The Pros and Cons of U.S. Drone Strikes in Iraq

An airman at Ali Air Base in Iraq communicates with the pilot of an MQ-1 Predator drone, on November 5, 2007.

U.S. Air Force Photo/Airman 1st Class Jonathan Snyder

AA Font size + Print

An airman at Ali Air Base in Iraq communicates with the pilot of an MQ-1 Predator drone, on November 5, 2007.

The easiest option against ISIS politically might also be the least effective. By Patrick Tucker

On Friday, President Barack Obama ruled out sending U.S. troops back into Iraq to fight the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, or ISIS, fighters as they take over large areas of the country. He did leave the door open to a set of nebulously named “other options.” What form might those take? In May, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki made clear that he would allow the U.S. to carry out Predator and Reaper drone strikes in the country against groups hostile to his government. Today, many in Washington are asking when will the U.S. send drones back to Iraq?

Armed drones may provide the administration with a cosmetic military solution for the ongoing crisis, affording the U.S. the opportunity to look tough and engage ISIS without endangering U.S. troops or creating the impression that we we’re re-fighting a war that we declared over in 2011. Unfortunately, armed drones by themselves would be relatively ineffective against an enemy like ISIS, the brutal offshoot of al-Qaeda, according to experts.

Drones vs. ISIS: The Pros

Drones against ISIS would have the same benefits that unmanned aerial vehicles have brought to every battlefield where they’ve been deployed — they’re low-cost and low-risk.  Compared with traditional fighter or reconnaissance aircraft, they can fly longer without stopping, allowing for better intelligence collection and targeting. When they’re shot down, you don’t have worry about a potential hostage situation or death of a pilot.

With no Status of Forces Agreement in place between Iraq and the United States,  drone warfare could give some political cover for Iraqi leaders.

“With a drone overhead, Maliki can credibly claim to the Iraqi people (and others in the region like Iran) that he didn’t allow any U.S. boots on the ground or U.S. persons in his country.  It’s a flying robot, after all.  This could matter politically,” according to Sam Brannen, a senior fellow with the Center for Strategic International Studies.

U.S. armed drone strikes in Iraq might have some symbolic resonance,” agreed Audrey Kurth Cronin, the director of Center for Security Policy Studies for George Mason University who has written on the use (or non-use) of armed U.S. drones in Syria.

Given the delicate nature of the diplomatic relationship with Iraq, and the buildup of ISIS forces in the region, targeted drones strikes might be easy to carry out. “The U.S. could probably deploy them relatively quickly if it moved over aircraft already in the region, say from Afghanistan,” said Paul Scharre at the Center for a New American Security. 

Drones vs. ISIS: The Cons

Too much ground has been lost, the enemy has grown too large, and available support from the Maliki government is too absent for armed drones to be a decisive weapon against angry hordes. Much like in Syria, the U.S. doesn’t hold enough ground to use them effectively. The same could be said of Pakistan, where targeted drone strikes recently resumed, but in that country, the targets are more clear. They perform best not against large groups of fighters but very specific targets. In Iraq, drones present a little risked, nothing gained proposition.

“We do not have good intelligence about what is going on the ground; it would be hard to identify the right targets.  We don’t have human intelligence assets or troops available to help guide them tactically. Third, we could hit civilians or friendly forces, giving ISIS a huge propaganda coup that would be worse than no U.S. intervention at all,” said Cronin.  

Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said Friday that the U.S. has stepped up intelligence in the past several days. But he acknowledged that “intelligence isn’t always perfect.” He couldn’t confirm reports that units from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard had entered Diyala province, and estimated that the number of ISIS fighters is in the thousands.  

“It’s not a monolithic organization. Extremist groups rarely are. I don’t have any particular insights into their makeup and their manning. I mean, clearly, there’s a lot of foreign fighters involved here,” Kirby said at a Pentagon briefing on Friday.

“It’s not a hierarchical organized nation-state force,” he said.

Scharre said that drone strikes may help relieve the symptoms of the current unrest, but they hardly provide a cure.  The issues in Iraq are too deep for flying robots to fix.

“The key problem that Iraqi military forces are facing is one of internal political cohesion. Reports from Iraq indicate that the ISIS offensive is not due to them defeating Iraqi military units in combat, but rather to Iraqi military units melting away. Unmanned aircraft won’t change that,” he said.

Our drone options in Iraq would be better, in other words, had we planned for a situation like this earlier. Now, the mess is too big for the robots to clean up after us.

Stephanie Gaskell contributed to this story.

Close [ x ] More from DefenseOne
 
 

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from DefenseOne.com.
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Software-Defined Networking

    So many demands are being placed on federal information technology networks, which must handle vast amounts of data, accommodate voice and video, and cope with a multitude of highly connected devices while keeping government information secure from cyber threats. This issue brief discusses the state of SDN in the federal government and the path forward.

    View
  • Military Readiness: Ensuring Readiness with Analytic Insight

    To determine military readiness, decision makers in defense organizations must develop an understanding of complex inter-relationships among readiness variables. For example, how will an anticipated change in a readiness input really impact readiness at the unit level and, equally important, how will it impact readiness outside of the unit? Learn how to form a more sophisticated and accurate understanding of readiness and make decisions in a timely and cost-effective manner.

    View
  • Cyber Risk Report: Cybercrime Trends from 2016

    In our first half 2016 cyber trends report, SurfWatch Labs threat intelligence analysts noted one key theme – the interconnected nature of cybercrime – and the second half of the year saw organizations continuing to struggle with that reality. The number of potential cyber threats, the pool of already compromised information, and the ease of finding increasingly sophisticated cybercriminal tools continued to snowball throughout the year.

    View
  • A New Security Architecture for Federal Networks

    Federal government networks are under constant attack, and the number of those attacks is increasing. This issue brief discusses today's threats and a new model for the future.

    View
  • Information Operations: Retaking the High Ground

    Today's threats are fluent in rapidly evolving areas of the Internet, especially social media. Learn how military organizations can secure an advantage in this developing arena.

    View

When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.