Predator 3034 hangs in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, the centerpiece of the Military Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) exhibit, a public testament to a new military capability whose full import has yet to be thoroughly understood by military experts, policy-makers, and the general public. It hangs suspended from the museum ceiling, tilted to show off the two Hellfire missiles strapped to its underside. Nowadays, the newer MQ-9 version of the Predator carries four Hellfires and two laser-guided 500-pound bombs and is one of more than 14 types of UAVs now in the U.S. arsenal. The military fields thousands of small drones, armed drones, high-altitude drones, and secret stealth drones, but the two Predator models are still the workhorses.
The Predator is the icon of the war on terrorism and the symbol of a new approach to war, or at least of the beginning of a new approach to war. Sometimes tactical developments in war have implications far up the ladder to the level of strategy and policy, and the Predator qualifies as one of these cases. Armed drones, coupled with other technical advances in intelligence collection, have created the ability to “find, fix, and finish” individual targets on a battlefield—a task previously akin to finding a needle in a haystack—without putting substantial forces on the ground. This “small footprint” approach has led some to think that war can be waged simply, cleanly, and precisely, with a minimum of risk to U.S. forces. That in turn has encouraged what in retrospect may be viewed as a promiscuous use of armed drones in ways that old-fashioned bombing campaigns would never have been considered. Yet it is important to remember that the armed drone is a tool, an instrument of war, and nothing more. Ultimately, people are responsible for choosing whether, how, and when to use it, how to react to it, and how much significance, if any, it may hold.
This siren song, that technology can enable total dominance and total omniscience, has been heard before. But in an era in which great powers are constrained from waging war without regard to civilian casualties, this precise man-hunting tool raises a host of new and old questions. The old questions include: Do we understand who the adversary is? Is it a collection of individuals, who if eliminated will pose no more threat? Is it a country, an idea, a self-propagating movement?
In an attempt to sidestep these complex questions, the minimalists would strike only those who intend to strike us, relying on intelligence to forewarn us. The maximalists would rebuild failed states and de-radicalize entire populations. Somewhere in the middle a third option may exist, but for now the two extremes seem equally discredited, as minimalism has failed to stem the threat and maximalism has not produced the functioning states we hoped could render safe their own territories. The new questions raised by armed drones include who is to wield the new technology, whether the state of the art is sufficiently accurate and precise, and what unacknowledged costs we incur waging war in this way.
First, the story. In Predator: The Secret Origins of the Drone Revolution, journalist Richard Whittle, a veteran defense correspondent who covered the Pentagon for the Dallas Morning News for more than two decades, displays fine yarn-spinning skill in recounting the long and circuitous path of the Predator’s development, from early prototypes built in the garage of Israeli-American aeronautical engineer Abe Karem, to the secret Air Force project, Big Safari, that ingeniously solved one technical puzzle after another—and that was belittled as a “hobby shop” by the fighter-jock club that dominates the Air Force.
Whittle is the first writer to tell this important story in such meticulous and authoritatively reported detail, with extensive interviews at all echelons, from former Air Force Chief of Staff John Jumper, a rare champion of drones among the top military brass, and Charlie Allen, the CIA’s biggest advocate, to the men and women (though mostly men) who tinkered and toiled to devise the means to pilot a drone, operate its sensors, and pull the trigger from halfway around the world. The scientific and engineering feats, and the humans responsible for them, along with the early cadre of drone pilots and sensor operators who developed the tactics during long stints inside unglamorous containers, justly take up the first half of the book.
After the Predator’s brief trial as a surveillance drone in the Balkans in the 1990s, the push to authorize its lethal use came from policy-makers, particularly White House counterterrorism official Richard Clarke, as the growing intelligence chatter suggested that Al Qaeda was planning a strike against the United States. Charlie Allen and then-CIA director George Tenet were ardent advocates of the new capability, and, after 9/11, President Bush signed a finding authorizing the CIA to kill Osama bin Laden. The drone’s four-cylinder piston engine could just make it to 100 miles per hour; its chief game-changing feature was its ability to stay aloft for days at a time, tracking a target with infrared and video cameras and painting it with a laser target designator for a laser-guided missile to lock onto. On September 18, 2001, the first Predators entered Afghan airspace, controlled by a U.S.-based pilot and sensor-operator team to conduct surveillance and reconnaissance for its own classified mission—to hunt down bin Laden—and to assist aircraft in evading Taliban anti-aircraft missile batteries, as well as to spot targets for other aircraft and special-operations teams on the ground.
On October 7 of the same year, Predator 3034 became the first armed Predator to be fired in war, against a convoy the drone teams had been tracking since it departed the Kandahar compound of Taliban leader Mullah Omar. Using the Predator, the Air Force team assigned to the CIA and based at the agency’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia, supplied constant updates of the convoy’s movements, convinced they were tracking Omar. But they grew increasingly puzzled when the hours dragged on and no order to fire came. President George W. Bush had ordered that no mosques be hit, and the CENTCOM chief, Gen. Tommy Franks, was concerned that the building the convoy had just entered might be a mosque. The identities of the individuals were in fact unknown, but the fact that they had left Omar’s compound and were traveling in a guarded convoy was considered sufficient evidence that these were “high-value targets.”
Whittle describes the scene from the vantage point of the Predator operators, as they watched “fuzzy white figures on the Predator video screen. The infrared image, created by detecting and displaying contrasts in heat, provided no way to discern the features of the men below.” In Whittle’s account, whether the building was in fact a mosque was never established. After several hours, the Predator was running low on fuel; a decision was finally made to hit bodyguards milling around one of the cars in the convoy, which was parked some distance from the building, in an attempt to flush Mullah Omar. The first Hellfire hit, tossing the bodies of the guards into the air. Instead of engaging those who ran out of the buildings, the Predator was turned homeward, dropping its remaining bomb on an installation at a Kandahar airfield where Osama bin Laden had once stayed. Omar escaped and eventually wound up in Quetta, Pakistan, where he is still presumed to be living today.
Thirteen years and many thousands of strikes later, that October 7, 2001 maiden strike is illustrative of the myriad issues that swirl around the use of armed drones. It is remarkable that so few of these knotty questions have been debated and fewer yet resolved to anyone’s satisfaction. While advances in all-source intelligence have led to much greater certainty regarding the identity of the people in the crosshairs of the drones’ sights, the margin for error has not been eliminated and proof of identify usually comes post-mortem. The painstaking efforts to establish positive identification result in manhunts that drag on for months and sometimes years. Nonetheless, errors do occur. The standard procedure, when a mistake is definitively established, is to pay survivors’ families a condolence payment that ranges in the thousands of dollars.
Whittle also highlights the acrimonious debate over the chain of command that erupted with this first armed Predator strike, and that has yet to be resolved. Lt. Gen. Charles Wald, the Air Force component commander for CENTCOM in charge of the Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC) in Saudi Arabia, from which the entire air war in Afghanistan (and later Iraq) was run, blew a fuse when he found out that a Predator terminal had been installed in the Pentagon so that Air Force Chief of Staff John Jumper could watch the UAV feed; Wald insisted that the terminal be removed from the Pentagon and that the CIA terminal, which had been sequestered in a secure building next to CAOC, be relocated to his desk. The ability to watch “Predator TV” led to the nearly irresistible urge for those outside the chain of command to weigh in—as Jumper did, frustrated that no one was taking the shot. Wald was watching the feed when the first Predator missile hit on October 7. He hit the roof: He had not been informed of the order to fire. Whittle does not clear up the competing accounts entirely: CENTCOM chief Franks may have transmitted the order to fire via his intelligence chief, or, more likely, the CIA had taken the shot. The author does cite Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s account in his memoir that he and Tenet subsequently worked out some rules as to whether the CIA or the Pentagon would “pull the trigger,” but he notes, “Left unmentioned by Rumsfeld was that after the escape of Mullah Omar the first night of the war, the CIA often coordinated with CENTCOM but never again deferred to Franks before taking a shot at a high-value target.”
The point of a chain of command is to remove confusion on a battlefield, where the fog of war is prone to induce uncertainty. But beyond the need for someone to be in charge is the far more momentous question of whether the CIA should be involved in conducting sustained paramilitary operations, as opposed to intelligence-gathering missions and the occasional covert action as authorized under U.S. law. There is nothing illegal about the CIA actions Whittle recounts, since a presidential finding was duly produced, vetted, and signed to authorize them, but the significant policy question of where CIA efforts should be focused has yet to be resolved. In his confirmation hearings, the current CIA director, John Brennan, indicated his preference to move the CIA’s focus back to its core statutory mission of collecting and analyzing national strategic intelligence. Others might argue that the CIA can do both intelligence and paramilitary operations—but the inevitable gravitational pull of the counterterrorism paramilitary mission lured Tenet to the ops center and the white container shed where the Predator pilots “flew” their drones.
This gravitational pull exerted itself on Pennsylvania Avenue as well, creating yet another profound policy dilemma. Tracking and targeting individuals, and watching U.S. military personnel performing such missions, became an end in itself. Counterterrorism policy in effect has collapsed into a man-hunting exercise, policy documents and speeches notwithstanding. Whittle cites Bob Woodward’s Bush at War account of the President tucking into his desk drawer a copy of the FBI’s “Most Wanted List,” topped by Al Qaeda leaders, “his own personal scorecard for the war.” And Daniel Klaidman’s Kill and Capture reported President Obama’s personal oversight of the targeting of Al Qaeda leadership and the decision-making process known as Terror Tuesdays.
While “Predator porn” may be new, the phenomenon of micromanagement is not. These stories about Bush and Obama recall Lyndon Johnson hunched over his desk, picking bombing targets in North Vietnam. The drones have simply added to the lure of focusing on tactics by making it possible literally to watch every step of the process live. A strategist knows this is not where the President’s attention should be focused. The lure is not the only reason; it also bespeaks a serious lack of trust in subordinates, and perhaps the military in particular, to carry out orders according to the commander-in-chief’s intent. That sad story is the leitmotif of former Defense Secretary Bob Gates’s memoir Duty, although the former secretary also attributed the micromanagement by White House staffers to hubris, in addition to distrust.
The deepest problem, the real issue that must be confronted, is that no one is paying attention to the big picture. It is all too easy to think that war can be won through tactics, and that the measure of success is killing off a certain quota of terrorist leaders and “facilitators”—another term of the trade that widened the necessary killing circle to a network that, if suppressed faster than it could regenerate, would constitute victory. No less a terrorist-hunter than Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who invented the rapid find-fix-finish-exploit-analyze-disseminate (F3EAD) targeting methodology used in the Afghan War, repudiated this view of victory when he took over as commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan in 2009. Yet such is the U.S. concern over “mission creep” and ambitious, expensive, and unfeasible “nation-building” endeavors that the country prefers to cling to the idea that security can be purchased via lethal but precise bombs that can take out a terrorist while leaving the family next door unscathed. But even if total certainty could be achieved regarding the targets of such strikes, the questions regarding the use of armed drones would still not be resolved.
Our failure to focus on the big picture is not just due to a reliance on a tactic. The focus on tactics is coupled with a similarly narrow approach to defining U.S. national-security objectives. This Administration has focused obsessively on targeting a collection of individuals in order to protect the U.S. homeland and citizens from attack. In an effort to avoid endless war, the U.S. counterterrorism strategy has come down to this: Draw up a deck of cards with an affiliation to Al Qaeda, and hunt them down with drones or special operators. But U.S. interests in the world, including national-security interests, are much wider and much more connected with those of other countries. The exercise of military power will need to take many forms consistent with those interests. The countries where threatening groups are born and raised, recruited, trained, and harbored are left to fend for themselves. The fate of the rest of the world is unconnected to U.S. counterterrorism strategy.
The President began to outline a connective strategy in a speech in May 2013 and again this summer, based on forging, supporting, and using partners, and acknowledging U.S. interests in at least key regions of the world. But it is only now being fleshed out in the crisis bubbling over in Iraq and Syria as the Islamic State gains traction. The President’s September speech announcing the return to war in Iraq cited his minimalist approach in Yemen and Somalia as his models, but those efforts have not yet borne fruit, and are not likely to without greater scope to shore up indigenous forces capable of securing safe havens permanently. Apart from the particular cases, a sound approach to national security strategy is needed, one that identifies a practical and efficacious middle ground between expedience and unrealistic aspiration. Drones will not be the cure-all, that much is certain.
Whittle’s book barely dips a toe into the water of the policy, ethical, and legal debates underlying the advent of the Predator and U.S. counterterrorism strategy, though he does recognize it as a new way of waging war that brings to the fore a host of questions on a human scale: What are the psychological effects on drone operators who watch their human targets for days on end? Or on special-operations personnel who were built for action and now are watching television around the clock, interrupted by the occasional raid?
Other questions lurk around the corner, including the “copycat” phenomenon, as other countries besides Israel—the other prime user of armed drones at present—begin acquiring, building, and using armed drones. While the skies over Afghanistan and Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia have been “permissive,” or easily penetrable by armed drones, the same cannot be said of Iran, China, Russia, or other potential foes with highly developed defenses and armaments. Defenses spur new offensive means, in a continual cycle of technological development. Stealth drones are the latest answer, and they in turn will spur the refinement of defenses. The era of armed drones is not likely to be short-lived; given American engineering prowess and the defense establishment’s new China-oriented obsession with “anti-access and area denial” issues, it is likely that future generations of drones will possess even greater capacity to penetrate proliferating air defenses.
Policy appears to be lagging behind even the current stage of technological development. Who writes the rules of the road? Does the U.S. government rulebook provide a good standard that it can live with when others start using it? The United States does go to extraordinary lengths to attempt to positively identify targets and compensate victims when bombs go astray, but is that enough? What should be done when laxer standards are applied?
And while a bomb is a bomb, drone strikes are a stealthy form of attack that can cause political and diplomatic frictions, as seen in Pakistan and Yemen’s tribal regions; even if those governments support the U.S. actions tacitly, strikes may erode their support among their citizenry. The governments may lose legitimacy for not defending their sovereignty, unless the citizens agree it is a worthwhile fight. The United States’ international standing may suffer if it is seen as wielding the drone weapon too widely or too loosely. The court of public and international perception may be the most important arena of all, and the policy debate should take it into account. U.S. leadership in the world has rested in great part on a moral claim, which is not a thing to be squandered lightly.