Three Misconceptions About Drones

U.S. airmen conduct a pre-flight inspection on an MQ-1 Predator Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Nov. 5, 2007, at Ali Base, Iraq.

Staff Sgt. Jonathan Snyder/U.S. Air Force

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U.S. airmen conduct a pre-flight inspection on an MQ-1 Predator Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Nov. 5, 2007, at Ali Base, Iraq.

A new report by the Stimson Center’s Task Force on U.S. Drone Policy examines some common beliefs about drones. By Janine Davidson

A new report is out today from the Stimson Center’s Task Force on U.S. Drone Policy, co-chaired by General John Abizaid, U.S. Army (ret.) and Rosa Brooks, of which I was also a member. Our study took place over the course of a year, examining three key issue sets in the UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) debate: 1) defense utility, national security, and economics; 2) ethics and law; and 3) export controls and regulatory challenges. Our examination identified UAV misconceptions, areas of concern,  and—significantly—a few concrete ways to make things better.

Among the most common drone misconceptions:

  • UAVs do not “cause” disproportionately high civilian casualties. Contrary to popular belief, armed UAVs are precision platforms: their weapons go where they’re directed. Collateral damage, therefore, is due to the high-risk mission set to which UAVs are assigned—not a consequence of the platform itself.  Manned aircraft have similar vulnerabilities.
  • UAVs are not inherently cheaper than manned aircraft. The “tail” created by UAV personnel is considerable, but rarely factored into the cost of the platform. Significantly, the higher cost of manned aircraft also often reflects greater capability. There are many things UAVs can do more cheaply—but significant functions they can’t perform at all. Fundamentally, it remains an apples-to-oranges comparison.
  • Most UAVs are not weaponized. The Department of Defense currently operates 8,000 UAVs. Less than one percent of these carry operational weapons at any given time. The typical UAV mission remains intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR)—not combat.

Meanwhile, some significant areas of concern:

  • Continuing advances in underlying UAV technology. As technology advances, U.S. policymakers will be increasingly faced with the vexing quesiton of robotic autonomy in wartime theaters. They will need to tighten down export controls, without undermining innovation.  Perhaps most  significantly, they will be increasingly tempted to use UAVs as an instrument of force as they get easier and easier to employ without risking American lives.
  • Targeted strikes and strategic risk.  Targeted killings remain a questionable pillar of the overall U.S. counterterrorism strategy. The strategic utility is often unclear, while frequent cross-border strikes—eroding local national sovereignty—might even be counterproductive in the long term. This is to say nothing of the terrible blowback incurred by strikes with collateral damage.
  • Basic legal and ethical issues. The lack of governmental transparency in UAV employment remains a deeply troubling phenomenon, including even basic information as to why individuals are targeted. The United States’ wide-ranging use of targeted killing also flies in the face of international law and sets a precedent that other nations might one day follow (and not to our benefit).

We conclude that UAVs should ultimately be “neither glorified nor demonized.” Among our recommendations:

  • Continue transfer of general UAV responsibility from the CIA to the uniformed services.  At best, parallel CIA and military UAV programs are duplicative and inefficient. At worst, they complicate oversight and increase chance of error due to different standards requirements. Lethal UAV strikes should be arbitrated through a single integrated system.
  • Improve transparency in targeted UAV strikes. While secrecy may be required before individual UAV strikes, these strikes must be acknowledged and disclosed after the fact. A broad, secret, multi-year UAV strike program runs contrary to American values and democratic rule of law.
  • Conduct a strategic review of lethal UAVs in targeted strikes. This issue should be further developed in an interagency strategic review, evaluating the costs and benefits of issues identified here (and many more in the actual report).

There are many more misconceptions, concerns, and recommendations identified in the full report. This review comes on the heels of another excellent study put out by CFR’s own Micah Zenko and Sarah Kreps. The issue of targeted UAV strikes is timely and important—and it will only grow larger as time goes on.

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