Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Edgar (and Whalen) on Strategy (V): When you make the world a free-fire zone

Is bombing our enemies effective?

An antifascist banner during the siege of Madrid. (Wikimedia Commons)
An antifascist banner during the siege of Madrid. (Wikimedia Commons)


By Emily Whalen

Best Defense office of strategic analysis


By Emily Whalen
Best Defense office of strategic analysis

From the series editor:

This week, my colleague Emily Whalen analyses precision strikes in light of our recent question, “How do people work?” The result is often less than strategic success. — Paul Edgar        

When Antoine de Saint-Exupéry witnessed the fascist siege of Madrid during the Spanish Civil War, he remarked: “Each shell that fell upon Madrid fortified something in the town.” Bombing often strengthens resistance, rather than weakening it. Saint-Exupéry might have been writing about London during the Blitz, North Vietnam during Operation Rolling Thunder, or Baghdad during the Gulf War. He also could be writing about the current U.S. drone program.

“We don’t have enough drones to kill all the enemies we will make if we turn the world into a free-fire zone,” concluded David Ignatius in 2011, applauding the Obama administration’s intention to limit drone warfare. Six years later, a 2016 report did away with Ignatius’ illusion of self-control. We know now that U.S. drone operations proliferated in Central Asia, the Middle East, and Northern Africa — killing villains, certainly, but also killing children and passersby. The world resembles a free-fire zone more than Ignatius and his fellow drone apologists anticipated. Others, of course, have begun to imitate the United States: Daesh deploys armed drones in Syria, Saudi factories are preparing to build the Saqr 1, and China is developing a sea-skimming unmanned aerial vehicle.

All this despite general expert consensus that using drones to kill targets has, at best, mixed results, and, at worst, provides psychological and moral fortification for one’s enemies. Deterrence doesn’t work at the end of a drone. So why does the United States still use them? 

The logic of drone warfare was born on the battlefields of the 20th century. During World War II, Allied and Axis powers alike sought a less costly alternative to the bloody trenches of World War I. Leaders thought that they found their alternative in aerial bombing. An icon of industrial and technological development, a bomber could gracefully deploy explosives behind enemy lines, and then, hopefully, escape through the clouds. Lower cost for a greater effect: What could be more different from the abattoir of trench warfare? “The bomber will always get through,” the saying went. And so, generals from Berlin to Washington to Tokyo pursued aerial bombardment with enthusiasm.

Initially, there were two kinds of targets for bombers: military or industrial sites (the WWII equivalent of a precision or tactical strike), and strategic sites, generally large cities and areas whose destruction was expected to weaken enemy morale. After the RAF’s 1941 Butt Report punctured the myth of “precision” strikes — revealing that the vast majority of bombers failed to hit their targets — tactical bombing waned and strategic bombing moved to the fore. Wearing down enemy psychological reserves was the primary focus for aerial bombing until August 1945.

Strategic bombing reached its apogee in Japan. Fig leaf tactical arguments encouraged the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but few doubted at the time that the atomic bomb was the ultimate strategic weapon, used in service of deterrence. U.S. leaders meant for the stunningly disproportionate violence and sophistication of the atomic bomb to cow potential adversaries (specifically, the Soviet Union), stopping future wars by threatening annihilation.

Since 1945, the logic of bombing has been refined, but not fundamentally re-examined. After the so-called “revolution in military affairs” (RMA) of the late 1970s and 1980s, the basic principles of strategic and tactical bombing (maximize destructive capability while minimizing exposure to risk) remained intact, reiterated and magnified.

RMA proponents focused on improved technical capacities: making precision strikes more precise, making strategic bombing more strategic. They focused on increasing violence and decreasing risk. And like their counterparts in 1945, RMA supporters embraced the psychological aspect of international violence, hoping this time to deter would-be terrorists.

There are many problems with refining this logic, instead of reexamining it. Consider the killing of a Taliban leader. A U.S. UAV killed Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, the head of the Afghan Taliban, in May, 2016. The strike was a tactical “win” — eliminating a Taliban leader — for the War on Terror. Yet, for the same strike to count as strategic success, we must weight it against the political goals of the drone program in Pakistan: the defeat of the Afghan Taliban (and other militant groups) and the restoration of political stability.

In a strategic sense, Mansour’s demise was less of a slam-dunk. His death has not critically undermined the Afghan Taliban, which continues to carry out attacks under its new leader Hibatullah Akhundzada. Moreover, the drone strike that killed Mansour occurred in Balochistan, a province of Pakistan, where residents have endured an uptick in major terrorist attacks. These attacks undermine the shaky truce between Baloch separatists and Pakistani authorities, and suggest a troubling new rapport between militant groups like the Pakistani Taliban and Daesh. Drone strikes previously were tacitly limited to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, a province north of Balochistan. Many Pakistanis saw this particular strike as undermining Pakistani sovereignty. Patterns of protests suggest that U.S. drone policy offers common ground to many dissident groups with competing, violent agendas. Our precision strikes seem to be fueling resolve and unity where, previously, resolve and unity faltered. Tactical success does not always translate cleanly into strategic progress. But in the case of the drone program, the former might actually be undermining the latter.

Many military leaders understand that using drone strikes to conduct a war creates at least as many problems as it solves. So, once more, why do we continue with it? Perhaps drone strikes make it easier for political leaders to score domestic support. Given the United States’ technological sophistication, drone strikes offer clear “successes” in a murky conflict environment.  If this is the case, the United States’ UAV program is nothing more than a domestic public relations policy, masquerading as national strategy. It’s PR with a body count.

The U.S. military has failed to learn the right lessons from aerial bombing. Something was fortified in Quetta in May 2016, just as it was in Madrid in 1936. To call the drone program’s accuracy, legality, and morality highly contested is a courtesy. A more accurate assessment would be that a drone program of tenuous legality has compromised the United States’ moral standing in the world, while eroding both national security and global strategy. Moreover, the United States has set a troubling precedent for projecting military power. What will the world look like when it is a free-fire zone?

Given the roster of states arming the skies, abandoning the drone program may not be possible anymore. But it is imperative that a more robust national conversation develops about the difference between tactical and strategic success when it comes to U.S. drone policy. This will require a high degree of strategic clarity — a tall order at any time, but especially in the days of alternative facts.

Ignatius was right. We don’t have enough drones to kill all of our enemies.  The answer, though, is not more and better drones. Instead, we should reconsider whether or not bombing our enemies, and a few of those around them, is always the best means to our strategic ends. Bombing does not work the way we think it works because our enemies do not work the way we think they work. As Saint-Exupéry observed in Spain: inevitably, ineluctably “a bombardment turns against the bombardier.” Even an almost perfect bombardment.

Emily Whalen is a doctoral student at the University of Texas, Austin, specializing in the history of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. She is a graduate fellow at the Clements Center for National Security. She tweets @eiwhalen.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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