Americas Blind Addiction to Armed Drones

Depending on your capacity for outrage, Andrew Cockburns Kill Chain: The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins is a pretty depressing book. In under 300 pages, Cockburn places the world of drone production and use into a long yet fruitless wish of the US military to see, identify, and be able to strike anything on the field of battle.

In the Vietnam war, Cockburn explains, this effort was codenamed Igloo White. Thousands of acoustic, seismic, and even olfactory (thats smell-based) sensors were dropped across the Ho Chi Minh trail — thousands of square miles — in order to track the movement of supply trucks, which if destroyed would slowly starve the Vietcong war effort. To get that done, the sensors would relay their information to a central computer in Thailand, and attack aircraft and local cluster bombs would do the killing.

In the Cold War that grew after Vietnam, it was a surveillance network code-named Assault Breaker. Airborne radar systems were trained on the northern European plains of a potential World War III triggered by Soviet aggression. The systems proved too sensitive to distinguish tank movements from those of cars and even wind-swept trees. And in the 90s, it was with drones, who would be conveniently capable of both critical tasks — seeing everything and killing anyone.

Cockburn often distances himself from the subject of drones to explain the circumstances that made their ascent possible in the 90s. On the technical side, this was the launch of GPS satellites and the exponential bandwidth for information made possible by trans-Atlantic fiber-optic cables. But military culture and priorities also set up the demand that drones could fill, and that topic is what gets Cockburns real attention.

Readers are taken back to World War II, when a government-run think tank known as the Jasons submitted that the German war machine would collapse with the destruction of 154 key targets (which, even when they could be located and hit, either turned out not to be so vital to the enemy war effort as supposed, or the Germans adapted by replacing them or using substitutes.) In the Iraq war, these key targets were no longer just things—bridges, oil tanks, and power plants—now they could be people. All to say that drones played very well into a long-standing military fetish for ending wars quickly by hitting enemy regimes (or drug cartels, as Cockburn also explains) where it hurts.

But as the author interviews sources from every corner of the national security apparatus (including DCGS, the supercomputer network designed to make sense of the oceans of data collected by drones), he finds that there is strong evidence against the effectiveness of targeted killings. In the war on cocaine, eliminating kingpins actually increased supply. Similarly, in the Middle East to which the kingpin strategy was transplanted, Cockburn writes, slain commanders were quickly replaced by younger ones eager to prove themselves with renewed aggression.

A big player in the rise of drones — despite the poor track record — is the vicious competition among the US militarys services, each of which jockey for greater budgets and the roles and missions that justify them.

Rex Rivolo, a former pilot and one of the books protagonists, studied the lethality of Iraqi neighborhoods 30 days before and after the death of a commander based there. Each killing quickly prompted mayhem, Cockburn writes. Within 3 kilometers of the targets base of operations, [IED] attacks over the following days shot up by 40 percent.

And somewhat paradoxically, even though targeted killings arent effective, Cockburn argues that neither are the drones and surveillance systems that make them possible. During nine days of testing in Nevada, the Predator proved incapable of flying in bad weather and could find less than a third of its targets, and rarely could the difference be seen between a tank and a truck.

A big player in the rise of drones — despite the poor track record — is the vicious competition among the US militarys services, each of which jockey for greater budgets and the roles and missions that justify them. Any veteran of the U.S. defense establishment knows that the fiercest battles and deepest enmities are reserved not for the official enemy but for service rivals in the ceaseless struggle for budget share, Cockburn drives home.

Lobbied congressmen are also useful in keeping these programs alive despite (or maybe because of?) their inflated price-tags. In 2012, Congress and the House Armed Services Committee pushed Northrop-Grummans $223 million-a-piece Global Hawk onto the air force, ignoring clear disapproval from the Pentagon, General Martin Dempsey (who was then and still is chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff), and the air force (Junk is right, one officer told Cockburn). Jim Moran, then a congressman on board with this move, presided over the Virginian district home to Northrops headquarters.

Whats perhaps most disappointing about this blind technophilia is that Cockburn tells the story of simpler, cheaper, and more effective alternatives. While Congress appropriated funds for the US Border Patrol to buy six Reaper drones (the successor to the Predator), a subversive border control official demonstrated that a light aircraft could do the same job with less funding: $230 per captured border-crosser, as opposed to the Reapers $7,054.

And in simulations run in Jordans deserts, a cheap plane built by that country proved highly effective at warning ground contingents of any approaching ambushes. Rivolo and other Americans who had run the test wrote a report recommending the planes use in Iraq and Afghanistan. When they distributed their findings around the Pentagon, [o]rders came down that all copies were to be collected by a senior official and destroyed.

There is a hole in Kill Chains survey. Despite the benefit of being published months after ISISs news-dominating growth, the extremist group is only mentioned once. A recent article in the online magazine Defense One calls for new defense secretary Ashton Carter to expand the use of drones against it, giving UAV’s the mission of defeating a conventional armed enemy on the battlefield for the first time in history. Using drones there would allow for the continuation of a bombing campaign already benefiting ISISs Kurdish and Iraqi rivals on the ground, while skipping the risk of an American being captured and facing the same horrific fate as Jordanian pilot Maaz al-Kasasbeh.

We can question the track record of the two Defense One writers behind this argument; one of them previously consulted for General Atomics, the company that created the Predator and Reaper.

But if the authors get their wish, time will tell whether drones will finally meet the conditions that match their strengths (though thats to say nothing of the moral quandary that death delivered from a distance presents). Until then, Cockburn makes a strong case that drones have never done so in the past, despite great costs measured in foreign blood and American treasure.

[Photo via Flickr Commons]


Kill Chain: The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins 
by Andrew Cockburn
Henry Holt, 320 pages, $20.97



  1. Mike M. 26 March, 2015 at 19:35 Reply

    And somewhat paradoxically, even though targeted killings aren’t effective, Cockburn argues that neither are the drones and surveillance systems that make them possible. During nine days of testing in Nevada, the Predator proved incapable of flying in bad weather and “could find less than a third of its targets,” and rarely could the difference be seen between a tank and a truck.”

    I’m calling BS on this comment and would love to know if he gave any dates as to when this occured.

    I served in the 11th RS as a Sensor Operator and this is a completely inaccurate overgeneralized statement.

    Are UAV flights ground due to weather conditions, yes, just like any manned aircraft, flights can be weather canceled. That doesn’t mean and entire program is in effective.

    The comment on finding targets and distinquishing between trucks or tanks is complete nonsense.

  2. peter38abc 27 March, 2015 at 01:27 Reply

    May I bring up some other perspectives? First of all drones are like castles; civilizations will use capital as a force multiplier i.e. instead of meeting the barbarian hordes on level ground man for man, sword for sword they use technology and capital to build castles (or what have you) as force multipliers. And that’s exactly as it was and ever will be. What’s more drones will evolve, become much more efficient both at recon and attack, so Cockburn’s concerns in that area I think will be short lived.

    It’s understandable that when an enemy leader is (please let me use the word) liquidated the new up and comer has to make-his-bones to legitimize himself by increasing attacks. But can his group sustain the attack rate? And when they attack are they not then vulnerable to casualty incurring counterattack? Is not the main problem “not being able to find them” rather than “not being able to kill them” once they show themselves? But even if the worst of this were true shall anyone argue that these evil individuals should be left to quietly sip tea in apple orchards free of worry in their blood spattered clothes?

    But the main problem that I see it is that we have used drones as if our monopoly would last forever and used them recklessly. In the long run it would be best for us and the world if we had openly laid down some operating rules, laws in fact, for ourselves, when we would and when we wouldn’t. Maybe not, probably not, but such laws would have possibly reigned in somewhat new countries use of drones, made it a little less what it looks like it’s becoming i.e. the new Wild West. As far as I understand it decisions are made in a Star Chamber arrangement of some kind in the White House. I am a citizen of this country, this is being done in my name, and this is not ok now and it will become much less ok as time goes on.

  3. strategicservice 27 March, 2015 at 07:02 Reply

    During nine days of testing in Nevada, the Predator proved incapable of flying in bad weather and ‘could find less than a third of its targets,’ and rarely could the difference be seen between a tank and a truck.”

    What an utterly absurd statement. Speaking as a person who has worked directly with different tactical-level UAS, a Predator does not “find” targets, nor can it distinguish between two types of potential targets. The operator does, and if said operator cannot distinguish between a tank and a truck within an acceptable operating distance then he or she needs a new pair of glasses.

    The reality is this: UAS are a tool, not a method. Unfortunately, in our military, they have engendered a culture of easy warfighting, where targeteering can be performed without putting personnel in danger. This is an extension of the old maxim, “when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” UAS, and automated systems in general, are revolutionary and will completely change the way wars are fought, but right now our political and military leadership chooses to exploit their use without fully considering the consequences.

  4. Alegrando 7 September, 2015 at 08:56 Reply

    Boonton,Do we sympathise enguoh to go to war with China?Act of war != war. We would not go to war with, say, North Korea if they sank an allies submarine. I don’t think we would have gone to war if they sank one of ours. If Russia shot down a passenger airliner we didn’t go to war. Going to war with a major (or minor) nuclear power is a high bar. A single act of war would raise tensions and make for entertaining speeches in international forae but would not lead to war. This is why your go to war is a bad example. Yemen/Pakistan won’t go to war even if our drone attacks are an act of war (as they are), because the US is huge and has lots of big sticks and they are small players. Just as we wouldn’t go to war with China if they bombed a bar and grill on the West Coast. I suspect the reason it hasn’t come up yet is because no one has seriously tried it. Tactical command and control of a battlefield is not really practical from your living room.Do you really think that from your living room at your computer you could not establish as much control over operatives in India or China via the Internet as Mr bin Laden had over his al Qaeda operatives? The question of whether or not the case gets tossed is probably pretty untested. No doubt the defense will argue for it but the prosecution has on its side that the US gov’t never asked for or encouraged illegal means to obtain the evidence…it literally ‘fell into their lap’ sort of like the example of the thief who steals your computer and causes criminal activity to come to light or when cops make an honest mistake on a search warrant and search the wrong house.I think the arguments the defense would use are similar to that which the Mob used against the government. Recall to stop them, they required tax fraud to catch a lot of those guys, because conspiracy couldn’t be proven legally. Look at it this way, China is a lot like a different mob. Do you think the Chicago police would be right to use the confession of one gang member to incriminate a person if another gang brought it forward, having obtained that evidence by torture. The other gang (China) is an interested party. You are not having data fall into your lap one gang of criminals is bringing it so you’ll use it to your advantage. Another test, if I want you arrested, can I (as a private citizen) illegally wiretap and sneak in and get incriminating evidence illegally and bring it forward to be used against you? Wouldn’t that get tossed because I am not a disinterested party? Cause if that’s the case then friends of the police can just do the torture for them. But stopping his actions is not criminal prosecution, to stop someone implies you are preventing them from doing something in the future, not punishing them for past acts. How? What’s really going to happen. Are the CIA going to keep him from going anywhere with a wifi hotspot? Are they going to shut down the wifi in every library he walks into, after all, there’d be now way to know which computer he’s going to use in there. He might even borrow yours to send a few emails out, eh? but it is not legal to recruit people on behalf of a foreign army from inside the US. If your guy is recruiting from inside the US for people to fight in China, that would probably be breaking the law (I’m guessing the courts would view a terrorist force as a type of army in this case).Is it illegal to offer camping excursions for foreign tourists? Because that’s how the defense is going to describe what he’s doing in Montana. You still haven’t addressed the we are more sympathetic problem. Why is that irrelevant? It’s why Yemen/Pakistan aren’t going after those guys very enthusiastically. We have two barriers to going after our citzen Uighur. We both sympathize, and unlike Y/P, we have lots of laws protecting the freedoms of people unless they break civil laws. We couldn’t figure out that the 9/11 guys were planning anything, why do you figure we’re going to cotton onto and go after Mr Uighur?

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