Wednesday, September 04, 2013

About those drones

I love me some drones, but I am not a fan of the missionary zeal some of the strongest advocates have for them. They are not the full future of naval aviation any more than nuclear weapons sixty years ago were the full future of ordnance. Heck, they are not even really that new - they are just getting incrementally better as technology and engineering allow.

What drones/UAV/S or whatever we are calling them next week are going to be is simple; a new tool. We will have to play with them some, operation with them some, make a few mistakes, stumble in to a few eureka moments, and generally find their best fit. We just need to be patient, clear headed, and open minded.

We need to be open minded about what they may bring to the table; recallable usable TLAMesque capabilities, no-POW reconnaissance, long dwell surveillance, and perhaps a few other goodies. We need to be equally open minded about the very real limitation they have, especially in contested airspace. Audrey Kurth Cronin over at Foreign Policy does a nice job outlining some of those limitations and how they are manifesting themselves over Syria.
Broadly speaking, the United States has used armed drone strikes overseas in two ways: during war and to prevent war. Battlefield use of weaponized drones is not new (it dates back to World War I), and is fairly ubiquitous. A spring 2013 report by the U.S. Air Force estimated that unmanned aircraft fired about a quarter of all missiles used in coalition air strikes in Afghanistan in the early part of this year. Drones have proved remarkably effective at providing reconnaissance to U.S. troops on the ground, protecting them from enemy attacks, and reducing civilian casualties. When used within a war, in other words, drones are a great way to give U.S. soldiers an edge.
Could the United States have deployed its drone fleet to destroy Syrian arsenals or to kill those planning to make use of them before this happened?

The answer is no. Armed drones have serious limitations, and the situation in Syria lays them bare. They are only useful where the United States has unfettered access to airspace, a well-defined target, and a clear objective. In Syria, the United States lacks all three.
When the foe can actually defend itself, the use of armed drones is extraordinarily difficult and could constitute an act of war -- one that could easily draw the United States into the heart of a conflict.

Drones are slow and noisy; they fly at a low altitude; and they require time to hover over a potential target before being used. They are basically sitting ducks. Syria has an air force and air defenses that could easily pick American drones out of the sky.
Second, the target. Using armed drones against the Syrian government’s enormous chemical weapons stockpiles would have risked causing the very release of deadly agents that the United States was trying to avoid. Drones are precise but not perfect. Like cruise missiles, their effectiveness mainly depends upon the quality of their targeting information. Worse, an imperfect attack could inadvertently give the Assad government political cover to use the weapons with impunity. Assad could blame the release of chemical weapons on a misfired U.S. drone strike. Since U.S. drones are deeply despised in the Middle East, that argument could enjoy wide hearing.
Third, the objective. The United States wants to punish the Assad regime for using chemical weapons against the Syrian people and to prevent them from being used again. Drone attacks are ill suited for this purpose. They are unlikely either to inflict sufficient pain or to deter other tyrants from following Assad’s lead.
Drones are a tool. As any handyman will tell you, new tools are great - but you throw away your other tools at your own peril.

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