Over the past year, the Obama Administration has decimated Al Qaeda, killing twelve of the terror group’s top twenty leaders as well has hundreds of rank and file. The very week that the Christmas Day bomber conducted his abortive attack, U.S. drones conducted multiple attacks against Al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula. One of the most senior Taliban commanders was recently confirmed as killed in a drone attack last fall. According to Vice President Biden, the Administration is racking up the kills.
The use of drones, otherwise known as unmanned aerial vehicles, has made it possible for the United States to counter two of the terrorists’ principal operational advantages: the ability to hide among a civilian population and the use of neutral or even friendly territory as a base of operations. These unmanned systems can be deployed for long periods over hostile territory, usually undetected, until the location of a target is confirmed. Equally important, the surveillance and strike operations can be accomplished without risk to U.S. personnel.
The extensive use of drones in the global war on terrorism has allowed that conflict to be increasingly unmanned and out of sight. These features inherent to the use of unmanned aerial vehicles are both the principal advantages of drones and a source of concern. Out of sight can mean out of mind. The Washington Post reports that the CIA does not have to seek higher authority before striking. Had the same campaign been conducted with manned aircraft rather than drones, without doubt there would have been a global uproar. Questions would have been raised in Congress. Moreover, such a campaign could not have been undertaken by the Central Intelligence Agency alone.
The character of the drone wars is about to change, with incalculable consequences for the U.S. military. To date the use of armed drones has been restricted to CIA-led operations. But the military is about to acquire its own fleet of such vehicles. The Air Force has announced that from this point forward it will only acquired the MQ-9 Reaper, the version of the Predator capable of carrying weapons. An Army variant of the same system, the Sky Warrior, will soon be in service. The Navy has a major program to develop an unmanned combat aerial system (UCAS) that would be launched from aircraft carriers to conduct deep strike missions. Another defense company, AeroVironment, which has produced thousands of small, hand-launched drones for the Army, Marine Corps and Special Operations Forces, also has developed a lethal mini-drone that could be carried by other unmanned systems.
There are already thousands of drones in use by the U.S. military, almost all of them used for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. But as their carrying capacity grows and their onboard systems shrink in weight and sizes, it is inevitable that they will take on a greater role in strike operations. What the military calls the kill chain, the steps in the process from finding a target to striking it, is significantly shortened when the same drone that finds a target can launch a weapon against it. The question is whether the same out-of-sight/out-of-mind phenomenon that exists with respect to the use of drones in the global war on terror will be transferred to their use by the military.