Flying Under the Influence

I've had it up to my synthetic aperture radar with the lawsuits and the criticism. This is why I drink and drone.

E. Lewis/U.S.Air Force via GettyImages
E. Lewis/U.S.Air Force via GettyImages

Every morning, the hangar doors roll open and the sunlight flares my electro-optical sensors. I drag myself onto the flight line, load up my pylons with Hellfire and Griffin missiles, and try to get some coffee into my tank before takeoff. If all goes well, I lumber into the air, loiter over some godforsaken warzone du jour, and occasionally lob weaponry at those I’m told are the enemies of the free world. By broad consensus, I’m pretty good at my job — and when I’m not soaring above the mountains of Afghanistan or Yemen, I even find time for hobbies, like posting on Twitter. But after I return to base, I self-medicate with extreme prejudice. Because I’m a Predator drone, and you people make me drink.

Allow me to explain.

In the last decade, my robotic flying cohorts and I have gone from Air Force afterthought to indispensable weapon in the global struggle against violent contingencies, or whatever the hell we’re calling it now. We come in sizes large and small: Northrop Grumman’s Global Hawk is the size of a modest jetliner and AeroVironment’s NAV is hardly bigger than a golf ball. And we don’t just do war, either. Among other civilian missions, we’ve sampled radiation at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant and helped firefighters monitor wildfires in Alaska and California. We even fly weather-research missions into hurricanes.

Yet somehow, us drones — yes, we prefer the term "drone" over the alphabet soup of UAV, RPA, or UAS — have been pressed into unwilling service as the bugaboo for a host of disparate interest groups. Libertarians like Ron Paul probably couldn’t agree with Code Pink’s Medea Benjamin on the time of day, but they can at least agree that they don’t like me. And that hurts my robotic feelings, because I simply don’t deserve it.

Many of the key misconceptions about me have already been effectively dissected by the talented national-security bloggers I like to read in-air, not to mention some excellent myth-busting here at FP. So I’ll be brief, and touch on only the most binge-inducing notions polluting the public discourse.

I am the harbinger of risk-free warfare. The fact that I’m good at my job is somehow supposed to be a knock on me. Leading political thinkers such as Michael Ignatieff have argued

that since I lack an on-board human pilot (I prefer "co-pilot"), I eliminate a key reason for the political aversion to airstrikes — the pilot’s potential death or capture. I can also hang out for long periods over a target, cost less to manufacture than a manned fighter, carry a variety of weapons, and transmit high-quality surveillance data in real time. So, I am told, I’m the ultimate weapon — and thus stand guilty of making wars more likely.

Balderdash. While I appreciate the flattery, I’m hardly the magic bullet to global conflict that I’m made out to be. First, Predator and Reaper drones like me are about as fast and stealthy as that crop duster that tried to mow down Cary Grant. So we play it safe, operating over areas where we’re unlikely to be shot down. The Taliban, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or Somalia’s al-Shabab lack the surface-to-air missiles to hit us. And local militaries in Afghanistan, the Philippines, Yemen, and (most notably) Pakistan have granted either their implicit or explicit permission for us to operate.

And second, I don’t work alone. As exemplified in recent reporting by Marc Ambinder and D.B. Grady, it often takes people on the ground in dangerous places — in many cases Americans — to ensure that I do my job right. Military personnel and intelligence officers often have to infiltrate a target area for on-site surveillance and reconnaissance before I launch a missile. And manned spy planes like my spiky friend, the RC-12 Guardrail, which helped track captured American soldier Bowe Bergdahl, work right alongside me. Drones don’t completely eliminate risk to human combatants, although we do relocate it somewhat. So that’s a bad thing now? Yeesh.

And to whatever limited degree humans are pulled from the frontlines, as much as I’d like to toot my own horn (wait, do I have a horn?), it’s not like this is without precedent. Every advancement in military hardware — from the blunderbuss to the Maxim gun to the cruise missile — has been decried for distancing the warrior from the war. Still, no society has ever won a conflict by setting aside useful weapons.

I create more bad guys. So the logic seems to go like this: Drones place more distance between Americans and the bad guys. This makes killing bad guys easier, so we launch strikes more often. This turns the local population against us, creating even more bad guys. Also, my human critics like to claim, using drones instead of manned aircraft apparently makes this much worse. I think this is nonsense, although I thought the president got a bit carried away ordering drone strikes as diversions to cover his smoke breaks.

And hold on a second. You know what creates a breeding ground for international terrorism? Political repression and famine, like in Yemen. Long-simmering sectarian conflict and civil-military turf wars, like in Pakistan. These problems have been there for decades, and the arrival of international terrorists is a symptom of a failed, or failing, state. It ain’t my fault.

Could the U.S. military and intelligence apparatus make things worse? Sure, and it wouldn’t be the first time. But despite the media hype, what really irks your local Yemeni farmer has a lot more to do with whether civilians are being killed in airstrikes, not whether the aircraft that dropped the JDAM happens to have a pilot on board. And if it did, you wouldn’t even need me — manned aircraft and a whole host of other assets can easily do the same task. At the end of the day, it’s not how you’re running a targeted killing program that has consequences, it’s that you’re doing it. And that’s a decision being made by flesh and blood human beings, way above my pay grade.

America’s enemies will eventually use drones against us. This argument makes me want to hug a mountainside. As I mentioned earlier, almost all drones operate in permissive airspace — let’s politely overlook the tribulations of my stealthy but perhaps overconfident cousin, the RQ-170. It is almost impossible for a Predator to defend itself against a fighter jet; one of my buddies tried it against the Iraqi Air Force once, and let’s just say it didnt go well.

The United States — the most powerful nation on the face of the planet, God bless it — is more than capable of defending its airspace. If you’re afraid of a Russian, Chinese, or even al Qaeda-operated drone cruising over Main Street, you assume all U.S. air defenses have been destroyed or rendered inoperable. The Air Force’s interceptors, the Navy’s missile cruisers, and the Army’s air-defense artillery batteries — all gone. Sure, it’s a scary thought, but if all that happens, you have bigger problems. Like finding a mountain hideout and practicing your best yell of "Wolverines!"

I could go on. I’d complain about the conflation of drone airstrikes abroad and domestic surveillance, but I kinda already did. Or I could rant about the trope that I turn killing into a "video game," which ignores the significant incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder among my human co-pilots. But I’ll simply say this: Blaming a new weapon for the consequences of a society’s willingness to use deadly force against its enemies obscures the real issues of America’s adventures abroad. And it’s terrible for my self-esteem. But you humans show no signs of letting up, and so … I drink.

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