Drones: A Critical Element of the U.S. Counterterrorism Mission

By Morgan Deane:

Unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly called drones, have frequently been employed in the war on terror, and mini versions might even be under your Christmas tree. They are considered a vital part in fighting terrorism, but they are increasingly the subject of controversy: every strike might kill a terrorist leader in a remote hide out, but it might also cause collateral damage that simply creates more enemies.

It is important to first summarize the current drone force, explain their missions, summarize the justification for their use, and then assess their utility. While they do have many problems and should be used with a great deal of caution, their use is justified and efficacious.

The United States now has thousands of drones, primarily divided between the MQ1B Predator and the MQ9 Reaper. They come equipped with color and black-and-white TV cameras, image intensifiers, radar, infra-red imaging for low-light conditions and lasers for targeting. The Predators were recently upgraded to hold two hellfire missiles that can fire up to 5km away. The Reaper is a hunter killer system, and can carry 4 hellfire missiles or laser guided bombs like the Paveway II. They can also be armed with laser-guided missiles. Each drone system comes with 4 aircraft, a ground control station, and a remote uplink.

Using that uplink, trained crew steer the aircraft from their bases. They control what images are relayed and the laser guided missiles or bombs. The landing of the aircraft is always done locally, but the long flights are often transferred to various bases around the world, including Creech Air Force Base near Las Vegas. The missions vary, but often include surveilling locations in remote regions, trying to identify suspected terrorists and confirming their locations. The Predator drones are designed as for medium altitude long endurance flights, but they are armed with several missiles in case any targets present themselves. The MQ-9 Reaper is used primarily in a hunter killer role, and secondarily for intelligence. This means they can find, fix, track, target, execute, and assess high value, fleeting, or time sensitive targets. The CIA in particular likes to use this for covert programs, and consider it the only game in town in trying to disrupt terrorist leadership.

The assets in America’s arsenal are increasing as well. They want to have intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance (ISR) drones that can launch both vertically and horizontally from tall sitter ships of the Navy and Marine Corps.  The shift to drone technology reflects the Navy’s strategy of allowing surface ships to conduct surveillance and targeting missions without the aid of land- or carrier-based patrol aircraft. Tern also is intended to support Marine expeditionary missions using long-range, high-endurance unmanned aircraft. They are also trying to make a new helicopter style drone. With its 1.8 gigapixel style camera, and ability to hover in areas it aims to provide unprecedented monitoring capabilities and both styles will allow air assets to be used elsewhere.

Drones have become an increasingly important part of the War on Terror, but it has not been all smooth sailing.  Reports allegedly indicated that in 2003 nearly half the drone fleet was shot down.  Fortunately, that number has dramatically decreased. As the figures related to their disruption scaled down, their effectiveness went up markedly.  The key point in their elevated effectiveness was the initial addition of a kinetic capability.  The first known missile to be fired was in the remote Pakistan province of Waziristan in 2004.  In the years that have followed their use has been pivotal in some of our nation’s most sensitive counterterrorism operations.  The drones flew a reconnaissance mission over Bin Laden’s compound in advance of the raid that killed him. They are also used in a variety of other remote areas such as delivering intelligence to Nigeria about Boko Haram.

The biggest debate is over the justification for their use.  The drones are unmanned, which doesn’t put the pilots at risk. Drones can provide more coverage, with 24 hours of eyes in the sky to gain intelligence. Operationally, it allows America to track and find terrorists with much greater skill.  Philosophically, it is a part of America’s inherent right of self-defense against imminent threats. This meets the definition for both just war and preemption. Drone strikes have forced terrorist leaders into hiding and left them increasingly on the geographic margins of society.   Killing the leaders also degrades their operational ability.

But killing terrorists doesn’t capture them, and that means there is far less information to gain from them. With such high volumes of drone strikes it is difficult to gauge how much intelligence may have been lost, but one can imagine it is likely significant.  There is also concern by the international community about collateral damage and the statistics that they report regarding civilian casualties, but these numbers should be taken with healthy skepticism.

After all, the same remoteness of the region and lack of American assets to fight terrorism that prompt the drone use in the first place also means that specific and credible numbers of deaths are harder to calculate. On top of that, many terrorists are known to deliberately hide in residential neighborhoods, schools, and hospitals, to avoid being hit by drone strikes, and those strikes are reported by corrupt state run media. The use of human shields is a human rights violation and considered a war crime on the part of the hiding terrorists, not on America for trying to use precision strikes. That being said, for many people in these remote regions, their only interaction with America is clearing debris and rubble, and pointing out the nuance of international law doesn’t help them feel any better. And it is unclear if any of these attacks have preemptively stopped deaths. The death of key leaders doesn’t stop terrorist movements even if it does limit the effectiveness of terrorists groups.

Drones are attacked and marginalized, but often the only way to combat the threats America faces. America has thousands of drones which saves thousands of man hours for pilots, and saves them from being shot down in the air.  The strikes have hit terrorists groups around the world, and did so with justification under the just war theory and international law. Though there is a great deal of justified concern about their effectiveness and its potential to create more enemies than it kills. In short, drone use is effective, but only to an extent, and its use should be carefully assessed.

Morgan Deane is an OpsLens Contributor and a former U.S. Marine Corps infantry rifleman.  Deane also served in the National Guard as an Intelligence Analyst.

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