Small Wars

This Week at War: The Drones Take Over

What the four-stars are reading -- a weekly column from Small Wars Journal.

Ethan Miller/Getty Images
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Drones are taking over the U.S. Air Force

The U.S. Air Force will reach a milestone this year: For the first time it will train more pilots for unmanned aircraft than for manned aircraft. A decade ago, unmanned aircraft were hardly known. Now they dominate the Air Force’s pilot training system, and it is very unlikely this trend will ever reverse. In fact, it is not hard to imagine that within another decade unmanned aircraft operations will dominate day-to-day Air Force operations, force planning decisions, and budgets.


We can see how the Air Force’s drones will soon crowd out manned aircraft inside its aircraft hangars. By 2013, software and communications improvements will allow the Air Force’s unmanned-aircraft pilots to simultaneously fly three drones at one time, and four in an emergency. Another factor supporting the likely proliferation of drones such as the Predator, Reaper, and Global Hawk is their low cost compared with new manned aircraft such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

According to the Government Accountability Office, $24.5 million will purchase a set of four MQ-9 Reaper hunter-killer drones plus a ground station and satellite relay. (See page 117 of this report.) The latest guess of the price for a single F-35 fighter-bomber is $100 million. (See page 93.) This gap in cost led Defense Secretary Robert Gates to demand the cancellation of the manned F-22 Raptor program in order to fund the purchase of more drones for service in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The F-35 and the Reaper obviously have different roles and are not direct substitutes for each other. Lt. Gen. Dave Deptula, the officer in charge of the Air Force’s unmanned-aircraft programs, admitted at a recent news conference that the Air Force’s current unmanned systems might be vulnerable to air-defense threats, electronic attack, and satellite communication problems.

But at the same briefing, Deptula made it clear (see this presentation) that the Air Force expects unmanned systems to transform the service’s doctrines, force structure, organization, and culture. Drones are taking over the Air Force — this year’s graduates from Air Force pilot training can explain that.

Maybe the state is the problem, not the solution

Next week, Afghans will head to the polls to elect a president. Quite a bit of international commentary has focused on the worthiness of current Afghan President Hamid Karzai, what Afghanistan would be like under opposition candidate Abdullah Abdullah, and whether Ashraf Ghani, a U.S.-educated former World Bank official, has any chance of winning. (Click here for FP‘s election coverage.)

Although the election makes for a dramatic story, some analysts wonder whether the focus on who will be Afghanistan’s next president is a distraction from the real key to the country’s stability — its tribes. While the U.S. government and the United Nations ponder how they will get along in the years ahead with Karzai, Abdullah, or Ghani and attempt to supervise the corrupt ministries in Kabul, Afghanistan’s future, according to these analysts, will actually be decided by tribal leaders in the most remote corners of the country. Their advice is to spend less time on Kabul and more time understanding and supporting Afghanistan’s tribes.

Seth Jones, an expert on Afghanistan at Rand, recently observed that Americans headed to Afghanistan seem to be studying the wrong history:

It is striking that most Americans who try to learn lessons from Afghanistan’s recent history turn to the failed military exploits of the British or Soviet Union. … Yet, outside of some anthropologists, few people have bothered to examine Afghanistan’s stable periods. The lessons are revealing.

The Musahiban dynasty, which included Zahir Shah, Nadir Shah, and Daoud Khan ruled Afghanistan from 1929 to 1978. It was one of the most stable periods in modern Afghan history, partly because the Musahibans understood the importance of local power. Many U.S. policy makers have not grasped this reality, still clinging to the fantasy that stabilizing Afghanistan requires expanding the central government’s writ to rural areas.

Jones condemns the U.S. focus on the Afghan Army and police over the tribes, which provided the best local security during the country’s stable periods. Jones notes that while the United States expends precious resources building up Kabul, the Taliban are focusing their efforts on Afghanistan’s local political structures, much to their advantage.

Dan Green, a former U.S. State Department advisor in Uruzgan province, echoes Jones’ view in an essay republished at Small Wars Journal. Green recommends that coalition forces take the risk of spreading out and place small infantry units in Afghanistan’s villages. Once there, they would help organize tribal lashgars, local self-defense militias. Coalition forces would also facilitate the integration of the lashgars into a province’s defense plans and integrate tribal self-defense efforts with those of the Afghan Army.

Jones’ and Green’s essays relate to a broader theme I raised in my recent piece for The American, "Is Foggy Bottom Ready for Irregular Warfare?" I argued that the U.S. military, led by its middle-ranking leaders, has relearned the techniques of irregular warfare this decade. In Iraq, Afghanistan, and many other parts of the world, U.S. soldiers have shown how to accomplish challenging tasks by establishing relationships with indigenous military forces and local leaders.

However, top-level U.S. statesmen continue to focus on the nation-state system. For them, a stability operation successfully concludes with the emergence of a virtuous nation-state with well-functioning institutions and counterparts familiar to those who work in the top reaches of the State Department, Pentagon, or White House.

For U.S. infantry captains and sergeants dealing with tribal leaders around the world, the nation-state "solution" might not only be irrelevant, but it could make it harder to achieve their goal of resolving conflicts. After all, it is rebellion against central authority that is frequently the cause of conflict in the first place.

U.S. soldiers have adapted to irregular warfare. U.S. statesmen, if fixated on the nation-state "solution" to conflicts, will demonstrate that they have not. These statesmen must first resolve the conflict they are having with their own soldiers.

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