Droning on…

Droning on…

There was a terrific NOVA program on the tube last night, on the subject of remotely-piloted vehicles (aka "drones") and their rapidly expanding role in the American military. The show focused mostly on the technical aspects of these weapons, but didn’t omit some of the tricky ethical and political questions associated with their use. FP‘s Rosa Brooks argues that the advent of drones is a recipe for perpetual war; I’m inclined to agree, at least as long as the United States can continue to use them with impunity.

I took three lessons away from last night’s program. First, a reminder: for all the alleged successes of our expanded drone program (i.e., degrading al Qaeda in various locales, providing battlefield intel in Afghanistan, etc.) in the end the United States failed to achieve its core objectives in either war. Iraq did not become a stable, pro-American democracy (it remains violent and if anything tilts toward Iran).  Nor did we defeat the Taliban and create a stable democracy in Afghanistan (whose fate will be determined after we leave in 2014). And this reminds us that technological wizardry does not always translate into strategic success.

Second, one of the interesting puzzles of the so-called drone wars is why so few remotely piloted vehicles (RPVs) get shot down. Most RPVs are slow and don’t fly that high, which would makes them vulnerable to relatively unsophisticated anti-aircraft weapons. Even the most elusive drones would be invulnerable to fighter aircraft or advanced anti-aircraft missiles. Serbia reportedly shot down some fifteen U.S. drones in the Kosovo War, and Iran may — repeat, may — have forced one down over its territory last year.

There are two obvious reasons why we don’t lose more drones. One is that some governments (e.g., Pakistan) that object to their use are protesting too much: they are not so angered by drone strikes that they are willing to start shooting them down. Another is the fact that the Taliban and al Qaeda don’t have access to sophisticated anti-aircraft weaponry, and nobody is going to provide it to them. Even states like Russia and China aren’t overly fond of non-state terrorist organizations, which makes it much harder for the groups that we are targeting with drones to acquire counter-measures that might equalize the situation. But note: this situation also means that the relatively passive environment that we’ve been exploitng in places like Yemen or Pakistan may not be the norm, and things might be quite different if we went up against a foe that had better anti-aircraft capabilities and was willing to use them.

Third, I couldn’t help but consider what the RPV revolution tells us about the future of the manned space program. Homo sapiens has many interesting and attractive qualities, but we also have real physical limitations and keeping us alive in demanding environments like space is very hard and expensive. Sending machines to explore space makes a lot more sense than sending human beings; we will learn more at far less cost if we abandon our romantic notions of "space exploration" by humans and send sophisticated machines instead.