, not a technothriller antihero.
Secondly, when rival states get drones, they still won’t be able to conduct a targeted killing campaign in the U.S. without massively enhancing their conventional power projection. American drones operate from airbases in-theater, and they’ve never operated in airspace that wasn’t either cleared of hostile air defenses or under the control of a government granting tacit acquiescence to the strike program. The U.S. would have no compunctions shooting down hostile drones or laying waste to whatever facilities and governments were hosting or commanding them. In other words, outside of the context of a broader conventional operation against U.S. forces, it’s difficult to see the logic in another country launching drone strikes against the U.S.
Even in areas where the geographic and logistical constraints were conquerable, under what kind of scenario would a hostile state be able to launch drone strikes against U.S. interests and simply sit idly by and take it? To prevent America from retaliating would require destroying its conventional military capability, which means a general war. Drones do not create impunity. Diplomatic and military power to deter retaliation or noncompliance create impunity
Nor is there really a sensible reason a hostile power would need drones to conduct assassinations or bombings inside the U.S., if they chose that policy. As for the norm of “targeted killing,” many countries have used assassination as a method of dealing with enemies of the state - whether they be terrorists, criminals, or even just dissidents. Targeted killings predated drones, after all, and so have covert attacks inside U.S. borders. Proxy, terrorist, and criminal groups have already pioneered technologies and TTPs for killing Americans in foreign borders without a conventional ground invasion - they’re the ones that al Qaeda, the IRGC and Qods Force, the Soviet-era intelligence services, and others have been using for decades.
Other countries have even assassinated targets on American soil before - Pinochet’s DINA car bombed a Chilean dissident in Washington, DC, and revolutionary Iran had a counterrevolutionary activist shot in Bethesda. Why use drones when these simpler and more effective methods exist? The era of irregular assassinations and bombings against U.S. interests isn’t coming - it’s come and gone and come again, because drones are just a means to targeted killing that happened to be convenient for a wealthy superpower to employ against soft targets in permissive airspace, not the sine qua non of targeted killing itself.
The same conventional, geographical, and logistical constraints that prevent hostile aircraft from running rampant across the Western world, and the same prudential considerations that discourage rival powers from wantonly assassinating American citizens inside U.S. borders, will prevent drones from doing the same. Russia and China are far more likely to employ these aircraft against hostile non-state actors rather than fruitlessly dispatching them against the U.S. or its allies, except as part of a broader conventional conflict. Drones could proliferate to Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran, and whatever other states and Americans would never need to fear Ignatieff’s ludicrous threat of “the same heaven-sent vengeance” it inflicts upon foreign populations, because no power will ever have the geographical and strategic superiority the U.S. maintains over weak states and the militants operating within them.
There are merits to creating legal frameworks that clarify the use of targeted killings, but framing the problem as controlling the technology is absurd. An arms control framework on drones is a hollow thing, it protects Americans from weapons our enemies neither need nor would use in any plausible scenario. Threat assessments from technology proliferation should be based on plausible scenarios and strategic logic, not Kantian assumptions of moral equivalence divorced from the context of how the technology is actually used.