Rational Security

Use an Axe, Not a Scalpel

There's no such thing as a surgical strike on a terrorist network.

Alan Gragg/DVIDS
Alan Gragg/DVIDS

Remote-controlled weapons, the hot new tools of war, have had the perverse effect of shoring up an old pattern of strategic thought about going after enemy leaders. Wildly popular with the Air Force, there are now more pilots in cubicles than there are in cockpits. Their primary purpose: act swiftly and on the basis of good, timely intelligence to strike with great precision at terrorist leaders. Thus the longstanding strategic concept of counter-leadership targeting — "decapitation" was the less euphemistic term of an earlier era — has been revivified. The problem, though, is that when the principal foe is a network, the importance of any individual leader is low because these organizations are capable of a high degree of self-direction. Drones have played key roles in the killing of about 20 of al Qaeda’s "No. 3s" over the past decade, but in a network everybody is No. 3.

This focus on taking out the leaders of essentially leaderless networks (that is, interconnected cells that are highly self-organizing and at least semi-autonomous) has led to serious difficulties in the field. For example, many intelligence operatives and military servicemembers who plan and conduct drone operations have found that, all too often, the occasional strike from the sky inflicts damage that the networks can work around and quickly repair. In the meantime, the connections that the killed "leader" had are no longer discernible. Which means, in practical terms, that the slow attrition of drone campaigns, though it may hurt the enemy, does even more harm to the counter-terrorists’ store of knowledge about these networks. The more damage done in this slow-paced manner — there have been just over 400 drone strikes over the past decade, an average of 3-4 per month — the less is known. This phenomenon is a curious aspect of "netwar" — the term that my longtime research partner David Ronfeldt and I use to describe how networks fight, and how to fight networks.

If "drone fever" causes difficulties in the field, the problems posed for those in the halls of power are just as serious. Beyond the brief discomfiting of the Obama administration during Senator Rand Paul’s filibuster, and the occasional criticism coming from other civil libertarians, the real tragedy of the drones is that this technology has encouraged the pursuit of a terribly wrongheaded national strategy. Drones may make for near-perfect politics in the eyes of the David Axelrods of the world, in that they show toughness to the Right and circumspection about loss of life to the Left, but focusing their use against terrorist "leadership" has proved counterproductive in the long fight against terrorism. Shortly before leaving office, Leon Panetta reaffirmed the traditional view when he said that loss of leaders had put al Qaeda "on the verge of strategic defeat." This is outmoded thinking. One need only look to the many fronts on which al Qaeda is operating today — even in Iraq, where we are gone, the terrorists are back, and the country is burning — to see that the global war on terror has morphed into terror’s war on the world. If one side is closer to "strategic defeat" after a decade of this first great war between nations and networks, it is the nations. Networks are simply not dependent on a few key leaders — as even the death of Osama bin Laden has shown.

The plight of nations today is not entirely the byproduct of drones having revived counter-leadership targeting — but remotely piloted vehicles have indeed made it easier to hit more and think less. Still, judgment must not be passed on the technology itself, but rather on the manner in which it has been used to date. It is not at all uncommon to see the use of new weapons shaped by old habits of mind. For example, the French army in 1940 had more, and more heavily armored, tanks than the Germans, but sprinkled them around fairly evenly among all their field divisions. The Germans, on the other hand, saw new possibilities in the new weapon, and concentrated their panzers in a handful of divisions directed at a few key points — and won a great, swift victory.

The challenge today is to think beyond using new tools in old ways, to break through to new strategies and concepts of operations made possible by the rise of remotely piloted vehicles. For David Ronfeldt and me, this means operating in concentrated bursts of action, striking networks not at a single "decisive point" — they don’t have such — but rather at several points at once — what we call "swarming." Far better to go after al Qaeda by doing a lot more surveillance, for longer periods, prior to attacking. Then, when the network node or cell has been sufficiently illuminated, it can be eliminated in a series of simultaneous strikes that give the enemy little or no chance to hide or flee.

Peter Singer, the great expert on many different advanced weapons technologies, notes in his Wired for War that the Pentagon is indeed looking closely at swarm tactics — which could augur well for a possible future shift in "drone control" from CIA to the military. But the Pentagon’s interest in swarms, so far, has focused on use of this tactic by entirely autonomous robotic systems. That is, by those least likely to be set loose on their own, at least not anytime soon. The point is that, at present, we don’t trust robots to swarm. But humans can, so why not encourage them to operate in this manner?

Beyond the long twilight struggle against terrorist networks, it is important to begin thinking about the use of all sorts of drones in other conflict settings. It is possible, for example, to build fighter aircraft that can turn at angles beyond the human body’s tolerance. How about creating new squadrons that mix aircraft piloted by humans with high-performance vehicles that are controlled remotely, and one day mixing in some robots into the squadrons as well? In naval affairs, should we really be building yet another generation of costly, increasingly vulnerable aircraft carriers? Or coastal combat vessels intended to fight at eyeball range, but built with aluminum superstructures that will burn to the waterline when hit by a missile? Far better to send a fleet of swift, remote-controlled light craft laden with explosives into harm’s way. Indeed, kamikaze drones may fundamentally reshape naval strategy and tactics in the years ahead.

In short, there is a world of opportunity opening up thanks to the rise of remote-controlled weapons systems, but the principal beneficiaries of these advances will be the ones who figure out that the new tools call for new practices. To use breakthrough technologies as a means of shoring up old patterns of thought and action is to court disaster — in the war against the terrorists and in other conflicts to come.  

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