Championing Responsible National Security Policy

‘Kill Chain’ Highlights Uncertainty in Use of Military Drones

Andrew Cockburn’s latest book, Kill Chain: The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins, is a well-researched takedown of the U.S. drone program, which includes a look at the civilian deaths caused by drones. The English-born, Irish-raised documentarian and journalist has made a career of dissecting national security issues, writing extensively on topics ranging from nuclear weapons to U.S. and Soviet military power.

In Kill Chain, Cockburn looks at how America’s drone program has evolved over the years. The title is a reference to what goes into the decision-making process, from choosing and approving a target, to executing the command.

When it comes to remote-controlled drones, the kill chain can include hundreds of people who must scrutinize the data received from the drone sensors and cameras. Ultimately, the chain of command can go all the way up to the President. Cockburn opens the book by examining a drone strike that went wrong in an Afghanistan province. The example shows the kill chain was fraught with tangled links due to miscommunication and misrepresentation. Ultimately, Cockburn concludes that targeted killing by unmanned aircraft is inherently flawed.

Currently, the Washington editor for Harper’s Magazine, Cockburn has produced numerous documentaries in partnership with his wife, Leslie, including films for PBS Frontline. He contributes regularly to the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, National Geographic, and the London Review of Books. Cockburn is on the board of directors for the Project On Government Oversight.

POGO: It’s hard to come by the hard facts on military drone use. What roles did whistleblowers play in your research of drone strikes and drone warfare?

Cockburn: Whistleblowers were of course immensely important in figuring out the true story of drones and our obsession with remote-control precision-strike warfare. It was especially important to get the facts about the actual performance of the relevant technology. For example, the fact that, despite what the military and contractors would have us believe, drones don't really see very well—in the IR [infra-red] mode having visual acuity of 20/200, which is the legal definition of blindness for drivers in the US.

POGO: In chronicling the use of weaponized drones, you came across instances of civilian deaths, including incidences in Western areas. How can the risk of killing un-targeted civilians be mitigated in drone warfare strategy?

Cockburn: The easiest way to mitigate the risk of killing un-targeted civilians is to accept that we can never have “perfect knowledge” of a target, especially when we are looking at it from 12,000 feet through a blurry video picture.

POGO: What are the most pivotal points of drone usage under Barack Obama’s administration?

Cockburn: A. The 2009 decision to make drone strikes our principle offensive strategy against militant jihadists. B. The decision in 2010 that it's quite OK to execute American citizens without benefit of trial.

POGO: Your detail on drone-use implies a disparity in the expectations of "smart bombs" and the reality. In your opinion, how is warfare fundamentally different from the appearance of “precision war-making?”

Cockburn: Clearly, any military force should be interested in having weapons be as accurate as possible. But in my book, I draw attention to the fact that the U.S. military, and particularly the Air Force, has long made it an article of faith that absolute precision in weapons-delivery and, by extension, targeting intelligence, is achievable.

Time and again, claims that they have been achieved (World War II, Vietnam, Iraq) have been shown to be false. There can be little doubt that the same will hold true in the future; firstly because there are physical limits on sensor technology and, secondly, because war is necessarily a fluid environment in which the other side always reacts and only the unexpected is predictable. It is also relevant that weapons systems tend to get developed not with the goal of worthwhile improvement over previous models, but to garner contracts and profits for the manufacturer.