We’ve set the stage for even more undeclared, borderless conflicts. America’s lethal drone strikes have been a massive intelligence success, but we may soon recognize their expansion as a major policy failure. While essential in the fight against al Qaeda, drone attacks effectively have normalized lethal cross-border attacks as a tool of national security.
Now unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) deployments are poised to grow rapidly as Washington’s appetite for low-risk meddling in other countries grows, and Russia, China and other major powers feverishly follow in our footsteps.
In America, drones have seduced politicians on both sides of the aisle. President Obama hasn’t just continued the program, he has substantially accelerated its pace and expanded the targeting list. Americans have come to expect news reports of “mysterious explosions” in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.
Meanwhile, al Qaeda is in a period of mutation. Its affiliate outposts - in Yemen, Somalia and the Maghreb - are becoming the main terrorism threat. To counter this, we could see drones flying over vast swathes of Africa, from the Horn to the western edges of the Sahara.
While some of those countries publicly would balk at U.S. drones operating in their airspace, in private, the drones probably would be embraced. The armed UAVs are just too useful a tool for African nations struggling with a terrorism problem and limited funding.
But if the trends toward radicalization continue in regions of the Arab Spring, would we be ready for such strikes in Tripoli? Maiduguri? Perhaps even Cairo? Our military may find itself flying drone sorties to eliminate individual terrorists but end up in support of various warring Libyan, Nigerian or Egyptian factions.
What about Russia and China’s UAV fleets? Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, the former CIA director, reportedly once referred to the drone program in Pakistan as “the only game in town.” There soon will be more players in that game, and we won’t be able to change the rules when they enter.
Russia has been working on its own drones for years, and was embarrassed by it lack of drones in the 2008 conflict with Georgia. The Kremlin knows that a homegrown version of Predator or Reaper UAVs would be a major asset, and it is working tirelessly toward that capability.
China also is making rapid progress in manufacturing drones. Last year, Beijing showcased dozens of UAV models at an air show in Zhuhai, including weaponized versions. The Chinese military has been trying to reverse-engineer a Predator drone for years.
The battlefield impact of these advancements is of less immediate concern for the United States than for dissidents and extremists. While not a threat to U.S. military operations yet, the drones likely will become the stability-operations weapon of choice for authoritarian governments.
To monitor and eliminate threats to their regimes, China and Russia may not even stop at their own borders with the deployment of drones. They conceivably could do so wherever they control the air space and have a national interest. Tyrants with restive populations will be paying close attention.
Domestic security services will no longer have to barge into a denied area and risk a confrontation. They can merely loiter a UAV, fire a missile and deny involvement to the media. The lower risks inherent in unmanned operations will embolden every techno-savvy tyrant able to produce, buy or steal lethal UAVs.
With that in mind, it is probably only a matter of time before there are “mysterious” explosions in Chechnya, Dagestan and Xinjiang. Less scrupulous governments will blur the line between dissent and terrorism with lethal consequences for any ethnic or religious minority group that refuses to toe the line from Moscow or Beijing. Given the recent history of U.S. drone operations, our objections will be easy to ignore.
The White House is unlikely to slow its own drone programs, and it can’t do anything about Russia’s or China‘s. But the American people can have a more honest and open discussion about the moral and strategic - rather than technological - limits of war in this new age.
Our capability to effect violence abroad has outpaced our discussion of its desirability.