Will the New Drone Export Policy Hurt the Countries that Buy Them?
One almost wonders if the push to export unmanned aerial vehicles could be a secret plot to preserve the Pentagon’s combat edge
By: Mark Thompson | May 7, 2018
There’s a theory that, behind all the curtains and cacophony, that President Trump is a genius. “When Donald Trump described himself as a `very stable genius’, even some of his supporters sniggered,” Gideon Rachman wrote in the Financial Times shortly after the president made the claim in January. “But Mr. Trump has a legitimate claim to three other kinds of `genius’: political genius, instinctive genius and evil genius.”
Let’s examine the evidence: The economy is humming, the Islamic State is on the run in Iraq and Syria, and North Korea is on the verge—again!—of pledging to end its nuclear-weapons program. You might want to add to that list his administration’s recent decision to loosen rules on the export of U.S. military drones. “Evil genius,” indeed.
Narrow-minded “experts” (here’s looking at me!) have expressed concern that peddling such weapons around the globe isn’t such a good idea. But, tongue perhaps in cheek, the argument can be made that Trump, in pushing to seed the world with war-fighting drones, may be sowing fields of military frustration around the planet. That’s because, despite of all their gee-whizzedness, drones actually cost a lot, crash a lot, and kill innocent civilians a lot. Spread enough of them around the globe and you’d help ensure U.S. military superiority into the wild blue yonder.
Military drones crash much more frequently than military airplanes. Last month, Defense News reported that the U.S. Army, far better trained than most others around the world, has suffered hundreds of drone crashes in recent years.
“Since the outbreak of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, military drones have malfunctioned in myriad ways, plummeting from the sky because of mechanical breakdowns, human error, bad weather and other reasons,” the Washington Post said in 2014. More than 400 of the Pentagon’s 10,000 drones have crashed, the paper added. “Several military drones,” it noted, “have simply disappeared while at cruising altitudes, never to be seen again.”
Talk about the ultimate in stealth aircraft, requiring repeated purchases. Fiendish!
Add to that the fact that drones, despite the public perception, are not a cheap way to field an air force. The Air Force, for example, is spending more than $13 billion on MQ-9 Reaper hunter-killer drones.
Winslow Wheeler, a veteran of defense-budget wars on Capitol Hill and the Government Accountability Office (and the former head of our own Center for Defense Information), crunched budget data several years ago to try to compare the cost of Reapers with piloted warplanes. His takeaway: the drone costs at least twice as much to buy, and fly, as warplanes like the F-16 fighter or A-10 attack plane. “Much of those higher costs are driven by the infrastructure needed to operate Reaper, which has an extensive infrastructure on the ground: the Ground Control Stations, satellite link, and the local control unit for take offs and landings,” he concluded. “Most of this support is not analogous to manned aircraft.”
Trump, in pushing to seed the world with war-fighting drones, may be sowing fields of military frustration worldwide. That’s because, despite of all their gee-whizzedness, drones actually cost a lot, crash a lot, and kill innocent civilians a lot.
For every “pilot” actually flying a drone, there’s a sensor operator eyeballing what it is seeing in real time, and firing its weapons. There are dozens of maintainers on the ground, keeping the drones flying at remote bases, and keeping their ground stations humming far below, and sometimes far away. Most critically, there are scores of intelligence analysts required to wring from the drones’ deluge of video the scraps of actionable intelligence that is the aircrafts’ reason for being.
Drones’ tendency to crash also drives up their cost, both for a drone fleet and for the military supporting it. “The rapid rise in unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) employment has been accompanied by increased attention to their high mishap rates which are several orders of magnitude greater than manned aviation,” an Air Force study notes. “Such high rates have negative implications for UAV affordability and mission availability.”
Imagine that: foreign nations may have to cut their troops’ rations and bullets to keep their American-made drones airborne. Diabolical!
Finally, there are the moral and legal issues associated with using drones against terrorists and the resulting civilian deaths that inevitably occur. The U.S. military is building drones bases around the world and harnessing artificial intelligence to improve the chances that its drones will kill the right people. But those strategies require huge investments that few nations can afford. That means that U.S. drones sold to foreign militaries are likely to kill even more civilians than U.S.-operated drones.
An independent outside monitor, the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism, estimates that U.S. drones strikes have killed as many as 1,569 civilians, including 337 kids. That’s roughly 10 to 15 percent of the total deaths. But the emphasis needs to be on the “roughly”. No one, including the government pulling the trigger, can offer up anything but a crude guess of innocents who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“The resentment created by American use of unmanned strikes…is much greater than the average American appreciates,” Stan McChrystal, who ran the war in Afghanistan, said in 2013 once he was out of his U.S. Army general’s uniform. “They are hated on a visceral level, even by people who’ve never seen one or seen the effects of one.”
And drones have other complications that have been on display recently: the White House simply ignored a May 1 deadline, set by President Obama in a 2016 executive order, that requires an annual accounting of U.S.-caused drone killings. The same day, a federal judge questioned the authority of the U.S. to kill Americans abroad, usually via drones.
Such vexing issues could tie up at least some punctilious foreign forces eager to try out their new weapons. Nefarious!
Drones have a place in warfare, especially when trying to hunt down and kill terrorists. Unlike piloted aircraft, they can loiter far longer than manned aircraft over a suspected lair, looking for “patterns of life” that pinpoint bad guys and lead to their demise with a missile trigger pulled from thousands of miles away.
They represent perhaps the Pentagon’s key post-9/11 innovation. "It just clicked: that if we could put a small weapon on this thing, we could do the entire cycle—find a target, kill it and assess it—from the same vehicle," John Jumper, who as an Air Force general is regarded as the godfather of the armed drone, told me shortly after 9/11.
But we also have to remember that breakthrough military technologies rarely perform as advertised and have unintended consequences. Some, like manned aircraft, missiles and submarines have been “good” for war-fighting (whatever that means). Others, like aircraft carriers, may be fading into history as their utility is threatened by increasingly sophisticated missiles and subs.
Take the atom, for instance, which had been ignored as a weapon until World War II broke out. Splitting it was designed to assure U.S. military pre-eminence, but that lasted only until the Soviet Union came up with its own A-bomb four years later. Then there was the boneheaded U.S. Army Davy Crockett battlefield nuclear weapon and harebrained U.S. Air Force schemes to develop nuclear-powered warplanes. The most deadly threats to U.S. security today are atomic arms, whether owned by Russia or China, Iran or North Korea. Nuclear weapons, in some ways, have become more trouble than they’re worth.
Trump is unlikely to get the Nobel Peace Prize for ending the threat of atomic war on the Korean peninsula, as South Korean president Moon Jae-in of South Korea suggested April 30. But just maybe he’ll pocket it for his devilishly-clever “drones for peace” campaign.