On August 5, 2009, two Hellfire missiles fired from an American Predator drone crashed through the roof of a house in northwest Pakistan. Lying on the roof of his father-in-law’s house was Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban. Along with Mehsud, the explosion killed his father-in-law, his mother-in-law, his wife, his uncle, a lieutenant and seven bodyguards.
It took three days for mainstream news sources to confirm rumors of the Taliban leader’s death as the Taliban moved to prevent the news from leaking out. While the Pakistani newspaper Dawn ran the headline “Good Riddance, Killer Baitullah” in celebration of the death of the man believed responsible for the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, Pakistanis typically condemn similar drone strikes due to the civilian casualties they cause. In Mehsud’s case, it took sixteen strikes, fourteen months and between 207 and 321 additional deaths to finally kill him. In contrast, the American government views the drone program as one of its most effective weapons against al Qaeda and the Taliban, described by CIA director Leon Panetta as “the only game in town.”
The attack on Baitullah Mehsud highlights several questions about the effect of armed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) on how the United States wages war. Are these strikes an effective counterterrorism tactic, even though they may cause significant civilian casualties? Furthermore, what is the effect of factors such as the lack of media coverage on the willingness of the United States to adopt these strikes as an effective strategy? This study seeks to address these questions and evaluate changes that armed UAVs bring to modern warfare. It will begin by offering a brief background of UAVs, their development into weaponized aircraft and their use in theater. The following section will evaluate the effect of UAVs on strategic capabilities and combat doctrine, focusing both on their use in early combat operations, counterinsurgency operations and hunter-killer missions. The next section will be devoted to problems and unanswered questions about their use, including their effect on public opinion both at home and abroad, international legal issues, and limitations. This study finds that, while armed UAVs increase the capacity of the United States military to fight insurgency and irregular warfare, their use in “hunter-killer” missions will not emerge as a dominant trend in the near future.
The Rise of the Predator: The Evolution of Drone Warfare
The idea of using a remotely-controlled, pilotless aerial vehicle emerged more than fifty years ago. However, the operational concept behind weaponized drones changed significantly over the years. The following section will provide a brief background of the evolution of weaponized UAVs, including their early use in reconnaissance missions and their expanded role by the U.S. in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Global War on Terrorism.
The use of a remotely controlled aerial vehicle as a weapon first emerged in World War II. The first remotely piloted drone used as a weapon was the German FX-1400 or “Fritz”, which consisted of a 2,300 pound bomb, dropped from an airplane and steered by a pilot in the “mothership.” After the war, little development occurred in drone technology and most remotely piloted vehicles were used for target practice. The U.S. military’s first major expenditures on UAVs began after the Vietnam War, when the Air Force used small, long range, experimental drones called Fireflies in conducting reconnaissance over Southeast Asia. However, ensuing programs quickly ran over budget and the government deemed small propeller-powered drones too expensive to pursue on a larger scale.
The Israeli Air Force’s use of their weaponized drone, the Pioneer, in the 1982 war in Lebanon reinvigorated American interest in armed UAVs. Impressed with the Pioneer, the Navy purchased several and the Reagan Administration began increasing UAV procurement and research in 1987. Powered by a 26-horsepower snowmobile engine and equipped with 16-inch guns, the Pioneer made its American debut during the Persian Gulf War. Iraqi soldiers grew to fear the ominous buzzing of the Pioneer and in one widely reported incident, a group of Republican guards became the first humans to surrender to a drone. The success of the Pioneer in Desert Storm led to the Department of Defense spending over $3 billion on UAV programs during the 1990s.
Extensive use of armed UAVs began with the Global War on Terror (GWOT), Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF), and Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF). Up to this point, UAV missions were mostly those of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance purposes. In February 2001, the first Hellfire missile was test-fired from a Predator UAV. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 suddenly created a new demand for Hellfire-equipped Predators to hunt down terrorists in remote areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Air Force put the weaponized Predator into immediate use in OEF and hit approximately 115 targets in Afghanistan during the first year of its combat operations. The CIA also began to use Predators to target al Qaeda operatives elsewhere in the Middle East. In November 2002, a Predator was credited with killing an al Qaeda operative in Yemen, who was thought to be responsible for the USS Cole bombing in October 2000. The armed Predators also began patrolling Iraq as part of Operation Southern Watch. Immediately prior to OIF, Predators destroyed several Iraqi mobile radar units in preparation for the arrival of U.S. ground forces. Predators and other armed UAVs continue to carry out operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
While the U.S. military employs a wide variety of UAVs, there are only three currently in use with offensive capabilities: the MQ-1 Predator, the MQ-1C Sky Warrior, and the MQ-9 Reaper, all three built by General Atomics. The Predator, the most commonly used drone in the American arsenal, can loiter at 25,000 feet for nearly 40 hours, and is equipped with two Hellfire missiles and two cameras—one infrared and one regular—that can read a license plate from two miles up. The Army’s Sky Warrior is a slightly larger version of the Predator that can fly slightly higher, loiter for a shorter amount of time, and carry two more missiles than the Predator. The Reaper, also known as the Predator B, is the largest and most powerful of the three drone models. The Reaper can fly at twice the altitude and speed of the Predator and can carry eight Hellfire missiles or four missiles and two laser-guided bombs. It also carries an improved camera and software package that can “recognize and categorize humans and human-made objects,” such as improvised explosive devices. Although the Defense Department’s 2011 budget doubles spending on the Reaper, the Predator will remain the primary UAV in use.
The operational use of weaponized UAVs can be divided into two broad categories; direct support of military operation and hunter-killer missions. As mentioned above, the military first utilized UAVs in the early operations of OEF and OIF as both a weapon and surveillance tool and they proved particularly useful in identifying, locating and eliminating targets. In describing the utility of UAVs in OEF, CENTCOM commander General Tommy Franks said: “The Predator is my most capable sensor in hunting down and killing al Qaeda and Taliban leadership and is proving critical to our fight.” By 2007, the military began utilizing drones in counterinsurgency operations in Iraq and demand for drones skyrocketed. Drones continue to serve in supporting operations to American forces in Afghanistan and Iraq.
In contrast, the CIA’s drone program in the tribal areas of Pakistan utilizes weaponized UAVs primarily in hunter-killer missions. This program, begun under the George W. Bush Administration as part of the GWOT, uses drones primarily in “search and destroy” missions aimed at terrorism suspects and Taliban leadership in Pakistan. One important difference between the two programs is that while the military program operates exclusively in recognized combat zones, the CIA program flies drones over civilian areas as well. The CIA conducts these strikes with the reluctant and implicit support of the Pakistani government, which has publicly condemned the attacks, but continues to allow the CIA to base the drones in its territory. According to a former White House counterterrorism official, the CIA has multiple drones constantly scouting the tribal areas of Pakistan for targets.
The Obama Administration has dramatically increased the number of CIA drone attacks since taking office. Under President Bush, the CIA carried out only 2 strikes in 2006 and 3 in 2007. In July 2008, Bush increased the number of drone strikes, totaling 34 attacks in 2008. Most of the key CIA personnel from the Bush Administration’s drone program remain, but the Obama Administration has far outpaced its predecessor in the frequency of drone strikes. By October 19th, 2009, the CIA had conducted 41 strikes under President Obama, compared with the same number over three years under former President Bush. CIA drone strikes under the Obama Administration show no signs of abating. The agency has conducted 11 strikes in Pakistan during the first month of 2010.
The Effect of Armed UAVs on Military Capabilities
The development of UAVs’ offensive capabilities has led to three broad operational concepts regarding the use of UAVs in combat. These concepts include the use of UAVs to: 1) suppress enemy air defense, 2) support counterinsurgency operations, and 3) find and eliminate enemy targets. The following section will discuss how the U.S. military and CIA employ UAVs and the effect of their use on operational capabilities.
The use of UAVs to suppress enemy air defenses first emerged in the first months of OIF. As previously mentioned, the Air Force attempted to use Predators to destroy Iraqi defense installations. However, the Predator proved too slow and vulnerable for Iraqi MIGs, which quickly shot down several Predators. As a result, UAV use in the suppression of enemy air defenses is limited in practice. This may change in the future as the Department of Defense foresees UAVs eventually fulfilling strike missions in early combat operations as discussed in the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Roadmap, 2005 – 2030.
UAVs also proved useful during counterinsurgency operations in Iraq. The stabilization of Sadr City in 2008 is a dramatic example of the utility of drones in counterinsurgency warfare. In this instance, U.S. colonels on the ground could directly control armed drones hovering over the streets of Baghdad. This was the first time drones were used at the brigade level. For example, after militants fired a rocket at an American position, an American battalion would deploy a Predator drone to survey the area as insurgents set up their next shot, then destroy the enemy’s mortar positions. The Predator could also loiter above the battle area, relaying the insurgents’ patterns and tactics to commanders on the ground. In one instance, a Predator drone hovered above a house that was a suspected weapons cache, waited for civilians to leave, and then destroyed the building with a Hellfire missile. The Predator granted the battalion persistent surveillance and strike capabilities, which proved crucial in stabilizing Sadr City.
In counterinsurgency warfare, the main benefit of the armed drone is an increased ability to “find, fix and finish” enemy combatants, while minimizing civilian casualties. Traditionally, aerial surveillance vehicles would observe a suspected target and radio the coordinates to an operations center, where personnel would consult maps and senior officers in an attempt to identify civilian structures. Following the consultation, the operations center would relay instructions to an airborne craft. In Operation Desert Storm, this process (also know as the “kill chain” or “sensor-to shooter-cycle”) could take up to three days, by which time the targets could have left the target building or civilians could have entered it. When armed drones are used, the kill chain is only one link long and the process takes less than 5 minutes. Additionally, as P.W. Singer, author of Wired for War, notes, using an unmanned drone allows the pilot to take more risks with his craft, such as flying lower and loitering longer, thus leading to a more accurate strike. The drones therefore allow commanders to avoid killing noncombatants during their strikes, a crucial element in counterinsurgency warfare.
In contrast, the CIA primarily utilizes its Predator drones in the third type of operation: hunter-killer missions. These operations can extend U.S. offensive capabilities into areas in which the United States has little or no access. The Predator allows the CIA to scout the skies of the lawless and inaccessible tribal regions of Pakistan and eliminate terrorism suspects without utilizing ground troops. Some have viewed this development as a costless way to fight terrorism and extend American offensive and deterrent capabilities. For example, the new capabilities of CIA’s drone program have shaped the debate over U.S. strategy in Afghanistan. In an influential editorial, conservative pundit George Will made the case for an American withdrawal from Afghanistan, arguing that “America should do only what can be done from offshore, using intelligence drones, cruise missiles, airstrikes and small, potent Special Forces unites, concentrating on the porous 1,500-mile border with Pakistan.” Vice President Joe Biden had also reportedly ascribed to this view regarding strategy in Afghanistan. What began as a tactic to combat terrorism has gained credence as a strategy to extend American influence without committing troops.
There is also evidence that the persistent surveillance and attack capabilities of drones serve as a deterrent to potential combatants and sow paranoia and distrust among terrorists groups. Warfare theorists believe that the constant surveillance and persistent attack capabilities have a striking effect on the enemy’s behavior. As a drone pilot in Iraq described it: “Anti-Iraqi forces know we are out there. They know they are constantly being watched. The fear of being caught in the act keeps a lot of would-be insurgents out of the fight.” Journalist David Rohde, who spent seven months imprisoned by the Taliban, described the paranoia among his captors following a drone strike: “They believed that a network of local informants guided the missiles. Innocent civilians were rounded up, accused of working as American spies and then executed.” Some Pakistanis in FATA have even stopped drinking Lipton tea because they believe the CIA puts homing beacons for the drones in the tea bags. This demonstrates the psychological effect weaponized drones can have on both existing and potential enemy combatants.
Limitations, Costs and Unanswered Questions
Although the military and CIA have integrated armed UAVs into a variety of operations, their use is still limited by their vulnerability to minimal air defenses. While the Predators succeeded in striking down some Iraqi radar units during OIF, they quickly became a target for Iraqi air defenses. The Iraqi Air Force shot down three Predators with relative ease. This vulnerability to basic air defenses and limited air-to-air defensive capabilities invalidated the concept of using UAVs in missions to suppress enemy air defenses.
The drones’ vulnerability to air defenses also has implications for using UAVs to extend American strategic capabilities. These limitations restrict UAV use to missions in regions where air defense threats have been eliminated. Even in the tribal regions of Pakistan, where there are virtually no air defenses, members of the Taliban claimed to have shot down several CIA drones over South Waziristan. Even when not facing enemy fire, the Predator crashes due to mechanical error 43 times per 100,000 flying hours, whereas typical manned aircraft crash 2 per 100,000 hours. The high attrition rate of UAVs in the face of enemy fire makes it unlikely that they will soon serve as a replacement for manned aircraft.
The lack of military presence on the ground also limits the capability of drones to assist in acquiring critical intelligence. In the urban counterinsurgency operations of Iraq, UAVs would use their persistent surveillance capabilities to observe combatants, then either eliminate or send in ground troops to arrest the combatant. The combatant might then go on to provide U.S. forces with valuable intelligence. In contrast, the use of UAVs in hunter-killer operations in the remote regions of Pakistan, where there are no ground forces, only eliminates the target. As Daniel Byman of Georgetown University argues, “it’s almost always better to arrest terrorists than to kill them. You get intelligence then. Dead men tell no tales.” Hunter-killer operations can only eliminate the target and thus forfeit potential intelligence that could be gained through capture.
The lack of multiple intelligence sources also inhibits the ability of drones to accurately identify targets. Local informants are notoriously unreliable and can exploit the attacks for personal gain by pointing drone attacks towards personal rivals. Additionally, while the Predator’s camera can provide remarkably clear images, it can be difficult for drone pilots to accurately identify individuals when staring at them directly from above. For example, just months after the September 11th attacks, a Predator pilot spotted a tall man in flowing white robes walking near the eastern border of Afghanistan. Intelligence officials incorrectly believed the man to be Osama bin Laden and fired the Predator’s missile, killing the innocent villager and his two companions. Without a persistent ground presence, drones must act with incomplete intelligence and may cause civilian casualties.
Civilian deaths caused by the CIA’s drone program are one of the main criticisms of using drones exclusively in hunter-killer missions. Since 2006, 82 drone attacks in Pakistan have killed between 750 and 1,000 people, including between 250 and 320 civilians, equivalent to roughly 1 civilian death for every 3 militants killed. Some experts claim that the collateral damage of these attacks creates more militants than they eliminate. “The drone war has created a siege mentality among Pakistani civilians,” says Andrew Exum and David Kilcullen of the Center for New American Security. “While violent extremists may be unpopular, for a frightened population they seem less ominous than a faceless enemy that wages war from afar and often kills more civilians than militants.” If the civilian deaths caused by drone attacks are indeed solidifying the popular support of Islamic militants, the drone program may prevent success in northwest Pakistan.
Some argue that the use of such advanced technology will encourage further acts of terrorism. The Taliban carried out its March 2009 attack on the Lahore police academy “in retaliation for the continued drone strikes.” Hakimullah Mehsud, Baitullah Mehsud’s successor as leader of the Pakistani Taliban, said the Taliban “will continue to launch suicide attacks until U.S. drone attacks are stopped.” Like many innovations in military technologies throughout history, the enemy and local civilians perceive them as evil. Regarding Israel’s operations in Lebanon, a Lebanese man described the impression of Israel’s use of UAVs as that “of an evil, brutal enemy that will use any means to accomplish its goals.” In some regions, Pakistani mothers use the Predator attacks as a type of boogey-man—“Obey or the ‘buzz’ will come after you” —and in 2007, a popular song in Pakistan accused America of “killing people like insects.” Paradoxically, attacks that are aimed at eliminating terrorists may in some cases encourage terrorism.
Others argue that the drone attacks are the United States’ most effective weapon against terrorism. Only a few of the recent terrorism plots against the United States can be traced back to Pakistan and al Qaeda seems to be more concerned with self-preservation than carrying out attacks since the expansion of the drone program. Even their effect on the Pakistani population is questionable. In a survey conducted in FATA, a thin majority thought that the drone attacks were mostly accurate and did not increase anti-American sentiments. This conflicting evidence makes the net effect of drone attacks difficult to judge.
It is also unclear whether the CIA’s Predator program in Pakistan, which is not a recognized war zone, falls in line with international law. Before deploying the weaponized Predator drone, the U.S. government deemed armed UAVs fully compliant with the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty and other international agreements. However, the U.S. government has yet to conduct a review that ensures that the targeted killings are in accordance with international law. Many lawyers conclude that the attacks meet the basic test to target civilian terror suspects abroad, but certain questions remain. P.W. Singer, “in the hundreds of interviews” he conducted for his book Wired for War, found no references to international law. He also found that no one could answer who in the chain of command would be prosecuted if mistakes were made. Columbia University Law Professor Matthew Waxman notes that there is no consensus on the principal of proportionality in international law, namely how to balance the equation of military gains with civilian casualties. Recently, a United Nations human rights investigator stated that “the United States must demonstrate that it is not randomly killing people in violation of international law through its use of drones.” As the drone program continues to cause civilian casualties, it will likely come under greater scrutiny regarding its compliance with international law.
The lack of attention paid to the legal issues and civilian casualties surrounding the CIA’s drone program underlies the general apathy of the American public towards drone warfare. This suggests that using drones instead of humans can lead to the perception of a “costless war.” The first reason for this is that these strikes occur away from American eyes. Journalists typically cannot enter areas where the drone strikes occur and, in the case of Baitullah Mehsud, the Taliban disrupted phone lines and set up defenses to prevent word of Mehsud’s death from leaking out. Very few videos or photographs of the drone strikes are available to the public, which isolates Americans from the damage these strikes can cause.
The second and more crucial reason for the perception of a “costless war” is the fact that waging a war with drones quite literally comes at no human costs to the United States. By their very nature, UAVs offer two advantages over manned aircraft: they are cheaper and eliminate the risk of a pilot’s life. The potential drawback of this is that, without men and women coming home in coffins, the American public is less likely to object to war and, in the words of New York Times columnist Roger Cohen, “going to war can become hard to distinguish from going to work.” The “costless war” erodes the political checks and accountability that are characteristic of waging war in a democratic society. Taking this argument to its logical extreme, removing costs from war could lead to an increased willingness to use force, essentially invalidating the premise of the democratic peace theory.
The Future of Drone Warfare
It is clear that the United States military sees drone warfare as the wave of the future. The Department of Defense continues to increase its budget for unmanned systems and will purchase 24 additional Reapers and 36 additional Sky Warriors in fiscal year 2010. The UAV fleet will also continue to modernize. By the end of 2010, the Air Force’s Boeing X-45 Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle (UCAV) will make its first flight and the Navy’s X-47 UCAV will soon follow. UCAVs differ from armed UAVs in that UCAVs can perform similar tasks as modern manned fighter aircraft, namely defending themselves against enemy aircraft and flying at fast enough speeds to avoid surface-to-air defenses. While weaponized UAVs are currently more suitable to low-intensity conflicts like those in Iraq and Afghanistan, UCAVs will be able to participate in high- and medium-intensity conflict and could be used to suppress enemy air defenses in advance of a ground mission. Unmanned blimps, bombers, attack helicopters and surveillance and detection UAVs that resemble grasshoppers, flies, bees and spiders are all in the military’s playbook. The Defense Department’s 2011 budget request plans to double the production of unmanned aircraft.
As current trends demonstrate, weaponized UAVs will increase the capability to fight low-intensity and insurgency warfare. Armed UAVs provide troops fighting in counterinsurgency operations with several advantages. First, they provide both the surveillance and attack capabilities to carry out precise counterterrorism missions without actually deploying troops to the specific area. Removing a pilot’s life from the equation also allows UAVs to provide more accurate intelligence in pursuit of avoiding civilian casualties. Armed UAVs also shorten the kill chain to just one link, allowing ground commanders to make snap decisions and exert more control over the battle space.
Despite the advantages in counterinsurgency operations, UAVs are unlikely to change the fundamental nature of American warfare in the near future. As Manjeet Singh Pardesi argues, UAVs are not a “disruptive technology as there will always be missions that will require the manned aircraft.” Current UAV systems are simply too vulnerable to carry out missions independently and can only effectively operate as a compliment to U.S. ground forces in areas in which air defense systems have been largely eliminated. Even in this case, the attrition rate is very high. UAV missions will continue to be limited to the “dull, dirty and dangerous” tasks, until they develop capabilities comparable to manned aircraft. Because ground troops are needed, there is no indication of an increased willingness to engage in conflict. As long as humans carry out the primary missions of warfare, there will continue to be political costs to engaging in conflict.
The CIA’s drone program in Pakistan is a unique and important exception to many of the limitations governing UAVs. A primary benefit of using UAVs in these combat operations is the ability to limit civilian casualties, yet collateral damage is a major problem in using drones in “hunter-killer” missions. Whereas most UAVs operate in areas with a ground presence, CIA drones go where American troops cannot and can operate nearly autonomously. The CIA’s program in Pakistan therefore contradicts many of the trends in weaponized UAV warfare.
However, the CIA’s drone program can function only in very specific circumstances and is unlikely to represent a lasting trend in warfare. Few regions in the world are as remote as northwest Pakistan and the drone program capitalizes on the very distinctive characteristics of the region. The barriers to using drones in “hunter-killer” missions in other parts of the world including increased media coverage, violations of international law, and the threat of the most basic air defenses, makes the drone program in most other countries impractical. Further, there is no end-game to using a hunter-killer strategy. Using drones without a manned ground presence to truly neutralize the enemy will lead to short-term gains but is not a substitute for a long-term strategy.
The effect that UAVs will have on future warfare will depend largely on technological capabilities of the next generation of drones. In the near future, armed drones will continue to serve as a compliment to manned systems, rather than a replacement. While the circumstances in northwest Pakistan are unique, the questions surrounding the CIA’s drone program in Pakistan raise important issues regarding how drone use should be governed in the future. As the capabilities of robotic systems continue to improve at a rapid rate, policymakers should begin answering these questions now in order to prevent the progress of technology from surpassing the moral and legal considerations governing their use.
To answer these questions, policymakers must first launch a review of international legal implications of the CIA’s drone program. As Jane Mayer of The New Yorker pointed out in her groundbreaking article on the drone program, the Predator strikes into Pakistan can easily be considered assassinations. While the United States policy officially abandoned assassinations during the Ford Administration, the legal justification of the drone program has gone largely unquestioned by the American public. If the United States seeks to be a cooperative member of the international community, it must be able to justify the drone program according to international legal standards.
The issue that has received far more attention than the legal implications, however, has been the civilian deaths caused by the drone program in Pakistan. While many suspect that the strikes do more harm than good, the fact remains that little evidence exists to support any argument. The intelligence community must therefore conduct a thorough study of the effect of these drone strikes on the population in Pakistan. This study must be able to accurately measure the amount of collateral damage caused per successful strike. The study must also seek to answer whether or not the strikes radicalize the Pakistani population. If the strikes in actuality undermine the stability of the Pakistani state, the CIA program must be either cancelled or its standards reevaluated.
While drones have improved the capabilities of the U.S. military, unmanned systems will never replace humans on the battlefield. Particularly in counterinsurgency warfare, UAVs can help protect soldiers and minimize civilian casualties, but the human element is still crucial to the success of low intensity conflict. The capabilities of UAVs must never be mistaken for a strategy or a way to wage a “costless war.” Viewing technological improvements as such will only lead to a militarization of foreign policy and unnecessary conflicts. Policymakers must therefore proceed cautiously when employing these technologies in the field and develop new standards for their use. Unmanned systems may lead to a safer type of warfare for U.S. soldiers, but they will be unable to eliminate the inherent brutality of war.