Clear Strategic Thinking About Drones

Image courtesy of Flikr user UK Ministry of Defence. Image courtesy of Flikr user UK Ministry of Defence.

 

Note: Last week (on October 7, 2014) I had the privilege of speaking at the West Point Philosophy Forum on the subject of “Killer Machines” (aka drones).  A representative version of my remarks follows:

First, you will note that I use the term “drones” instead of the US Air Force’s preferred term of art (“remotely piloted vehicle”).  I think the USAF’s public relations people lost that one.  All the major dictionaries go with “drones.”  So will I.

Let’s start with the current debates; drones are everyone’s favorite punching bag. To some, they murder American citizens abroad as part of the country’s “Dirty Wars.”  For others, they fundamentally undermine democracy. Charles Dunlap, formerly the Air Force’s top lawyer, argues that technologically advanced airpower of this sort is America’s asymmetric advantage.  Civilians like them: drones provide overwatch in conflict areas for the United Nations, deliver packages in Germany (coming soon via Amazon “Air” to you), and make Hollywood cinematography even cooler.  And it’s not just the shots – it’s the movie plots – the recent Captain America: Winter Soldier sequel featured a villain’s plan to create three giant “super drones” with global reach and strike capabilities to kill any terrorist, anywhere, at any time. Or the current season of Homeland, where the main character, CIA agent Carrie Mathison (played by Claire Danes) has earned the nickname the “drone queen.”  And, as if he didn’t already have everything, George Clooney even has a fleet of drones through his NGO.

Maybe we should take a step back and look at airpower more broadly.

Since November 1911, when an Italian pilot dropped three hand grenades out of his monoplane at some Turks in Libya, there have been two general conditions for success when using airpower.

  1. Enemy moves in open terrain, no cover or concealment (i.e. desert)
  2. Enemy has no air force or useful anti-aircraft weapons to speak of

The second has to be modified slightly with drones – defensive measures taken against drones are difficult when there is no threatened pilot and no will to deter.  This can be initially frightening.  Consider the British public’s terrified response to Hitler’s V-1 and V-2 rockets – which they called “pilotless planes.”  Today, drones can seem similarly invincible – they do offer marked operational advantages  – they are persistent, precise, greater reach, provide force protection in unique places, and they are relatively stealthy (see Stimson Task Force Report on US Drone Policy, p. 18).

But they are not a dominant weapon – there never has been one and probably never will be.  At varying times, the crossbow, dynamite, and nuclear weapons have been raised as potential war-winning weapons. They certainly shaped war, but did not have the power to end it. 

So we should start with the proposition that drones are simply another, arguably more effective and more efficient, variant of airpower. Drones are a tactical weapon that should be “neither glorified nor demonized.”  So how should we think strategically about this new airpower tool?

Unfortunately, in invoking strategy, many look to simple “cost benefit analysis” (Stimson Report, p. 11). Journalist Tom Ricks prefers a different term, the “Law of Conservation of Enemies.”  Or, more famously, right here at West Point this past May 28, the Commander in Chief stated that in using drones, “our actions should meet a simple test: we must not create more enemies than we take off the battlefield.”

The problem with this analysis is that it considers each strike on it’s particular tactical merits. For example, did “we” finish that engagement +1 or -1?  We end up seeking a series of tactical victories in the hopes that the overall picture will end up favorable to “our” side.  This is the rough equivalent of a football team measuring the net thrust of an offensive versus a defensive line (i.e. who pushed who in what direction, and how far).  You can see how it might be a useful indicator, but must acknowledge that this only tells one part of the game’s story.  

Beyond this narrow tactical focus on “sum of battle,” there is more to thinking strategically about a particular tool like drones.  We should look to other measures; how we can use this weapon in a sustainable and comprehensive way; will this produce a durable strategic effect consistent with our vital national interests?

In doing so, we would do well to consider Rear Admiral J.C. Wylie’s writings in his classic Military Strategy: A General Theory of Power Control.  In it, he described (on pages 22-27) the difference between two types of strategy, which he called “sequential” and “cumulative.”  In war, sequential strategies can be seen as a “series of discrete steps or actions, with each one of this series of actions growing naturally out of, and dependent on, the one that preceded it.”  

This is to be contrasted with cumulative strategies, which are “a type of warfare in which the entire pattern is made up of a collection of lesser actions, but these lesser or individual actions are not sequentially interdependent.” In specific, “Psychological warfare might be such a matter, for instance, or economic warfare.  No one action is completely dependent on the one that preceded it. The thing that counts is the cumulative effect…[which can be] the less perceptible minute accumulation of little items piling one on top of the other until at some unknown point the mass of accumulated actions may be large enough to be critical.”

These definitions are, to my mind, helpful in isolation.  But then, after noting that “prior experience seems to indicate, a cumulative strategy is not of itself reliably decisive,” Wylie goes on to describe a linkage between the two which I think is brilliant and worth quoting at length:

“…when these cumulative strategies have been used in conjunction with a sequential strategy, directed at a critical point within the enemy structure, there are many instances in which the strength of the cumulative strategy has meant the difference between success or failure of the sequential.”

“Our strategic success in the future may be measured in great part by the skill with which we are able to balance our sequential and cumulative efforts toward the most effective and least costly attainment of our goals.”

So we should be thinking about coupling cumulative strategies with sequential to achieve sustainable strategic effect. Think Sherman’s march paired with Grant’s hammer.  The U.S. submarine blockade of Japan with the island hopping campaign. Or, more recently, General Stanley McChrystal’s 2003-2008 campaign in Iraq of “intelligence collection, detention, and targeted killing,” (see Coll) and the sequential “clear, hold, and build” (see Packer).

Drones can degrade and destroy equipment, but cannot do anything to coerce or compel the ideas that propel groups like ISIS.  For that we might consider employing drone strikes as a cumulative strategy to be paired with a sustained, sequential diplomatic and informational campaign that marks progress along the way to reducing the opponent’s ability or willingness to carry on the fight.  

But here’s the trick – as with any human progress – one foot has to be in front of the other. Right now, drones are way in front. Ahmed Rashid, a former Pakistani militant turned author, counsels that in the part of the world where drones are being used, American “foreign policy is being subsumed by technology.”  From the local population’s perspective it’s all drones, “this is the impact…this is what the public thinks.” We must consider this perspective.  War is not a court case decided by one judge and one jury. It is actually judged by many individuals, groups, and states, through their own soda-straw lenses, each with a violent veto on the result.

So here’s the adaptation to Wylie – sequential has to be in the lead.  We can see this with Grant as the main effort and Sherman in support, island hopping as the main effort with the blockade and bombing as support, counterinsurgency in Iraq as the main effort with direct action raids in support.  In this case, the diplomatic and information campaign must be more aggressive, publicized, and take the lead, while drone strikes assume a supporting role (maybe even akin to background noise), not just in our opinion but in the eyes of the local population. 

In short, we need a comprehensive, sustainable strategy – drones are a part of that.

Author: ML Cavanaugh

Unequal parts strategist, assistant professor, wordsmith, runner, wine-o, reader, philosopher of firepower, and hopeless lover of three ladies named Rachel, Grace, and Georgie.

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