The U.S. Drone Program

A MQ-1 Predator drone in operation. Source: US Air Force (Business Insider)
A MQ-1 Predator drone in operation. Source: US Air Force (Business Insider)
Low Commitment, High Value

Unmanned aerial vehicles, more commonly known as “drones”, have become the United States’ go-to weapon for unstable conflict regions worldwide. Due to their low cost and variable utility, drones have rapidly changed the face of conventional and unconventional warfare in ways that have only begun to be studied by military analysts and scientists. If current trends remain apace, the United States will continue to proliferate and maximize their usage of drones and their specific form of warfare in escalating crises, especially those in the Middle East. Already, the U.S. has begun utilizing drones in Syria and Iraq to combat the growing threat of the Islamic State, otherwise known as ISIS. Given growing international instability and the danger of ISIS in the Middle East, the United States should expand its use of drones.

The use of drones for strikes against terror groups have proven to be effective in deterring recruitment and violence. Drone strikes reduce the ability of militants to operate cohesively and to control geographic areas. Additionally, the killing of leaders and high value individuals, who often possess valuable information, resources or connections, reduces the operational capacity of militant groups to commit violence. Since 2005, drone strikes have been reported to have killed 3,024 confirmed enemy combatants in Pakistan alone. In just three years, more than 30% of the Al Qaeda and Taliban leadership have been killed by drone strikes. Al Shabaab, an extremist group operating out of Somalia and responsible for the Westgate Mall attack in Kenya, have seen massive casualties from drones, especially for their leadership. This is where drones are most effective, targeted killings of the leaders and specialists of terrorist and extremist groups.

Several design characteristics make drones uniquely efficient compared to alternatives. Drones are lightweight aircraft and have much longer flight times than conventional aircraft. The General Atomics MQ-1 Predator drone, one of the most trusted and widely used drones in the U.S military and frequently armed with surface to air missiles, have a flight time of 14 hours and fly at altitudes invisible to the naked eye. These drones can linger over an area, gather intelligence and even track vehicles and individuals. This ability to linger allows an armed drone to confirm targets and militant behavior while establishing patterns of life, striking when targets are isolated and away from civilians, reducing collateral damage. Compared to alternatives, like fast attack bombers and fighter jets, drones are much more precise.The end result is a relatively low ratio of civilian casualties to combatant deaths all while efficiently eliminating high value targets.

Aside from tactical advantages, drones also help the United States avoid unnecessary escalation. The U.S. faces numerous security concerns around the world and with a drone program, the U.S. is able to maintain a low commitment presence to check these concerns without investing too heavily in one region or crises. Critical policy failures have involved the overcommital behavior in areas like Somalia in the 1990s, Iraq and Afghanistan post-2001, yet drones can reflect the best of both worlds: a clear military presence without the overcommitment of U.S. military capabilities. In this way, drones act as an important buffer for conventional warfare, preventing conflict escalation. Traditional alternatives to conventional warfare have been diplomacy or sanctions but since drones are unmanned and are most often utilized for intelligence gathering or precision strikes rather than extensive offensive campaigns, they can be used in low-commitment, high values roles. The cost of one MQ-9 Reaper drone is 6.4 million USD while the MQ-1 Predator drone, frequently used for armed strikes, costs 40 million USD per unit. Compared to alternatives like the F22 fighter jet, which costs 339 million USD per unit, and costs for training pilots, around 2.6 million USD per fighter jet pilot, drones are much more cost effective. Even compared to ground troops, which, according to conservative estimates cost 850,000 USD per year per soldier, drones are much more cost effective. This has allowed the drone program to rapidly proliferate and see operational success in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan and other regions in the Middle East.

Drone usage in Syria and Iraq against ISIS has proved to be effective in limiting their operational capacity and maintaining air superiority in the region. ISIS has seen its second in command, Haji Mutazz, and its chief recruiting specialist killed by U.S. drone strikes. Of its reported forces, more than a third of ISIS fighters, around 10,000, have been killed by drones and airstrikes. However, for continued success, there needs to be a much firmer international commitment to combating ISIS. The issue is a collective action problem, as in, countries are notoriously slow to take responsibility for combating ISIS in hopes that the community will eventually solve the issue or that it will resolve itself. Currently, the United States is leading efforts, alongside some smaller Kurdish groups, to actively fight ISIS expansion. In this campaign, drones allowed an extension of U.S. military capabilities while avoiding extensive commitment means that the United States can halt ISIS without investing another decade and another trillion dollars in quagmires across the Middle East.

Though effective from a military standpoint, drones often face criticism for excessive civilian casualties and use as propaganda for terrorist organizations. Many cite the fact that U.S drone programs, especially armed drones and drone strikes, have become propaganda pieces for radicalization, leading many new recruits to the ranks of groups such as Al-Qaeda and recently more important, ISIS. First, there is a profound lack of empirical data for these claims and studies have demonstrated that civilian deaths in drone strikes are unrelated to subsequent terrorist attacks or recruitment. Second, public and international outcry over drone strikes are from small vocal minorities. In Pakistan, a country most affected by and opposed to drone strikes, a Pew Research Center poll found that “there is not a wall of opposition to drone strikes but a vocal plurality that merely gives that impression,” with over half of the survey respondents completely unaware of the presence of drones.

Though collateral damage from drone strikes is profoundly regrettable, alternatives to drones would likely pose much higher civilian casualties, cost significantly more, and drag the United States into overextended dangerous commitments abroad. Due to their low cost and effectiveness, drones allow for the United States to eliminate extremists or terrorist threats internationally while maintaining a small footprint and avoiding conflict escalation. Given these qualities, and specifically the successful track record against the growing threat of ISIS, the United States should expand its drone program.