Yes, drones can attack a target accurately, quickly and stealthily while reducing the danger to the pilot. But they cannot train foreign troops, engage with tribal leaders or strengthen local governments — the centers of gravity in most U.S. conflicts today. The exaggerated promise of drones risks substituting targeting for strategy.
4. Drones are technologically complex weapons that only rich nations can afford.
Armed drones are neither as simple as model airplanes nor as complex as high-performance fighter jets. Of course, a remote-controlled helicopter that you can build in your garage is certainly not as capable as the $26.8 million MQ-9 Reaper, the primary U.S. hunter-killer drone. But drones are much less expensive than fighter aircraft, and in an age of increasing austerity, it is tempting for nations to consider replacing jet fleets with armed drones.
More than 50 countries operate surveillance drones, and armed drones will quickly become standard in military arsenals. The challenge is to consider what international rules, if any, should govern the use of armed drones. The United States is setting the precedent; our approach may define the global rules of engagement. Of course, we cannot expect other nations to adopt the oversight and restrictions we have. What doors are we opening for other nations’ use of drones? What happens when terrorist groups acquire them? The United States must prepare for being the prey, not just the predator.
5. Obama will be remembered as the drone president.
The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq compelled the United States to boost the speed and accuracy with which it targets terrorists. But it was not until the Obama administration that U.S. technology and intelligence caught up with the need to take down terrorist networks rather than just individual leaders. As a result, there have been three to six times more drone strikes under Obama than under Bush.
While the use of drone warfare has come of age under Obama, whether he comes to be defined by this weapon is very much a political question. The tool kit of the war on terror includes far more than armed drones, but for a modern president, perception is reality. Drone strikes generate enormous controversy. For some, even the nomination of John Brennan — the public face of the administration’s drone program — to run the CIA indicates the centrality of drones to an “Obama Doctrine.”
In his Senate confirmation hearing Thursday, Brennan emphasized his commitment to Congress’s oversight of overt and covert programs. It will remain critical for him and the White House to continue to articulate their overall approach to combating terrorism, making the case that drones are part of the strategy, not a substitute for it.
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