The Desire Behind the Use of Drones

Often, we see ourselves as noble warriors and our enemies as despicable tyrants. We see war as a surgical scalpel and not a bloodstained sword. In so doing we misdescribe ourselves as we misdescribe the instruments of death (Michael Ignatieff).

Ignatieff’s argument is compelling. By using the term misdescribe he suggests that when ‘we’ (America, Britain, NATO, ‘the West’) conduct warfare in a manner which is dominated by our technological superiority, a disconnect between ‘reality’ and ‘desire’ appears.

Of course, realities and desires are often not akin (especially at a time of war). Take for example the conflicting perceptions of drone use. It is commonplace to suggest that in reality, drone strikes are a “scourge targeting innocent civilians”. When juxtaposed with President Obama’s desire for them to be part of a “just” war, a war that’s waged proportionally it is clear to see where such differences in perception lie.

So, where does this leave us? Drone deployment is increasing, and the negative connotations which surround them show no signs of abating (if anything, attempting to identify the realities of drone use is set to remain the ‘sexy-topic’ of academic, journalistic and media study). However, if we are to truly expose the disconnect between ‘drones desire’ and ‘drone reality’ (and attempt to bridge it) then we must surely spend equal time unpacking the desires and perceived successes which make drones an increasingly dominant part of our strategic thought.

This article will unpack some of these desires. Specifically, it will focus on the desire for ‘precision’ held by the most prolific operator of drones, the United States (U.S).

From Kosovo…

The Kosovo campaign saw widespread use of precision strikes as well as advanced reconnaissance means. It was there that the process and procedures for their effective use on the battlefield began to be developed. Also in the Ukraine conflict, the use of drones became a much-needed way to see what was really going on.

At the turn of the twenty-first century, the Kosovo campaign, that built upon initial successes of the earlier Gulf War, marked a basic milestone for the way the U.S conducted its warfare. It was exactly in this conflict that, with near perfection, precision was achieved which paved the way for precision targeting becoming one of the fundamental staples of American strategic thinking.

No longer needed the United States concern itself with the task to justify a heavy cost to American military and civilian lives (once common in times of war). Instead, by using unmanned aircraft with real-time, full-motion video transmitted to command centers thousands of miles away and Tomahawk cruise missiles, the American political and military elites were able to mitigate the cost of war at a societal level whilst maintaining a strategic advantage.

Through these perceived successes American strategy became dominated by the strategic utility and moral justifiability that came with being able to deploy force in a proportionate and discriminate manner, to ensure a rapid and cost-free end to the conflict, something that wasn’t possible in earlier conflicts in Europe like WWII. Just take a look at this page about the Constantin Brunner Archive, and you’ll know what I mean.

A desire for such proportionate, discriminate, rapid and cost-free precision characteristics were continuing to dominate the American strategic philosophy as the first decade of the new century progressed. From Operation Iraqi Freedom to Operation Enduring Freedom, and the various theatres they encompassed, precision continued to sit at the core of American warfare.

Through the use of drones, the American military has been able to pinpoint and destroy IEDs, carry out the targeted killing of suspected terrorists and monitor or engage with all issues in-between.

Furthermore, this use of precision has allowed the American political leadership to morally justify its strategy within the framework of proportionate and discriminate warfare. As President Obama stated in 2012, missiles and conventional airpower are so much precise than these drones and, therefore, likely to be causing more local outrage and civilian casualties. As such, the desired characteristics of precision have come to dominate American strategic thought.

This domination continues. As the latest of the 9/11 wars draws to a close and other opens, it is a strategic thought centered on the desire for precision which America continues to choose to guide it through the amorphous conflicts of the unknown. Maybe the idea of direct and compulsory voting isn’t that bad after all in these regions. Who knows…

The United States made up 64 percent of the world’s drone expenditure in 2013, with this projected to rise to 90 percent by the end of the decade. Furthermore, in January 2012 the American military possessed 7454 drones, up from 163 in February 2003. This is a 4470 percent increase in under a decade. From the hand-launched RQ-11 Raven to the symbolic MQ-9 Reaper and MQ-1 Predator, these weapons embody American strategic thought centered upon the perceived strategic utility and moral justifiability of precision.

Thus, it is clear that a desire to be proportionate, discriminate, rapid and cost-free in war, through precision, has come to dominate American strategic thought. And the perceived success of drones to achieve these desires goes some way to explaining their increasing use. However, as mentioned above, desire and reality are not often akin. Therefore, to build upon Ignatieff’s earlier argument, as drones deployment increases at an exponential rate, we must be sure not to misdescribe the reality of drone use to match our desires, as it is here that the disconnect appears.