Drones: the Silent Killer & the Future of Warfare

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In this month’s issue of Rolling Stone, contributor Michael Hastings authored “The Rise of the Killer Drones: How America Goes to War in Secret,” a report on the Obama administration’s quiet yet expansive use of unmanned aerials. Drone technology has rapidly progressed since the Bush administration, with new multi-million dollar drones being developed every day. They can be operated remotely from thousands of miles away, can potentially fly for years at a time without needing to refuel, and are undetectable by conventional radar systems. The Pentagon currently maintains a fleet of 19,000 drones, and most estimates for number of lives taken by drones sit around 3,000.

Human rights activists decry the use of drones as inhumane assassinations, citing the secrecy under which various government departments utilize them, and questioning the approval process for targeted killings. What is especially disturbing to rights advocates is the increasing drone killing being directed by the CIA. Under the umbrella justification of “counterterrorism operations” the CIA has engaged in targeted killings across the Middle East, and frequently in Pakistan. Since a targeted killing is considered an act of war, it is unsettling that these operations are handled under the highly confidential and covert CIA as opposed to the publicly accountable Defense Department. In a December 2011 letter to President Obama, Human Rights Watch wrote, “The use of drones in targeted killings should be exclusively within the command responsibility of the US armed forces…the US military has a more transparent chain of command and operational procedures, [though] it too needs to ensure compliance with the laws of war.”

Not to suggest that drones are all bad. After the Tsunami in Japan, a drone the size of a 727 was used to gather birds-eye view information on the extent of damage, and drones are being developed that can replace costly surveillance satellites. Many are distraught by the collateral damage and accidental killing that has been committed by drones, but many drone operations replace riskier and more hands-on operations that could have vastly more unintentional destruction. Drones are a safe political option as well: a drone has never accidentally burned a Koran, gone on a shooting rampage in a civilian village, or opened fired on peaceful protestors. Above all, the biggest benefit of unmanned aerial strikes lies right in their title… they are unmanned. President Obama has found a way to accomplish military objectives worth bragging about (drone technology was used in the operation responsible for the killing of Osama Bin Laden, for example) while keeping American soldiers safe, and he is showing that he is exceedingly comfortable with doing so.

It is clear that drones are the future of war… but imagining what this future is like can be scary. According to a study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, cable news coverage of the war in Iraq dropped from 24% of air time in April 2007 to 1% by 2008. With such small interest in our conflicts overseas already, the federal government going to lengths to further silence their activities is disheartening. And the American public is becoming more apathetic for reasons beyond just news coverage. In an entirely volunteer based military, acts of war come with less political consequence, and Congress, the Oval Office, and the CIA are getting overly comfortable with meddling around in other nations. Even within the military, culture is changing. Risky aerial missions that used to be led by testosterone fueled jet-fighter jocks are now being run by the video-game generation, operating drones remotely on little television screens with joysticks. A target being taken out by a drone is commonly known in the military as a “bug splat.” The combination of these emotionally cutoff military tactics and an American population less exposed to the hardships of war is leading to a government free to operate fairly haphazardly in the fight against terrorism.

Upon entering office, President Obama sent out a White House memo declaring, “Government should be transparent. Transparency promotes accountability and provides information for citizens about what their Government is doing.” The President could not be more right, but President Obama’s current drone use is anything but see-through. However, before all the blame can fall on the President’s shoulders, it will take an American people demanding and caring to be informed. As Thomas Jefferson said, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”