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Drones: War from Afar

Author: Micah Zenko, Douglas Dillon Fellow
January 27, 2010
International Relations and Security Network

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Since late 2001, the United States has used Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) for offensive military operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, and in the tribal areas of Pakistan, where the tempo and scope of strikes against suspected al-Qaida and Taliban operatives have increased under President Barack Obama. The effectiveness of UAS offensive operations is difficult to evaluate since many of them are covert - meaning they are unacknowledged by American or host-nation officials  - and occur beyond the watch of journalists or civil-society groups. Nevertheless, in off-the-record settings, senior civilian and military officials in the George W. Bush and Obama administrations have praised the role of UAS in Pakistan, where over one hundred strikes have killed hundreds of al-Qaida and Taliban operatives, and civilians. As the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director, Leon Panetta, declared in May 2009, the airstrikes in Pakistan have been "very effective" and "frankly, it's the only game in town in terms of confronting or trying to disrupt the al-Qaida leadership."

The apparent and largely unquestioned success of UAS in conducting offensive operations deserves a closer look, especially as the Pentagon plans to vastly expand their use against a range of targets. Consider three notable facts. First, in 2009, for the first time, more controllers of UAS were trained than pilots of manned aircraft. Second, whereas the US military can presently support thirty-four around-the-clock UAS strike orbits in the US Central Command's area of operations, within two years military officials want at least fifty. Third, while it took Predator drones twelve years to fly their first 250,000 hours, that amount was doubled in the following twenty months. As the Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates noted in congressional testimony last summer, the best solution against projected future threats, "is not something that has a pilot in it." Nevertheless, there are several potential downsides to the unchecked use of UAS in offensive operations that citizens and policymakers should consider.

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