“There is what I think is just an unconstrained focus on a tool as opposed to the subject of the issue, the tool of remotely piloted aircraft that in fact provide for greater degrees of surety before you employ force than anything else we use,” said retired Lt. Gen. David Deptula, the Air Force’s first deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. “I think people don’t realize that for the medium altitude aircraft—the MQ-1 [Predator] and MQ-9 [Reaper] that are generally written about in the press—there are over 200 people involved in just one orbit of those aircraft.… The majority of those people are analysts who are interpreting the information that’s coming off the sensors on the aircraft.”
The analysts are part of the global architecture that makes precision strikes, and targeted killing, possible. At the front end, obviously, intelligence—military, CIA, and local—inform target decisions. But in as near-real time as technologically possible, intel analysts in Nevada, Texas, Virginia, and other locations watch the data flood in from the aircraft and make calls on what’s happening on target. They monitor the footage, listen to audio, and analyze signals, giving decision-makers time to adjust an operation if the risks (often counted in potential civilian deaths) outweigh the reward (judged by the value of the threat eliminated).
“Is that a shovel or a rifle? Is that a Taliban member or is this a farmer? The way that warfare has advanced is that we are much more exquisite in our ability to discern,” Maj. Gen. Robert Otto, commander of the Air Force Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance Agency, told National Journal at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada. “We’re not overhead for 15 minutes with a fighter that’s about to run out of gas, and we have to make a decision. We can orbit long enough to be pretty sure about our target.”
Other countries, groups, and even individuals can and do fly drones. But no state or group has nearly the sophisticated network of intelligence and data analysis that gives the United States its strategic advantage. Although it would be foolish to dismiss the notion that potential U.S. adversaries aspire to attain that type of war-from-afar, pinpoint-strike capability, they have neither the income nor the perceived need to do so.
That’s true, at least today. It’s also irrelevant. Others who employ drones are likely to carry a different agenda, one more concerned with employing a relatively inexpensive and ruthlessly efficient tool to dispatch an enemy close at hand.
“It would be very difficult for them to create the global-strike architecture we have, to have a control cell in Nevada flying a plane over Afghanistan. The reality is that most nations don’t want or need that,” said Peter Singer, director of the Brookings Institution’s Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence and one of the foremost experts in advanced military technology. “Turkey’s not looking to conduct strikes into the Philippines.... But Turkey is looking to be able to carry out long-duration surveillance and potentially strike inside and right on its border.”
And that’s a NATO ally seeking the capability to conduct missions that would run afoul of U.S. interests in Iraq and the broader Middle East. Already, Beijing says it considered a strike in Myanmar to kill a drug lord wanted in the deaths of Chinese sailors. What happens if China arms one of its remote-piloted planes and strikes Philippine or Indian trawlers in the South China Sea? Or if India uses the aircraft to strike Lashkar-e-Taiba militants near Kashmir?
“We don’t like other states using lethal force outside their borders. It’s destabilizing. It can lead to a sort of wider escalation of violence between two states,” said Micah Zenko, a security policy and drone expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. “So the proliferation of drones is not just about the protection of the United States. It’s primarily about the likelihood that other states will increasingly use lethal force outside of their borders.”
LOWERING THE BAR
Governments have covertly killed for ages, whether they maintained an official hit list or not. Before the Obama administration’s “disposition matrix,” Israel was among the best-known examples of a state that engaged, and continues to engage, in strikes to eliminate people identified by its intelligence as plotting attacks against it. But Israel certainly is not alone. Turkey has killed Kurds in Northern Iraq. Some American security experts point to Russia as well, although Moscow disputes this.
In the 1960s, the U.S. government was involved to differing levels in plots to assassinate leaders in Congo and the Dominican Republic, and, famously, Fidel Castro in Cuba. The Church Committee’s investigation and subsequent 1975 report on those and other suspected plots led to the standing U.S. ban on assassination. So, from 1976 until the start of President George W. Bush’s “war on terror,” the United States did not conduct targeted killings, because it was considered anathema to American foreign policy. (In fact, until as late as 2001, Washington’s stated policy was to oppose Israel’s targeted killings.)