Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Drones Overboard

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles have become very prominent over the past few years and very much so over the past few days.  Erica Chenoweth does a great job of reviewing the state of scholarship on the effectiveness of Drone strikes.  And now an unarmed UAV has been downed over Libya.

I tweeted that perhaps folks were overreacting as the one of the key reasons to have UAVs is to put robots in harm's way rather than people.  I got a bit of a pushback from NATO's friends via https://twitter.com/#!/NATOSource/.   The counter-tweet noted that losing technology to the bad guys is not a good thing and, given that UAVs are a scarce commodity (in military jargon: low density, high demand), losing one is pretty significant.  So, I apologize for being flippant about this.  I realize that these UAVs are expensive and scarce.  Moreover,  we do not want to share the technology with the Libyan government who can learn how to counter these systems and/or sell the parts to countries that might not be friends of ours. 

I guess my tweet was due to frustration--that losing a helicopter in Afghanistan is not really news these days but losing a UAV in Libya is.  While this is the first downing of a UAV in Libya, we have lost UAVs in Afghanistan and Pakistan, so this is not a unique event or the first time we may have lost some technology that could be exploited by other folks.

I guess the media got more excited (or I have exaggerated the media's excitement) because it happened over Libya.  Why?  Because the media tends to obsess about stuff that is being hotly debated in national capitols, and Libya certainly is a hot issue in DC, Ottawa, London, and elsewhere.  Afghanistan comes and goes, but Libya is the show right now, so one UAV and one errant strike get far more play than their strategic significance would suggest.

I also tweeted that folks were overreacting to the NATO strike that killed some civilians.  Again, this is a serious issue, but it, by itself, should not really raise that many questions or change that many minds about the mission.  Any military campaign will inevitably kill bystanders.  The difference is that for NATO, these unfortunate people were unintended casualties and not targets, whereas Qaddafi's force continue to aim at the civilians.  The ratio of civilians killed by the Libyan government vs NATO forces must be starker than the Taliban/NATO ratio.  Yes, hitting civilians can undermine the effort, but NATO is doing as much as it can to avoid that.  Hard to do without having ground troops providing intel, but that is where UAVs fill (partially) the gap.  So, we risk losing UAVs not just to avoid NATO casualties but also to limit "collateral damage."

So once again, I will say that losing a UAV is an acceptable (and expected) price for doing this kind of business.  We don't have to be happy about it, but nor should we fret that much.  I am reminded of a classic scene in M*A*S*H: "Rule number one of war is that young men die.  Rule number two is that doctors cannot change rule number one."  Times have changed, so it is now young people with women now playing greater roles in combat; AND because now we have found some ways to beat rule number 1--with technology and via political restrictions (no boots on the ground).  Perhaps in the future, rule number one will be: in war (and hostility like events), machines die.  Again, I may be sounding flippant, but war is destructive and we are spoiled if we think that only the other side is going to pay the price.

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