The Suddenly and Amazingly Newly Apparent Powers of Drones to Discriminate

From the Department of Strange New Respect.  Numbers of folks I’ve been talking with recently – desirous of going forward with humanitarian intervention in Libya, but mindful that international altruism by the Western democracies goes forward only with few casualties among their armies – seem suddenly to have concluded that drones are a wonderfully discriminating weapon.  (Update: Welcome Instapundit readers!  Please see also this related post on why I am not arguing a strawman in saying that civilian casualties and discrimination have been central issues for drone debates up until a few weeks ago.)

Perhaps I am unfair, and anecdote is not data, but let’s just say I do not recall the same general approval for drone warfare even three months ago when it was all about Pakistan and Afghanistan.  Or when it comes to Israel’s use of drones.  Just a few weeks ago, there was much handwringing about civilian casualties and utter doubt, at least in the NGO, advocacy, and academic circles in which I travel, that claims made by the CIA and others about the low level of collateral damage was true.  Although there are exceptions, of course, my sense is that Walter Pincus’s excellent WaPo report on a conference last week featuring current and former USAF officers talking about the actual use of these weapons confirmed a new view to seeing them as subject to serious discipline in their use.  (Forget all that ‘Playstation’ meme stuff that emanated from Jane Mayer; so yesterday.)  And confirmed a new view of them as a genuine improvement in precision.  And just in time, I can’t help but notice, to be put forward as the US contribution to humanitarian intervention in Libya.

Now, I have argued for years – while noting that I have very little hard data and nothing but anecdote and conversation with insiders – that drones are indeed vastly more discriminating.  And I think that the perception is shifting toward that view – journalists suddenly getting on board with the meme that drones are now cool, NGO types suddenly seeing virtues in Libya drones that they never seemed to see in Pakistan, etc.  But I hope I am not being cynical in thinking that part of this is for all the wrong reasons: the desire to find a weapon that overcomes the NATO distaste for casualties among its own, and which suddenly gets strange new respect as a weapon that is more discriminating that previously reckoned.

Because if that is the case, it is not merely unprincipled – it is also wrong in important ways.  Drones are far more discriminating and precise – but they are that in Afghanistan and Pakistan in no small part because of the extensive intelligence network in which they are mostly the tactical tip of the spear.  Nothing like that years-in-the-making network exists in Libya, and for that reason it might easily not be as precise there as it is in AfPak.

It is, I stress, more precise and discriminating, even in Libya – if only because of the “loiter” factor for drones, by comparison to the mere handful of minutes that manned aircraft can remain over the target.  But those with whom I discuss drone use in Pakistan and Afghanistan stress the importance of front-end, integrated intelligence that involves human intelligence on the ground, signals intelligence, and surveillance over long periods from drones, as surveillance and not weapons platform.

Moreover, the suddenly broad acceptance of drones by those who, in my experience, have heretofor treated it with suspicion is also, ironically, a rejection of that other critique of drones: that they make resorting to force too easy.  That’s what I criticized in my latest paper on this.  So I was quite taken by surprise when this suddenly became a virtue rather than yet more evidence of the vice of American technological imperialism, the ease with which it could dispatch drone armies of the air, without risk to its forces.

It turns out, however, that when you want to undertake armed altruism and humanitarian intervention, Samantha Power’s War, you rather desperately and suddenly want weapons that involve little risk to your forces.  Bug becomes feature.  Otherwise the ‘coalition of the heroically altruistic willing’ becomes the ‘coalition of free riders and defectors and shirkers’, unwilling to take casualties.

In that case (which is every case of altruistic war), drones are suddenly a great weapon. Yet not only are they no safer than they were before, they are actually a marginally less safe weapon in Libya if only because the intelligence picture upon which they depend is not as complete.  Drones are the preferred weapon for humanitarian intervention because they accommodate the limited risks that the global altruists are willing to take. Hence we suddenly seem to discover in them new virtues of discrimination and precision that, mysteriously, we had somehow not managed to see before.