Drones are cheaper – I mean, save lives

TW: drone strikes

Apparently I wasn’t the only one that noticed President Obama’s understated reference to drone strikes during his State of the Union address on Tuesday, as Professor Lisa Hajjar provided an excellent analysis of the issue over at Al Jazeera. There’s a number of different issues that she covers, but I think one of the cores of Hajjar’s argument is that while the security improvement for US soldiers is obvious, the ostensible reduction in civilian casualties is little more than hypothetical. She explains-

What distinguishes drones from other killing technologies employed in war is that drones are unmanned. For proponents of drone warfare, that is their greatest advantage. They also tout that drones are highly accurate, precision weapons capable of taking out targets and nothing else. That contention, while popular in the halls of power in Washington, manifests as the disputable claim that civilian casualties are rare.” (link and emphasis in original)

She’s written this as a direct retort to how the initial concern driving the switch to drone strikes is presented as reducing the risks to US personnel. She quotes Obama from Tuesday, who said, in the talking-about-drones-without-saying-drones section of the address:

We don’t need to send tens of thousands of our sons and daughters abroad, or occupy other nations. Instead, we will need to help countries like Yemen, Libya, and Somalia provide for their own security, and help allies who take the fight to terrorists, as we have in Mali. And, where necessary, through a range of capabilities, we will continue to take direct action against those terrorists who pose the gravest threat to Americans.

Part of the problem with that argument is the way it prioritizes the safety of US service members to the eclipsing of the safety of civilian non-combatants in the assorted countries whose skies the United States evidently now patrols. Hajjar excellently breaks apart that whole argument, and I recommend that anyone interested in the use and impact of drone strikes should read her analysis. That being said, that argument that this is for the troops, is honestly quite the distraction.

It’s been part of the conversation, but less obviously that drones are, from a certain economic perspective, much cheaper than the use of ground troops and other alternatives. The reasons for that are complex, from the fact that nation-wide occupation requires far more people to be involved (and hence, paid) to the almost nonexistent risk of US service members who pilot drones to become injured on the job compared with actual soldiers on the ground (and thus, the injured compensated in addition to the training and fielding of a replacement).

In fact, the Democrats have long touted the use of drones, since the Clinton era actually, because of that politically useful combination of benefiting service members while cutting costs. As far back as in his 2003 book, now Senator Al Franken defended Clinton’s military spending and policies, explaining, that his administration had “invested so heavily” in these new technologies which collectively could be “called Network Centric Warfare” and which Clinton “brought to fruition”. He treated that as (in addition to the end of the Cold War) the explanation for why the Clinton era had seen militaries with fewer high-cost military investments. Franken explained, that for a typical drone strike “take a look at how many tanks were involved: 0. Ships: 0.”

Franken went on to compare on the same page the purportedly “$100,000 each” missiles typically used during the first Gulf War with the missiles used by the Clinton administration as part of their new military strategy which were typically a fifth of that cost. The overall message was thrift, and any additional security for US troops as a result of using drones was pretty much incidental.


(A US drone that crashed in Djibouti before reaching the US base there, in 2011. Fortunately, no one was harmed by its crash into a vacant lot. From here.)

To his credit, Franken does mention the use of drones and related technologies as having benefited the troops, but in the context of having given them “a foundation in ‘stability support ops'”. He specifies that that means avoiding the worst impacts from paramilitary forces and similar combatants in asymmetrical warfare, but he doesn’t exactly explain the causality. Presumably, training in how to dispose of non-state combatants while in the Balkans proved useful to our troops who needed to dispose of non-state combatants in Afghanistan and later Iraq (and subsequently throughout the world). A decade ago, this technology was already impacting warfare, but no one felt the need to present it in terms of preventing casualties among our troops – instead it was merely efficient and cost effective.

The ramifications of drones in terms of our troops security seems to have been invisible until it started to be pointed out that it had a clear impact on the safety of civilian non-combatants throughout the world. Why could we only perceive of that ethical benefit only after the technology’s major ethical failings were made apparent?

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One thought on “Drones are cheaper – I mean, save lives

  1. […] in the conflict is only shrinking further, for that matter, as new military policies and practices replace ground troops with (increasingly automated) drones. There are of course the people who under those conditions are […]

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