Mar 8, 2014
Drone Warfare Is Neither Cheap, Nor Surgical, Nor Decisive
Posted on Mar 26, 2013
By William J. Astore, TomDispatch
By the 1990s, laser- and GPS-guided bombs (known collectively as PGMs, for precision guided munitions) were relegating unguided, “dumb” bombs largely to the past. Yet like their predecessors, PGMs proved no panacea. In the opening stages of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, for example, 50 precision “decapitation strikes” targeting dictator Saddam Hussein’s top leadership failed to hit any of their intended targets, while causing “dozens” of civilian deaths. That same year, air power’s inability to produce decisive results on the ground after Iraq’s descent into chaos, insurrection, and civil war served as a reminder that the vaunted success of the U.S. air campaign in the First Gulf War (1991) was a fluke, not a flowering of air power’s maturity. (Saddam Hussein made his traditionally organized military, defenseless against air power, occupy static positions after his invasion of Kuwait.)
The recent marriage of PGMs to drones, hailed as the newest “perfect weapon” in the air arsenal, has once again led to the usual fantasies about the arrival—finally, almost 100 years late—of clean, precise, and decisive war. Using drones, a military need not risk even a pilot’s life in its attacks. Yet the nature of war—its horrors, its unpredictability, its tendency to outlive its original causes—remains fundamentally unaltered by “precision” drone strikes. War’s inherent fog and friction persist. In the case of drones, that fog is often generated by faulty intelligence, the friction by malfunctioning weaponry or innocent civilians appearing just as the Hellfire missiles are unleashed. Rather than clean wars of decision, drone strikes decide nothing. Instead, they produce their share of “collateral damage” that only spawns new enemies seeking revenge.
The fantasy of air war as a realm of technical decision, as an exercise in decisively finding, fixing, and dispatching the enemy, appeals to a country like the United States that idolizes technology as a way to quick fixes. As a result, it’s hardly surprising that two administrations in Washington have ever more zealously pursued drone wars and aerial global assassination campaigns, already killing 4,700 “terrorists” and bystanders. And this has been just part of our Nobel Peace Prize-winning president’s campaign of 20,000 air strikes (only 10% of which were drone strikes) in his first term of office. Yet despite—or perhaps because of—these attacks, our global war against al-Qaeda, its affiliates, and other groups like the Taliban appears no closer to ending.
And that is, in part, because the dream of air power remains just that: a fantasy, a capricious and destructive will-o’-the-wisp. It’s a fantasy because it denies agency to enemies (and others) who invariably find ways to react, adapt, and strike back. It’s a fantasy because, however much such attacks seem both alluringly low-risk and high-reward to the U.S. military, they become a rallying cause for those on the other end of the bombs and missiles.
Something tells me this is not the dream that airpower enthusiasts had in mind.
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Copyright 2013 William J. Astore
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