By Krisztian Simon
In a ‘virtual town hall’ last week, President Obama defended America’s use of missile strikes by unmanned drones in Pakistan’s tribal regions. While Pakistanis have protested loudly and groups like Amnesty International have demanded legal justifications, the president’s remarks indicate that the employment of drones for surveillance and ‘targeted killing’ — which has grown steadily throughout his administration — will continue. SIPA security experts Professor Richard Betts and Associate Professor Austin Long defended the president’s stance and stressed the positives.
“They don’t pose the risk of having pilots imprisoned after they are shot down,” said Betts, director of the International Security Policy concentration. Indeed, the drones used by the CIA are controlled from an underground bunker in the US state of Nevada. Critics have argued that this might detach the drones’ pilots emotionally from their victims making air war into something like a video game. Long, however, pointed out that aircraft pilots who fire their weapons from thousands of feet above the ground use the very same cameras to observe their targets.
Both experts also argued for the practical strengths of using drones. “It’s easier for them to be employed in some cases because they are less observable than manned aircraft,” said Betts. Initially, drones were primarily used for surveillance. “There is this allegedly famous footage of Bin Laden sort of walking outside and then looking up at the camera of a Predator in the late 1990s,” said Long, “but the Predator didn’t have a weapon on it,” Pilots need to sleep, but drone pilots can rotate in and out perpetually. An unmanned aircraft does not need life support, ejection seats, etc. and is thus much smaller and cheaper to build. “It doesn’t have to be able to go faster than the speed of sound, and climb up to 75 thousand feet and all this crazy stuff,” said Long, “It just has to be able to fly along at 15 thousand feet and do circles”
Since at least 2002 though, drones have been able to fire missiles. The Air Force has deployed these drones in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, while the CIA has run drone programs in the Pakistani tribal zone, and both have collaborated in Yemen. President Obama stressed the precise nature of these strikes and insisted they greatly reduce civilian causalities. A New America Foundation study in late 2010 found that approximately 80% of the people killed by drones under President Obama were militants, which was an improvement from 55% under Bush. The study also found a big increase in the number of strikes.
Still, the experts argued that drones are only practical within sharply defined limits. “They can be jammed, satellites can be targeted, things like that,” said Long. He pointed out that in Libya drones were only used after the U.S. targeted the country’s air defense with cruise missiles and manned aircraft. “It’s not as revolutionary a capability as I think some people think,” he said.
With the US’s continuing focus on anti-terrorism and imminent cutbacks in the defense budget, we can expect the role of drones to steadily increase. The next generation of drones is said to be stealthier and more autonomous that what exists today. Most Americans, though, agree with our experts in welcoming the use of drones. In a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll 83 percent of Americans expressed support for Obama’s policy. While Americans might favor different foreign policies, they seem to agree that drones or no drones is not the central question. Says Long, “What matters is your rules of engagement – when you can shoot and when you can’t..”
Krisztian Simon is a first-year Master of International Affairs student. This article will appear in the February 15th, 2012 issue of Communiqué.