Phil Mershon writes about the use of drones by the United States.
All of this is significant because it appears that the face of war, or at least the mode of preferred combat, is no combat at all, merely strikes that go unanswered, or at least answered in ways that do not involve the adversary being able to directly respond. According to Peter Singer of the Brookings Institute’s 21st Century Defense Initiative, “Many [in the military] have pushed for [drones] to play a greater role as the strikes slowly morphed from isolated, covert events into a regularized air war.”
Since the Obama Presidency began in 2009, there have been 260 attacks of Predator or Reaper drones in Pakistan alone. Because the CIA is responsible for these attacks, the resulting casualty counts have not been forthcoming.
A group calling itself The Bureau of Investigative Journalism reports that it has found that since Obama took office, between 282 and 535 civilians have been credibly reported as killed including more than 60 children. They go on to say that a three month investigation including eye witness reports has found evidence that at least 50 civilians were killed in follow-up strikes when they had gone to help victims. More than 20 civilians have also been attacked in deliberate strikes on funerals and mourners. (The expert reporter at the Bureau of Investigative Journalism is a fellow named Chris Woods. The Bureau says its four pillars of investigation are human rights, corporate corruption, health and open society.)
While I am not an apologist for the Obama Administration, I would guess that if pressed they would argue that the use of drones is preferable to traditional combat, both in the precision of its effectiveness and in the low incidence of fatalities of American troops. To this I can only say, “Well, yeah, sure.” The problems, however, begin with the presumed virtues, something that is endemic to most air attacks: The person launching the attack is removed from the horrors of his or her behavior, thereby lessening the impact of any moral compunctions against committing the attack. (On the other hand, according to the Council on Foreign Relations, most unmanned aircraft flown by the U.S. military require not just a ground-based “pilot,” but also a platoon of surveillance analysts (approximately 19 per drone), sensor operators, and a maintenance crew. Some 168 people are required to keep a Predator drone aloft — and 180 for its larger cousin, the Reaper — compared with roughly 100 people for an F-16 fighter jet. To keep up with the demand, the Air Force has trained more drone operators than pilots for the past two years. The upside is that, according to the Congressional Budget Office, drones “are usually less expensive than manned aircraft”–$15 million for a Global Hawk versus about $55 million for a new F-16– though costly sensors and excessive crashes can negate the difference.) Furthermore, since we only have the CIA’s word for the effectiveness as well as the precision, we really have no credible way of determining how many, if any, civilian casualties are happening. The very nature of covert activity is the necessity of lying, so perhaps I may be forgiven for questioning the veracity of the Agency. The final problem, of course, lies in the discretion over who to kill and that is where the memo referenced above comes in handy. When dealing in such curious and imprecise terms as “imminent,” “activities,” “combatant” and “high ranking U.S. official,” the possibility arises that drones could very well be used against “the usual suspects,” as well as against domestic enemies within U.S. borders.