WASHINGTON D.C., October 12, 2012 — An interesting revelation of the Obama Administration’s view of national defense came up during yesterday’s vice presidential debate. Concerned about America’s conventional counterforce credibility, Paul Ryan said “Look, do we believe in peace through strength? You bet we do. And that means you don’t impose these devastating cuts on our military. So we’re saying don’t cut the military by a trillion dollars – not increase it by a trillion – don’t cut it by a trillion dollars.”
After a few seconds of heated exchange between the two candidates, Biden invoked the Pentagon and said, “look, the military says we need a smaller, leaner Army. We need more special forces. We need … we don’t need more M1 tanks, what we need is more UAVs.”
“Some of the military,” Martha Raddatz interrupted, aptly and cautiously suggesting Biden’s characterization might not have been inclusive of all of the services. “I know that’s –”
Biden defensively cut Raddatz off in mid-sentence. “Not some of the military,” he insisted, gripping a pen and wagging it tensely, “that was the decision of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recommended to us and agreed to by the president. That’s a fact.”
Viewers of the debate not familiar with common military lexicon might have completely missed the implications of what a skilled politician like Joe Biden had just said. Notice he said “what we need is more UAVs” – that is Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, more popularly known as drones to the general public.
The Obama Administration has come under immense bipartisan criticism and even lawsuits for its aggressive use of drones abroad. Since the end of George W. Bush’s term, Obama has dramatically increased the use of drones, particularly armed drones in airstrikes all around the world. The heavy handed nature of these attacks which often inadvertently kill innocent bystanders has resulted in an outcry against drone proliferation. More recently, an “extrajudicial” drone strike in Yemen which killed Anwar al-Awlaki and two other U.S. citizens – including a sixteen year old boy – even drew a lawsuit from the victim’s family against the Obama Administration.
The question that one has to ask when Biden says “we need more special forces and UAVs” is “for what?” Both special forces operators and drones alike are primarily employed not in traditional force protection at home but rather in unconventional warfare and so-called “politically sensitive missions.” If the Obama Administration seeks to proliferate in this area, it necessarily implies a widening of America’s use of force abroad and that should be something voters should be extremely concerned about.
Why Does Washington Like Unmanned Weapons So Much?
One of the primary reasons I have chosen to vote for former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson as my candidate for president is because he opposes drone proliferation and has called for an end to America’s military engagements abroad. This is something all of us should pay close attention to. Remotely Piloted Vehicles (RPVs) and Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAVs) are dangerously destabilizing weapons which carry troublesome moral, political and strategic dangers in their use. We need to stop the wars right here and right now or else the future we face will be one that is marked by never-ending conflict and needless loss of human life.
At the core of what is going on in our “defense” policy is a flawed micromanagerial, determinalistic attitude towards war which seeks to remove humans from the loop and sanitize intervention in target countries all around the world. Today’s policymakers love drones because they are unmanned and one can send them anywhere in the world without fear of losing a human pilot. The political pause that policymakers once had in the past to using manned airpower – that is, the Dover Test of seeing flag draped coffins return from botched missions – no longer exists in a world where drones constitute the bulk of a future U.S. military.
First the “Conventional Cruise Missile”
During the Clinton Administration, we saw the heavy-handed use of conventional (high explosive warhead) cruise missiles as the preferred weapon of choice because they could be fired from a launch basket at the exterior of a target country. For those unfamiliar with the technology, a cruise missile is a special missile that flies like a small unmanned airplane, usually subsonic and at low “nap of the earth” altitude to avoid detection, often utilizing a Terrain Contour Matching (TERCOM) guidance system which compares ground features to a pre-programmed flight profile or satellite GPS to home in on its target.
Originally, cruise missiles were designed as weapons of last resort: stand-off nuclear delivery systems which would allow ships to launch and leave or highly vulnerable, aging bombers such as the B-52 to overcome the formidable Soviet air defenses and large number of interceptors. However during the late 1980s and early 90s conventional cruise missiles were also developed to allow flexibility, especially during the First Gulf War when numerous Air Force nuclear AGM-86 ALCMs were covertly modified into Conventional Air Launched Cruise Missiles (CALCMs) for use against Saddam’s regime.
Later in 1993, Clinton authorized the use of some 23 cruise missiles fired from the USS Peterson and USS Chancellorsville in a punitive action against Iraq. Two years later in 1995, Clinton authorized strikes against Bosnia, followed by Iraq again in 1996 and 1998 and Sudan and Afghanistan in that same year. The hyperactive use of cruise missiles by the Clinton Administration – as many as 400 Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles (TLAMs) against Iraq in 1998 – severely distorted Washington’s view of war as something “surgical” or tactical in nature where we, watching from a distance, could just rain firepower on our enemies.
In 1994, Kurt Strauss of Hughes Missile Systems remarked that “A fundamental shift in the application and utility of cruise missiles has occurred. Tomahawk is no longer viewed as a limited-use strategic weapon.” Numerous policymakers at the time resisted and voiced intense concern about the conversion of nuclear cruise missiles to conventional missiles. Ballistic missile submarines were even converted into cruise missile barges to facilitate this doctrine further, but Washington’s quest for even more efficient, unmanned intervention weapons would bring it one step further: to armed drones.
Predators and Reapers in the Global War on Terror: “Aircraft of the Gods”
Initially, U.S. military drones were largely used for high risk reconnaissance missions, though some testing and evaluation of nascent armed drone technology took place during the Cold War. The U.S. Navy experimented with the armed, remotely controlled Gyrodyne QH-50 Drone Antisubmarine Helicopter (DASH) in the late 1950s and the Air Force evaluated a number of drones, especially the Teledyne-Ryan Model 259 which could carry various mission packages ranging from jammer/ECM to strike configuration with missiles and bombs. Ultimately the armed drones never went far because of a combination of cost and the political fear by military leadership that drones might replace manned, in-the-loop combat aircraft.
The Global War On Terror, however, brought drones to the forefront of military use because of the fact that observation drones such as the original General Atomics RQ-1A Predator were small, propeller powered and capable of loitering for extended periods of time over a battlefield, largely unnoticed using a combination of sophisticated multispectral sensors.
For the war in Afghanistan, Predators were initially modified to carry AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, and they proved so effective that eventually they went from limited use in the early days of the war to hundreds if not thousands of airstrikes today. The Predator’s heavier cousin, the MQ-9 Reaper, is the evolution of the armed Predator doctrine.
So pervasive is the influence of drones that today civilian policymakers refer to aircraft such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter as the “last manned aircraft,” and even the U.S. Air Force, which once prominently pitched manned aircraft such as the F-15E Strike Eagle or F-16C Fighting Falcon as a recruiting draw for pilots, now seeks drone operators. “It’s not science fiction,” their recruiting slogan tells us, “it’s what we do every day.”
Nevertheless, despite this bizarre love affair with remotely piloted aircraft that can seemingly go deep into enemy territory and “zap tangos” with a bolt from the blue, Americans should be very suspicious about the rise of the drones. First and foremost, they make war seem cheap and easy to start. A president will be less likely to say no to an airstrike in some country most Americans have never heard of if he has a robust inventory of drones at his disposal than he would if he were restricted to conventional, manned aircraft.
Secondly, America’s proliferation of drones has sparked an arms race the world over in which nearly 70 countries now are operating or researching advanced drone technology, some of which are completely autonomous and artificially intelligent. This bodes dangerous implications for the future with so many countries developing unmanned weaponry. The potential for abuse could lead to drone wars all across the planet.
And lastly, in spite of America’s love for drones, countries such as Russia and China are still developing high-performance air dominance aircraft that they will likely one day export to enemies of the United States. It’s not a comforting thought for me to think that, if things remain as they are, America will one day have an Air Force entirely populated by remote controlled propeller drones while her agitated enemies all around the world are equipped with fourth and fifth generation supersonic aircraft. Our bombing and intervention in all these countries around the world has accomplished only one thing: America’s enemies are waiting for the moment that they can be more heavily armed than we are. And that thought terrifies me.
We need to get away from these types of weapons and sticky situations which sow the seeds for future conflict. So no, Mr. Biden, America does not need more drones. Drones are dangerous and we need to recognize it before they dominate our future.
I support Gary Johnson because he recognizes the danger that drones present to America, both abroad and especially at home. The threat that here in the United States some 30,000 drones could be flying above our heads is something that the Libertarian presidential candidate has the maturity and discernment to be duly worried about.
In February of this year, Johnson warned, “Big Brother is alive and well, and now we’re only talking about making it easier for him to fly remote control planes loaded with cameras over our neighborhoods. Based on our experience with the Patriot Act, the National Defense Authorization Act, and several other laws Congress has enacted in recent years, it is not alarmist to fear or assume that when we give the government the power to snoop, they will indeed snoop.”
Drones are more dangerous in my opinion than nuclear weapons. They are a weapon that policymakers will not hesitate to use and use aggressively, both in wars abroad and surveillance at home. We need a new generation of leadership that can see the moral hazard in these technologies and push back from the brink.
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