July 23, 2018

Weird Birds: Working Paper on Policymaker Perspectives on Unmanned Aerial Vehicles and Their Impact on National Security Decision-Making


No movie about a national security crisis would be complete without a darkened room displaying a blinking screen of real-time military assets as angry advisors bark new missions for them.

In reality, specific military platforms are not debated generally or moved around like a game of high- stakes “Risk” in the White House Situation Room. There are exceptions, as when senior officials consider changes to the nuclear posture of the United States or debate sensitive foreign military sales to worthy or unsavory partners – though these have a strategic baseline for discussion.

But overall, in the tradition of Samuel Huntington’s Soldier and the State, civilian U.S. senior national security officials stay out of the details of how and with what tools the military or the intelligence community conducts its operations. This division of labor suits the men and women around the National Security Council (NSC) table. Civilian officials can set strategic objectives or complement the efforts of Department of Defense (DoD) service members without the responsibility of understanding specific capabilities, personnel demands, force employment laydowns, payload options, logistical tails, and associated tradeoffs and risks. Military officials (or their intelligence counterparts) can develop and execute options without being told, as they say, “how to suck eggs.”

The glaring exception to this rule is drones, which were front and center in the increasing operationalization of the National Security Council. A non-military official suggesting that an F-35, or a special operations forces team, or a satellite, be shifted to a theater for a particular mission in the context of an NSC (or senior-level agency equivalent) meeting would raise eyebrows, if not generate eye rolls. Proposing a drone do the same is far less controversial; indeed, it is practically expected in many instances.

Senior policymakers have a complex relationship with drones, both armed and unarmed, that is unique among modern defense capabilities. By chance, I was an eyewitness to and bit player for many iterations of this dynamic in the Barack Obama administration, both at the Department of Defense and on the NSC staff. Had I made a national security bingo card in my years at the White House, “drone” would have been the first box I added, after seeing policymakers regularly consider the utility of such a platform in many different scenarios.

Some of this special treatment was a natural result of civilian, military, and intelligence officials feeling out the policy and doctrine around a relatively new and often controversial platform. Some of it derived from their exposure to intensive and structured processes associated with what became the Presidential Policy Guidance on Procedures for Approving Direct Action Against Terrorist Targets (PPG). Some of it was due to providing oversight to tactical capabilities with increasingly strategic reputations. And some was due to the fact that drones offered options where previously there were none (or, none that were so simple). The crux of that relationship was summed up by a meeting I back-benched, dominated by a fierce argument on whether drones were, indeed, “special,” and deserving of special policies for regulation and export, by dint of their public perception rather than their actual capabilities.

This question, and its broader implications, haunted me for years after. Did policymakers grasp why they or others believed drones were special? If policymakers believed, consciously or unconsciously, that drones were “special” in any way, how did that affect drones’ employment, perceived utility, and risk? With this lens, what did policymakers understand – or not – about drones’ capabilities? How was their increasing reliance on drones changing the shape of national security decision making, for better and worse? And how were these judgments shaped by policymakers’ own experiences, affinity with administration actions, or inertia – or simply the sheer overwhelming nature of a job that does not leave much time for digging deep?

The full report is available online.

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  • Loren DeJonge Schulman

    Former Adjunct Senior Fellow

    Loren DeJonge Schulman is a Former Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). Previously, she served as the Deputy Director of Studies and the Leo...

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