Israel shoots down intruder drone: What it teaches us about “modern” air combat

Beware the rise of the drones. Photo: U.S. Air Force F-15s fire missiles over the Pacific Ocean in an exercise. (USAF File Photo)

WASHINGTON D.C., October 6, 2012 – The Israeli Air Force released a video today which shows a missile homing in and destroying a small aerial object, presumably a drone, and another aircraft which appears to be an F-16 breaking away from the kill. According to Israeli authorities, the interception occurred around 10 am IST and was brought down around the northern Negev region after breaching Israeli airspace.

While suspicions abound over the origin of the intruding drone, U.S. policymakers should use this incident and its implications as a free case study for the growing trend of remotely piloted drones and UCAVs as America’s intelligence and combat aircraft of choice.

Lesson One: Hyperinterventionism and The Moral Danger of Drones

Thanks in large part to the ongoing Global War on Terror, America’s policymakers have a schoolgirl crush on drones: the fact that they are unmanned and often low-observable to stealthy immediately removes any hesitation that a commander would ordinarily have in sending a manned reconnaissance aircraft or a strike fighter to penetrate foreign airspace.

In the late 1950s, the United States covertly utilized high altitude U-2 spyplane flights into Russia as a means to generate intelligence on Soviet nuclear capabilities. When CIA pilot Francis Gary Powers was shot down on May 1, 1960 by SA-2 missiles over Russia, the incident created an international fiasco and an embarrassment for the Eisenhower Administration because it revealed both the existence of a covert U.S. aerial reconnaissance program and allowed the Soviets to capture an American pilot.

The sheer fact that manned aircraft can be lost and their pilots killed or captured is something that historically gave U.S. policymakers pause in the use of military aircraft over foreign airspace. The American public reacts with revulsion and places immense political pressure on its elected leadership when their pilots are seen paraded on television as prisoners of a foreign power – and rightly so.

As a case in point, it was rumored that Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger refrained from using the then-super secret F-117A Nighthawk stealth fighters during the April 15, 1986 Operation: El Dorado Canyon punitive strikes on Libya in part because of fear that the covert aircraft might be lost.

Drones on the other hand do not give the same pause to policymakers. Because they are unmanned, they are also necessarily expendable which means a U.S. president can order a drone to overfly an airspace of his choice or attack a target in a politically sensitive region of the world and not lose sleep over what happens if it should be shot down. In a worst case scenario, a president can always do what politicians do best – lie – and claim a malfunction caused a drone to wander into foreign airspace.

It is therefore no surprise that over the last ten years the U.S. government has aggressively proliferated both the number of drones in its arsenal and the number of RPV airstrikes from dozens in the early days of the war in Afghanistan to hundreds, if not thousands, today. Social psychology studies in the past which asked average, ordinary people what kinds of activities they would do if “invisible” found that an overwhelming number of respondees indicated that they would engage in behaviors normally considered illegal or deviant. How that translates to the use of drones is that the temptation to send difficult to detect, unmanned aircraft into foreign airspace with perceived impunity means policymakers will naturally incline towards aggressive use of drones and hyperactive interventionism, leading us to a future that is ultimately plagued by more, not less warfare and conflict.

Lesson Two: Drones Are Not Aircraft of the Gods

In general, civilian policymakers have the tendency to be excessively micromanagerial and determinalistic. As a result, our politicians love to put an excessive emphasis on theory based, technological solutions to problems and the search for military platforms that do everything under the sun (that is, fulfill all the bizarre political desires of someone who never has served in the military, however ridiculous) and remove as many humans from the loop as possible to cut costs and reduce footprint. To politicians, drones are “aircraft of the gods” because they (appear) cheap, stealthy, easy to rapidly deploy anywhere in the world and expendable with no human pilot.

The reality is for all they are capable of presently doing, drones are not aircraft of the gods, they are still nascent technology. It should be noted that the Israeli Air Force did not shoot down the mystery drone that breached their airspace using another drone: instead an F-16 Fighting Falcon – a manned Cold War fighter aircraft designed in the early 1970s – intercepted it and sent a short-range missile up its tailpipe and blasted it from the sky.

If U.S. policymakers actually think that America’s interests abroad and its borders at home can be defended by hundreds of propeller powered MQ-9 Reapers and MQ-1 Predator drones in place of traditional manned, high performance jet aircraft, they are sorely mistaken.

In 2002, a Predator drone engaged an Iraqi Air Force MiG-25 Foxbat and was shot down by the Iraqi pilot. In 2008, a Russian MiG-29 engaged a Georgian UAV and downed it. So long as we are sending Hellfire and Paveway-armed drones against ill-equipped developing nations with no competent air defense network, our drones (and military) have the appearance of invincibility. However Russia and China can be expected to not only produce new manned air dominance aircraft for their own militaries but also export them to clients around the world which could one day end up in the hands of an enemy of the United States.

Until a drone has the artificial intelligence and maneuverability to independently operate against manned, high performance aircraft, a foreign military that chooses to build a traditional defense structure can stop a military equipped with only drones. An enemy power with surface to air missiles, AWACS and third to early fourth generation aircraft will make mincemeat of a military armed only with drones.

A question no one ever seems to ask is what happens when a squadron of remotely piloted drones is parked on the ground and an enemy nation, equipped with anti-satellite missiles, destroys the communications satellite that links the air operations center to its drones? Or what happens if an old yet still reliable third generation fighter aircraft flies between gaps in AWACS and sea or ground-based radar coverage and destroys the trailer or building that controls the drones?  

If the United States were to ever be the victim of a nuclear first strike, how well would remotely piloted drones function in a post-exchange environment if satellites and communications are impaired or disabled? What good is a drone that can’t be controlled? By contrast, manned aircraft work whether or not there is a base left to return to.

Final Thoughts: Never Say Die, Iron Eagle

Policymakers love to speak of “the last manned aircraft” but there are moral, political and strategic dangers to taking man completely out of the loop. The American public should treat the rise of drones with grave suspicion both for the temptation they present and the weaknesses reliance on them brings.

The Israeli Air Force in action has taught many tactical lessons over the last fifty years. One of their greatest Mirage fighter aces once warned of the dangers of a plane flying a pilot rather than a pilot flying a plane. Today, the shoot down of a drone by the Israeli Air Force should teach us a powerful lesson about the danger – and weakness – of a future dominated by pilotless planes.


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Danny de Gracia

Dr. Danny de Gracia is a political scientist and a former senior adviser to the Human Services and International Affairs committees at the Hawaii State Legislature. From 2011-2013 he served as an elected municipal board member in Waipahu. As an expert in international relations theory, military policy, political psychology and economics, Danny has advised numerous policymakers and elected officials and his opinions have been featured worldwide. Now working on his first novel, Danny resides on the island of Oahu.

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