James Holmes

Present at Creation: How I Pioneered Drone Warfare

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James Holmes

Present at Creation: How I Pioneered Drone Warfare

Not targeting al-Qaeda to keep its ranks thin is like not battling Japan for fear of creating kamikaze pilots.

The Naval Diplomat was present at the creation of drone warfare. The good ships Wisconsin and Missouri were the first to use unmanned aerial vehicles in action against enemy forces during Desert Shield and Desert Storm two-plus decades ago. Our rudimentary RQ-2A Pioneers mounted cameras capable of daytime or nighttime surveillance. In effect, the Pioneer was a large, ungainly model airplane launched with help of jet packs strapped to its belly and snared in a net rigged across the ship's stern upon its return.

This was an ingenious technology for a ship such as a dreadnought, which carried no manned aircraft to perform such functions. We commonly used it for gunfire spotting. That is, UAVs loitering over the battlefield could find Iraqi ground forces, relay their coordinates back to the ship, and help the fire-control crew guide 1,900-lb rounds from our main guns unerringly onto the target. Images piped throughout the ship on closed-circuit TV provided real-time feedback, showing Iraqi troops scurrying for cover as projectiles exploded in their midst. In 1991, in fact, an Iraqi unit tried to surrender to a Wisconsin UAV, knowing that this eye in the sky presaged a gunfire barrage.

Few of us had any qualms about this at the time. Gunfire spotting from the air has been around since the advent of military aviation. The army coalition forces were targeting an occupying force that was repeatedly condemned by the UN Security Council. Still, the experience left us uneasy at what the future of UAVs might hold. Some rocketeer would eventually figure out how to arm these craft, letting them take a direct hand in the fighting. Advances in computer technology might let them evolve from remotely piloted vehicles like the Pioneer into autonomous aircraft, able to wage war without direct human intervention. Something resembling Skynet might ultimately take to the air. With what consequences?

Which is a roundabout way of getting around to today's debate over UAVs. The drone wars rage not only over distant shores but in the pages and pixels of American foreign-policy journals. Over at Foreign Affairs, George Mason University professor Audrey Kurth Cronin and Georgetown University professor Daniel Byman are having it out over whether drones work. Cronin argues for the negative Byman for the affirmative. And at the Atlantic Monthly, Mark Bowden puts a human face on UAV combat, looking at it through the eyes of pilots who fly UAVs from afar and of people on, or around, the receiving end of drone strikes.

This exchange is worth your time. I have no real dog in this fight, but let me offer three quick thoughts. One, where you come down on whether drone strikes work depends on how you define "work." Start with Clausewitz — always a good place to start with strategic questions. By work, I assume the debaters mean drone operations help the U.S.-led coalition win. Clausewitz maintains that one combatant wins by taking down the enemy's warmaking capacity, by convincing the enemy he can't win, or by convincing him he can't win at an affordable cost. Is drone warfare so devastatingly effective that al Qaeda, and kindred dwellers in the hive of scum and villainy, will someday find themselves unable to make war? Can it convince such militants to lay down arms? Does it fit into a winning strategy, or is it just something easy for policymakers to order done?

Two, Clausewitz urges senior leaders to let the value of the political object determine how many national resources they expend to obtain that object, and how long they expend those resources for. Professor Byman appears to define success — again, whether drones work — partly in terms of how much drones cost the United States and its allies. Drone warfare is cheap relative to keeping expeditionary forces on the ground, projecting force inland from the sea, or otherwise prosecuting operations via traditional, resource-intensive methods. But flip the relationship around. By Clausewitzian cost/benefit logic, holding down the magnitude of the effort may let Washington continue with drone strikes more or less indefinitely, even if U.S. leaders are only tepidly committed to the endeavor. A forever war, even an inexpensive one, is an unsettling prospect.

And finally, there's the question of whether drone warfare simply helps the al Qaedas of the world recruit more operatives. I'm always leery of such claims, which have an air of defeatism about them. If striking down an enemy makes him more powerful than we can possibly imagine, what's a president to do? Abandon the counterterrorist effort in hopes of keeping the enemy's ranks thin? This seems too cute by half, rather like foregoing battle in the Pacific to keep Imperial Japan from recruiting kamikaze pilots. But — and here's where we loop back to Desert Storm — it is possible that there's something uniquely inhuman or provocative about dispatching an air navy of remotely piloted, or even completely autonomous, aircraft to rain down their ghastly dew militant heads. If indeed drones are different in nature from manned tactical aircraft, cruise missiles, and other long-range weapons of modern war, then drone skeptics may have a point. A less self-defeating approach may prove more effective.

Food for thought.