23 June 2009

Human Effects of Combat Technology: The Drone Debates

Technology can be both a blessing a curse. The use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) - commonly referred to as "drones" - in conflict zones is a case in point. The use of these hunt-and-kill gadgets in combat has some serious implications that armed forces worldwide have only begun to consider. Peter Singer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, has advanced the debate on many of these issues in his new book: "Wired for War," and other military strategists and policy-makers are weighing in on their use.

Back in the day, wars were largely (though not entirely) waged through a successive series of battles in which lines of identifiable soldiers stood facing each other at agreed upon distances, in fields far removed from the density of the civilian population. There were more than 200,000 combat deaths in the Civil War. That was then.

Now, there is much talk of asymmetric conflict. Forces that are less sophisticated, less well-armed, and fewer in number fighting in unconventional ways against their more-powerful adversaries. In recent conflicts, this has posed a pernicious challenge to the US military, which has sought to diminish the enemy’s asymmetric advantage by leveraging new technology. UAVs, the pre-programmed or remotely controlled aircraft such as the Predator and MQ-9 Reaper used for surveillance and or attack, are a centerpiece of that effort - an effort, as Thomas Barnett says, to re-symmetricize the battlefield.

In conflict zones like Iraq, Afghanistan and Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan, US forces are not outnumbered and generally are not outgunned. But they are playing on the adversary’s home turf. Enemy forces know and are accustomed to the terrain. We are not. They simply have to hide and ambush. We have to seek and reconnoiter over wide areas. These conditions impede our missions and expose our troops to great risk.

Military experts say UAVs are ideally suited to critical missions in these areas for several reasons: (1) UAVs are unencumbered by the challenging, and often ambush-laden, terrain that vexes our troops and patrols; (2) UAVs have a superior capacity and speed to locate and view their targets; (3) UAVs- because they are unmanned- do not put US troops and human assets in harm’s way, thereby saving lives; and (4) UAVs can strike with precision - unlike large scale bombs - assuring they reach their intended targets and minimizing the likelihood of hitting unintended targets.

If UAVs are saving lives and removing otherwise inaccessible bad guys from the battlespace, their value should not be dismissed lightly. This point about precision, however, is a matter of some debate, particularly as UAV use increases. Civilian casualties certainly have resulted from US drone attacks, but some sources say the "collateral" deaths outpace the targeted deaths, and that the costs are outweighing the benefits.

David Kilcullen and Andrew Exum - whose experience, values and intellect I greatly respect - have called for a moratorium on UAV attacks in Pakistan. They understand the tactical advantage, but they worry that drone attacks are creating a "siege mentality" among Pakistani civilians. They argue that, among the population, UAV attacks cast the US as a faceless enemy that kills civilians, making them even more distasteful than the unpopular militant extremists themselves. They believe this sentiment is beginning to take hold among the broader Pakistani population, not just in specific affected areas. Kilcullen and Exum suggest that "The persistence of these attacks on Pakistani territory offends people’s deepest sensibilities, alienates them from their government, and contributes to Pakistan’s instability."

At a strategic level, they also worry that the increasing use of UAVs for kinetic missions "displays every characteristic of a tactic — or, more accurately, a piece of technology — substituting for a strategy." This general criticism is certainly one the US has faced before.

I do not pretend to have any simple answers for this dilemma, but it does seem to me that this debate raises two important sets of issues to consider - neither of which are very amenable to a simple "yes we should" vs. "no we should not" debate. The first is the strategic question of how best to use technology to accomplish mission objectives (as opposed to letting technology drive those objectives), and the second is how to consider unintended or "collateral" effects of their use, particularly on populations. Let me focus for a minute on this second set of issues

In the current era of "effects-based operations," shouldn't the moral (in the Clausewitizian sense) costs and benefits of drone attacks be explicitly anticipated, measured, and weighed as part of operational planning? USJFCOM defines an “effect” as "the physical and/or behavioral state of a system that results from an action, a set of actions, or another effect. A desired effect represents a condition for achieving an associated strategic or operational objective, while undesired effect could inhibit progress toward the same objective" (I-3).

A number of very thoughtful people have described the problems caused by the effects of UAV attacks. Kilcullen has said that:

"Unilateral strikes against targets inside Pakistan, whatever other purpose they might serve, have an unarguably and entirely negative effect on Pakistani stability. ... They increase the number and radicalism of Pakistanis who support extremism, and thus undermine the key strategic program of building a willing and capable partner in Pakistan."

Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann, in an article in this month's issue of "The New Republic" make a similar assertion:

"There is little doubt that the drone program is deeply unpopular among Pakistanis, who see it as an infringement on their sovereignty and who are, in any case, generally anti-American. Today, the United States is viewed favorably by fewer than one in five Pakistanis, and a poll released last year found that 52 percent of respondents blamed the United States for the violence in their country, while only 8 percent blamed Al Qaeda."
So we have at least two strong assertions underlying the proposed moratorium on drone attacks: (1) that they exert an "unarguably and entirely negative effect on Pakistani stability” and (2) there is "little doubt that the drone program is deeply unpopular." Both assertions may be absolutely correct. Or not. But it is difficult to discern from the data presented. And it's difficult to know what effects might ensue - positive and negative- from an immediate and complete moratorium on drone attacks.

Even if we assume, however, that the general conclusions are accurate, we may still have gaping holes in our understanding of the problem. The notion of our offending the population's sensibilities is not unreasonable, but it may or may not really be the mechanism of any increase in anti-American attitudes or even of their reaction to the use of UAVs generally. As one example, it may be that the negative effects, which arguably lead to instability, arise primarily from how the attacks are portrayed (the "narrative"), rather than whether and how often they occur and to whom they are directed.

I suspect one could argue that our use of special operations forces with sophisticated weapons and training against untrained militias could also offend a host population's sensibilities. One could easily characterize that as not being a "fair fight." But whether this tactic does or does not evoke that reaction and whether the reaction is different (and if so, to what degree and why) from the reaction to UAV attacks are arguably empirical, "effects-based" questions, and we might do well to understand them before deploying new approaches of any scale.

I suppose I am suggesting - if this is not already being done - that this debate not be cast as a battle of the anecdote but as a strategic calculus based on data derived from systematic observation. Why must it be "systematic"? Because even if we can reliably observe an "effect" it is very easy to misunderstand and misattribute the cause or causes. Because two events co-occur does not mean that one caused the other. And even identifying a specific "cause" is not the same as understanding the problem. The fog of war may be inevitable, but that should not mean that we do not seek clarity.

Once you identify a cause or problem, you should understand how it works if you are going to try to change its effects. Otherwise, your intended solutions might just wind up creating another set of problems. This, in my opinion, is one of the values that the scientific method can bring to an effects based operational ethos.

There are several reasonable hypotheses as to why UAV attacks might evoke a different reaction than attacks from manned weapons or direct fire, but there are also counter-examples for each. Perhaps UAV attacks promote more profound or more diffuse fear in the population because they are perceived as unpredictable, uncontrollable, and/or unfair. Each of these perceptions would be consistent with the empirical and theoretical literatures on emotional and cognitive dimensions of fear. The negative events (stimuli) that we humans (and other animals too for that matter) tend to perceive as most stressful are those that we can neither predict, nor control. Stated differently, unpredictability and uncontrollability are force multipliers for fear. Snipers arguably have a very similar psychological effect, though their lethality tends to be more precise and more limited in scope. Though not a military example, many will recall how the "Beltway Sniper" attacks in 2002 affected residents and visitors to the surrounding area.

We know this and we use it to our advantage against our adversaries, but when it effects the population, then a different set of tradeoffs may come into play.

Unfairness is another key perceptual factor. The threat of being harmed or killed by an actor whom one cannot "kill back” is an asymmetrical advantage, and can be cast as being unfair. To engage in combat under this set of rules is sometimes cast by the disadvantaged party as "cowardly" or "dishonorable." It is a perception/explanation/frame-of-reference designed to help the disadvantaged party re-symmetricize the moral dimension of battle, and perhaps even to "de-humanize" the enemy. It is perhaps less demoralizing to lose to a cowardly opponent who is unwilling to fight fair, because one can carry away the assumption of moral superiority and presumptive victory had the terms been "fair."

This mechanism might be viewed as a kind strategic asymmetry that weaker adversaries often exploit very effectively, particularly in prolonged campaigns. If the larger power uses significant force, it is portrayed as bullying (and unfair). If it uses technology to be less indiscriminate, it is cowardly (and unfair). This line of information warfare can be a win-win for a disadvantaged party. If the larger
adversary wins, their moral force is diminished. If the larger adversary adapts, then they are forced to fight more on the enemy's terms.

The debate about the use of UAVs in war must invoke more than a tactical counting of hits and misses. It must also weigh the moral and informational domains in strategic planning.

Not as an aside, but as a final point in this analysis, I would note that in our long range planning, we should seek not only to understand the effects of technology on our adversaries and host populations, but also on our own forces. Unmanned kinetic technologies have great momentum among military forces worldwide and are unlikely to be significantly deterred, even if a short-term moratorium is imposed.

Research and development programs,policies and deployments are all moving technologies forward. The US Air Force is currently working to improve the precision of remote air attacks to reduce collateral casualties. There is already discussion of attempts to build an unmanned bomber to begin replacing the airpower staples of the B-1, B-2 and B-52. SOUTHCOM's Joint Interagency Task Force-South is currently evaluating the use of UAVs to counter illicit trafficking operations.

The use of these vehicles will continue, and though "unmanned" they do have human operators. We are changing not only how wars are fought, but also who fights them. As Peter Singer notes:

"Our new unmanned systems don't just affect the how of war fighting, but they are starting to affect the who of war fighting at its most basic fundamental level. That is, every previous revolution in war was about a system that should shoot quicker, farther, or with a bigger boom. That is certainly happening with robotics, but it's also reshaping the identity and experience of war itself. Another way of putting it is that humankind is starting to lose its 5,000-year-old monopoly on war."

How will the high-tech transformation affect the iconic imagery of America's fighter pilots and boots-on-the-ground warriors? What kinds of challenges will face the current and future generations of America's warriors, who virtually look the enemy in the eye, kill them without risk of return fire, then drive home to their families in their suburban neighborhoods? As Singer says, "We are gaining amazing capabilities, but we are also experiencing all of these new very human dilemmas and questions with them."