Policing the world with remote-controlled aircraft.

Science, technology, and life.
July 30 2008 8:04 AM

Troops Out, Drones In

Policing the world with remote-controlled aircraft.

RQ-1 Predator Unmanned Aerial Vehicle at Tallil Air Base in Iraq. Click image to expand.
An RQ-1 Predator unmanned aerial vehicle at Tallil Air Base in Iraq

Client states can be so annoying. You can't get them to police terrorists along their borders; you can't get them to countenance publicly your troops inhabiting their country. So when you can't be there in the flesh—and you can't persuade your ally to help—the next-best thing is to be there in the nonflesh. Send in the drones.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

That's what we've been doing in Pakistan. Remotely operated American unmanned aerial vehicles have been hunting and killing al-Qaida and Taliban honchos there for years. Six months ago, we took out a high-level al-Qaida commander. Monday morning, we took out another. After complaining for weeks that Pakistan isn't doing the job, we took care of it ourselves, killing a top al-Qaida trainer and weapons expert with missiles fired from a "remotely piloted aircraft." In an interview with Reuters, a local tribesman identified the killers: "We had heard the sound of a drone engine just before the explosions. These drones have been flying since late Sunday night."

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Drones, as I've said before, are the future of warfare. The tactical reason is that they don't bleed. They let us hunt enemies abroad at no risk to ourselves. The political reason is slightly different: They spare us the difficulties of an official troop presence. Pakistan's government doesn't have to approve or explain our incursion into northwest Pakistan on Sunday night, because, strictly speaking, we weren't there.

The U.S. military doesn't even control our killer drones over Pakistan. The CIA does. This doubly insulates the Pakistani government from responsibility. "The Pakistani military, as is its custom, denied knowledge of the missile strike and whether it had been carried out by the United States," the Los Angeles Times reports. "One U.S. official familiar with the incident said the Pentagon was not involved and that 'it was an agency-run op all the way.' "

That deniability came in handy Monday morning, when Pakistan's prime minister met with President Bush at the White House a few hours after the killer-drone attack. Here's a lovely picture of them standing together on the South Lawn. "Pakistan is a strong ally and a vibrant democracy," the president declared. "The United States supports the democracy and supports the sovereignty of Pakistan." The prime minister proudly agreed. He said of the insurgents on his border, "This is our own war."

An hour later, reporters asked Bush's press secretary about the missile strike. "I'm not able to comment," she replied. They ask three more times. She repeated her nonanswer.

So that's our M.O. in Pakistan. And guess how we're going to patrol Iraq after we "pull out"? That's right: with drones. According to the New York Times, Iraqi leaders and American politicians of both parties agree that

there are three critical military tasks the Iraqi forces still cannot fulfill: providing combat support and logistics, carrying out high-tech surveillance and conducting close-air support for combat missions. So American forces can be expected to perform those three requirements for the foreseeable future.

Lt. Gen. Gary North, commander of allied air forces in the Middle East, tells the Times that he plans to "complement our manned airplanes with an increased amount of unmanned attack platforms." In fact, the transition is already underway:

For the first time in Iraq, the Air Force is flying missions this month with the new Reaper, a large remotely controlled vehicle that carries not only advanced surveillance sensors, but also bombs and missiles comparable to those on top-of-the-line piloted fighters. Not only do Reaper pilots sit in a trailer at a safe distance from the front lines, but the vehicles require less refueling and thus can stay aloft for long periods, so the number of airborne tankers would diminish as Reapers take on a growing role. "The capability that I am providing comes at less manpower on the ground," General North said.

That's our future in Pakistan, Iraq, and the next theater of war: less manpower on the ground, more unmanned power in the sky. We promised to pull out our troops. We didn't promise not to replace them.

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