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The True Forever War

Author: Micah Zenko, Senior Fellow
January 24, 2014


In preparation for a recent talk, I spoke to a range of thinkers and practitioners in and out of government about the current relevance and applicability of the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF). The AUMF, which was passed by the House and Senate just three days after 9/11, gave the president a narrow mandate to use all necessary and appropriate force against those responsible for the terrorist attacks and to prevent future acts of international terrorism against the United States. Two points of agreement were repeated in my conversations: First, the legislation does not accurately reflect either the military or the political objectives for current counterterrorism operations, nor does it accurately reflect the intention of those who originally drafted and approved the measure in 2001. Second, it is unlikely that the AUMF will be repealed, and any congressional efforts to update its language would most likely result in an even more expansive mandate.

Many correctly highlight that the AUMF does not reflect the scope of the conflict that the United States is now engaged in, and that its elasticity assures that America will remain on a war footing in perpetuity. However, those concerned with the prospects of a "forever war" should be concerned less about the irrelevant post-9/11 legislative mandate, and more about the revolutionary expansion of military assets that have been made available to the president since then. These technologies and processes that have reduced the costs and risks of using force have permanently changed how Americans conceive of military operations. As killing people, blowing things up, and disrupting computer networks will only get easier, it is worthwhile to take stock of where we are today.

Take for example aerial drones. On 9/11, the United States had 167 drones in its arsenal, only a handful of which were capable of dropping bombs. As of December 2013, the Pentagon and CIA have an estimated 11,000 drones, roughly 350 to 400 of which are armed-capable. Beyond the mere volume of unmanned aerial systems, they are becoming larger and capable of loitering longer, containing vastly improved sensor packages, and carrying a greater variety and number of bombs. Unlike in 2001, America's armed drones can now be controlled by pilots in the United States via dedicated satellite bandwidth, and within three or four years, they will be flown from naval assets, making the need for host nations basing many missions unnecessary.

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