The co-called War on Terror has conditioned Americans to take for granted two far-reaching changes in Pentagon strategy. The first is that state-to-state warfare is unlikely for the near-term future. Therefore, the military is focusing on smaller, expeditionary strike forces that can enter and leave a country with speed and flexibility, with or without that country’s government approving or even knowing about the mission. The second is the use of drone planes to target terrorists, either bands of fighters or individuals. The killing of Bin Laden and al-Awlaki are examples of both.
Some people praise drone warfare because drone precision causes less ‘collateral damage’, a/k/a civilian death and casualties. We’ve come a long way since Dresden and Hiroshima! Or have we?
Some of us were shocked when we grew up and learned an Anglo-American coup overthrew the parliamentary government of newly independent Iran in 1953. Or that the CIA helped the brutal Belgium regime assassinate Patrice Lumumba, one of the most respected and talented leaders coming out of the African independence movements, as he assumed leadership of Congo in 1961. Or that the Gulf of Tonkin ‘incident’ that ‘started the Vietnam War’ never happened. Many of us became committed anti-interventionists.
However, two years ago, some of those same anti-interventionists were arguing the merits of counter-insurgency (COIN) vs. counter-terrorism in Afghanistan. A smaller number refused to consider either, saying the US should leave Afghanistan as fast as possible.
The War on Terror has legitimized targeted, cross-border actions, including assassinations, that were once CIA directed special and black ops. At the same time, with the use of sophisticated remote technology, the US is capable of taking out the bad guys antiseptically. Not only are there fewer civilian casualties, but no American lives are in danger. Drones are directed remotely by pilots who go back to their homes after work.
In fact, the military made the killings of bin Laden and al-Awliki, set against the intensified ‘search and destroy’ anti-terrorist operations ordered by President Obama shortly after coming to office, look almost easy. And that’s the point. US drone technology is unfettered at this time. Although the US has sold drones or their technology to several countries, none has so far been able to weaponize them for combat. We’ve entered the post-’mutually assured casualties’ (if not destruction) era of warfare. American soldiers can bomb or blow up the enemy remotely with blood only spilled on the other side.
It’s a matter of time before other countries weaponize drones. Still, the US military seems confident that its next weapons systems will be ready to neutralize the drone combat it initiated in the first place when that need arises.
The conventional arms race is out of control, but the US alone has 52% of the global market, followed by a distant 19% for Russia. It’s impossible to tell how, by and against whom this technology will be used in the future.
It’s difficult to believe that US military sales to other states are geared towards protection of those states, when the same systems are sold to their declared enemy (Saudi Arabia and Israel). And why would the US sell drones, even for surveillance, to other countries? We are stuck in a self-proliferating cycle of military innovation, arms sales, more innovation, more sales. Very few of these weapons are ever used; they just drain money from other needs. Some are used against the buyer’s own citizens. Most are used by the US.
Food for thought.