Drone economics: A business case for killing machines….


The nature of War Theater and the number and kind of force multipliers have undergone complete transformation after WWII. The Great War was followed by Cold War which provided counter balance to the hegemony of one super power ushering the world into a bipolar world order. However, after collapse and disintegration of USSR in 1991, the world was pushed back to the horrible era of uni-polarity. The power-drunk hegemon had to deal with adversaries, who were weaker in might and poorer in cash but were very innovative in techniques of fighting. The wars thus got themselves graduated to the fourth generation warfare (4GW) for which most of the national armies were not trained. After research and development, several sophisticated killing machines were developed to deal with adversaries.

The fifth generation warrior of the fourth generation warfare developed by the owners of advanced war technologies is predator drone. The latest version is General Atomics MQ-1 Predator which is an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) used primarily by the United States Air Force (USAF) and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Initially conceived in the early 1990s for reconnaissance and forward observation roles, the Predator carries cameras and other sensors but has been modified and upgraded to carry and fire two AGM-114 Hellfire missiles or other munitions. The aircraft, in use since 1995, has seen combat over Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bosnia, Serbia, Iraq, Yemen and Libya. For technical, operational and historical details, click here.

Since June, 2004, the CIA has been operating the drones to attack militants in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas. Since May 2005 the MQ-1 Predator fitted with Hellfire missiles has been successfully used to kill a number of prominent al Qaeda operatives. The use of the Predator has also resulted in a number of civilian deaths which was attributed to faulty intelligence. The drones have also been used in Balkan states, Yemen, Iraq and Libya. Due to associated civilian casualties, the people of Pakistan have been protesting against its use terming it as violation of their sovereignty. But the number of casualties of terrorist high-command suggests that drones are the most effective and efficient way to target terrorists at the least human cost.

According to international law, it is illegal to use drones to kill non-combatant civilians. Even under the American law, it is illegal to drone a US-born terrorist. American taxpayers, whose hard-earned dollars are used in war efforts, and particularly in drone killings, are generally very sensitive to senseless killings and destruction. Since 9/11, they are being fed on the phobia of America’s security. The US public is internationally naïve due to geographical location of the US and is generally unaware of the political and military developments around the globe. They believe what is being fed to them by the American establishment through an obliging media.

The indiscriminate killing by the drones is now presented as a business case; the drones enterprise is cost-effective; it ensures killing of terrorists without losing a single American life. Those killed alongside the terrorists are a normal business loss, a collateral damage, which can be written off the books.

While it is true that drones have killed a number of terrorists, there are those who were non-combatant civilians who were killed in drone attacks which makes use of drones totally counter-productive. The legal and human implications of drone killings were not enough to sell the drone policy. Will the business-case of drone enterprise now being presented with economic implications be sellable, is yet to be seen.

Let us look at the considerations being made out for use of drones.

According to a paper titled: Strategic Context of Lethal Drones,  the first consideration is where drone strikes are used: based on public reporting, drones have only been used to lethally strike targets in six countries: Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. Three of these countries were declared combat zones: Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya. In Iraq and Afghanistan, drones played a support role to normal combat operations: providing surveillance and, when ground forces could not be used, striking targets. In Libya, drones also played a support role, though the intensity of their use far outpaced that of any other declared combat zone due to the nature of the conflict between the rebels and Gaddafi forces. Drones in declared combat zones function under explicit and well-established rules of engagement and chain of command. They are used overtly, meaning their use is a matter of public record and discussed openly.

In contrast, drones used in non-declared combat zones do not function under explicit, public rules of engagement or chain of command. They are used covertly – meaning the government rarely acknowledges their use. In declared combat zones, drones provide several advantages over traditional manned aircraft. By virtue of their unmanned operation, drones can be sent into hostile areas with no risk to the lives of pilots; they loiter for hours, unconstrained by shift schedules or human endurance; and they conduct more surveillance and collect more intelligence than humans are able to analyze. Recent reports suggest that the airspace over Somalia is so overcrowded with drones that they have begun to pose a risk to civilian air traffic. In Pakistan, lethal drone strikes are the primary tool used against suspected terrorists.  In Yemen, the US operates drones in conjunction with special operations forces and the Yemeni Air Force to target suspected members of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

According to this paper, the policymakers use drones to conduct lethal strikes because drones are an efficient way of targeting and killing suspected terrorists. Drones offer advanced surveillance capabilities because of their Wide Fieldof-View (WFOV) sensors, long flight times, and flexibility to rapidly move to new areas. Adding weapons to a drone platform makes them even more valuable to US officials, as it provides an immediate means to take action based on surveillance. Drones have also been used to kill a number of suspected terrorists.

According to the New America Foundation, drones have killed between 2,000 and 2,800 people in Pakistan since 2004, though an unknown number are non-combatants.  U.S. officials assert that integrating drones into counterterrorism operations has successfully disrupted non-state actors, specifically al-Qaeda. However, there is no publicly available study of the strategic effects of the drone campaigns. For example, the use of drones in Pakistan has created substantial political and social blowback in the form of anti-Americanism. However, empirical data suggest that drone strikes are correlated with decreasing militant violence, though there are no data to support the argument that drone strikes cause decreases in violence. More civilians died from terrorist violence in Pakistan in 2011 than in 2010. During this same period of time, unofficial data compiled by the New America Foundation shows the number of drone strikes decreased from a total of 118 in 2010, to 70 in 2011.

The data indicates that drone strikes are correlated with a reduction in militant violence; however, it cannot be determined that drones contribute to any long-term reduction in violence. Rather, they appear to only temporarily interrupt militant operations: very soon after the number of drone strikes decreased, militant violence in Pakistan increased again. There are no comprehensive measures of efficacy for drone strikes. The few available empirical studies do not contain enough data for broad conclusions, and the results of drone strikes are different in different countries. This presents a challenge to developing a much-needed broader counterterrorism strategy that employs the use of drones in achieving permanent security gains.    It also implies that drone strikes are not sufficient to permanently disrupt some terrorist groups operating in certain environments.

It is not clear whether the sole purpose of drones is killing the terrorists or arm-twisting the Taliban to bring them to negotiating table. What is clear, however, is that drones do not present a soft image of the Americans and do not secure America’s strategic interests. These killing machines do degrade local insurgencies and terror groups, for the time being. If the intended effects of drones are to kill the terrorists, then it is a poor business case because the political, human and economic costs are enormous as compared to the effects. If this is a strategy, then rest assured, the enemy is more innovative and proactive and can come out with more challenging strategy in future. If the sole purpose is mass killing, drones are very effective. Go on and kill but that does not guarantee a berth for ever in the international elite club.

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