Drones Are for Sissies

Science, technology, and life.
March 23 2009 7:51 AM

Drones Are for Sissies

From time to time, Human Nature checks in on the man-vs.-machine war experiment that's going on halfway around the world in Pakistan. It's like a video game, except real people are being killed. Al-Qaida and the Taliban are fielding human fighters. The United States is fielding remote-controlled unmanned aircraft armed with missiles. American generals and defense planners are watching this war to find out how much an unmanned force can accomplish. The less blood we have to risk and shed, particularly against an enemy who thrives on body bags and terror, the safer we'll be at home and abroad.

So, who's winning: the jihadis or the joysticks ? Greg Miller of the Los Angeles Times brings us a fresh update . Here's an analysis of his report and other stories filed in the last week, explaining the most important developments and why they matter.

William Saletan William Saletan

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

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1. How many strikes and kills? Since Aug. 31, there have been 38 Predator strikes, killing 9 "senior" al-Qaida leaders and many lower-level fighters. And that's not counting conventional airstrikes based on hot intelligence from the drones.

2. Why the increase? We stopped asking Pakistan for permission before striking. This has three effects: Strikes don't get vetoed, they don't get delayed till the intelligence (e.g., about who's in the compound) is cold, and the targets don't get tipped off by friends in the Pakistani government.

3. Where do the drones fly from? This has been a politically explosive question lately . Miller says the CIA Predators "take off and land at military airstrips in Pakistan."

4. Can they see through walls? Not literally, but in effect, yes. They're "outfitted with additional intelligence gear that has enabled the CIA to confirm the identities of targets even when they are inside buildings and can't be seen through the Predator's lens." If true, this is a huge development. It means the men have nowhere to hide from the machines.

5. Do the joystick pilots understand real combat? I've raised this question before, on the theory that killing real people from a faraway drone console can look too much like a video game . The CIA is mum about its people. But Christopher Drew of the New York Times reports that the Air Force "has begun training officers as drone pilots who have had little or no experience flying conventional planes."

6. Why is Pakistan tolerating the strikes? "Because the CIA has expanded its targeting to include militant groups that threaten the government," Miller reports. To that extent, the machines have become Pakistan's allies. If true, this is another big development. The Pakistan war experiment isn't just technological. It's political. It's a test of whether the drones can inflict military damage without triggering too much anti-Americanism . By buying off the host government with hits on its enemies, we're buying time to keep hitting our own enemies there. Politically, it's hard to imagine a manned U.S. force getting away with what the drones have done.

7. What are the drones' psychological effects? Among other things, the Pakistan experiment is testing how a war waged by machines affects the morale of their human adversaries. U.S. officials tell Miller that the militants, hounded and pounded by the drones, "have begun turning violently on one another out of confusion and distrust." One official says that al-Qaida operatives are "wondering who's next," that they're "hunting down people who they think are responsible" for exposing them to the drones, and that "people are showing up dead or disappearing." Mark Mazzetti of the New York Times adds that in northwest Pakistan, "[s]ome locals have given up drinking Lipton tea, out of a growing conviction that the [CIA] is using the tea bags as homing beacons for its pilotless planes."

On the other hand, Mazzetti reports many Pakistanis think that the drones "reveal the fears of Americans to take casualties"—that we're "sending robots to do a man's job." He cites P.W. Singer's book Wired for War , in which Muslim insurgents "said that America's reliance on drone weapons is a sign that the United States is afraid to sacrifice troops in combat."

I'm not buying this. I'm not buying the U.S. spin that the drones are reducing al-Qaida to fratricide. And I'm sure not buying this jihadi propaganda about the glory of sacrifice. Sacrifice is for suckers. Even terrorists know that. That's why, as Drew reports, our ostensibly cowardly drone operators are watching this :

On a recent day, at 1:15 p.m. in Tucson—1:15 the next morning in Afghanistan—a pilot and sensor operator were staring at gray-toned video from the Predator's infrared camera. ... The crew was scanning a road, looking for ... signs of anyone planting improvised explosive devices or lying in wait for a convoy. ... "We spend 70 to 80 percent of our time doing this, just scanning roads," said the pilot. ...

In short, our people are hiding behind lethal gizmos watching your people plant lethal gizmos and hide. Your people don't intend to be there when the bombs go off any more than ours do. So if we're sissies, so are you.

8. Obama's plans? "Because of its success, the Obama administration is set to continue the accelerated campaign," Miller reports. The New York Times ' David Singer and Eric Schmitt add that Obama is thinking of extending the strikes deeper into Pakistan:

The extensive missile strikes being carried out by [CIA]-operated drones have until now been limited to the tribal areas. ... But some American officials say the missile strikes in the tribal areas have forced some leaders of the Taliban and Al Qaeda to flee south toward Quetta, making them more vulnerable. In separate reports, groups led by both Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of American forces in the region, and Lt. Gen. Douglas E. Lute, a top White House official on Afghanistan, have recommended expanding American operations outside the tribal areas if Pakistan cannot root out the strengthening insurgency.

Broadening the war in Pakistan is hugely dangerous. But if we do it, the safest force to send in isn't the Marines, Green Berets, or stealth fighters. It's the drones.

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