Obama’s Middle East ‘Oh! Mama!’ Moment

Drones Over Damascus

What Their Absence From the Syria Debate Means About Their Usefulness
Free Syrian Army fighters watch smoke rising from buildings at the front line in Aleppo, December 26, 2012.

Free Syrian Army fighters watch smoke rising from buildings at the front line in Aleppo, December 26, 2012. (Ahmed Jadallah / Courtesy Reuters)

For the past four years, Americans have been preoccupied with drone technology as a cheap, low-risk, and discriminate way to eliminate emerging global threats without getting entangled in protracted conflicts. The U.S. government has even dramatically changed its military force structure to make armed drones a lynchpin of U.S. power projection. Yet these weapons have been virtually useless in the last two conflicts that the United States has faced, first in Libya and now in Syria. Why is that?Broadly speaking, the United States has used armed drone strikes overseas in two ways: during war and to prevent war. Battlefield use of weaponized drones is not new (it dates back to World War I), and is fairly ubiquitous. A spring 2013 report by the U.S. Air Force estimated that unmanned aircraft fired about a quarter of all missiles used in coalition air strikes in Afghanistan in the early part of this year. Drones have proved remarkably effective at providing reconnaissance to U.S. troops on the ground, protecting them from enemy attacks, and reducing civilian casualties. When used within a war, in other words, drones are a great way to give U.S. soldiers an edge.

Armed drones have a preventive role to play, as well. They can keep terrorist threats at bay, and thus reduce the chance that Washington will need to send troops to battle insurgents in faraway places. Since 2009, U.S. counterterrorism efforts have involved hundreds of remote-controlled strikes by unmanned aerial vehicles. These were meant to prevent attacks on the United States and its allies by al Qaeda, the Taliban, and other groups. In these cases, the argument goes, discriminate targeting to prevent such attacks beats invading countries after them.

Prevention has thus become a watchword of U.S. policy, but its logic has rarely been applied to belligerent states. The international community had plenty of warning that the Syrian government might use chemical weapons, and now Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has apparently employed sarin gas to kill thousands of civilians. Photographs of rows of children left dead and videos of civilians running in fear have shocked the world. The last time the gas was used — in Japan by Aum Shinrikyo, a terrorist group, to kill 13 people on the Tokyo subway — pales in comparison with the recent slaughter in Syria. Could the United States have deployed its drone fleet to destroy Syrian arsenals or to kill those planning to make use of them before this happened?

The answer is no. Armed drones have serious limitations, and the situation in Syria lays them bare. They are only useful where the United States has unfettered access to airspace, a well-defined target, and a clear objective. In Syria, the United States lacks all three.

First, the airspace. So far, armed drones have been used either over countries that do not control their own airspace (Somalia, Mali, Afghanistan) or where the government has given the United States some degree of permission (Yemen, Pakistan). Those circumstances are rare. When the foe can actually defend itself, the use of armed drones is extraordinarily difficult and could constitute an act of war — one that could easily draw the United States into the heart of a conflict.

Drones are slow and noisy; they fly at a low altitude; and they require time to hover over a potential target before being used. They are basically sitting ducks. Syria has an air force and air defenses that could easily pick American drones out of the sky. The only real way for the United States to use them would be to first destroy Syrian planes and anti-aircraft batteries. But that would be no different from a full-scale intervention and would negate the tactical advantage of remote strikes. In other words, the conditions under which armed drones are effective as preventive weapons are limited. And the more drones are used for prevention and during war, the more state belligerents will take note of that fact, and will make sure that those conditions are never met on their own territory.Second, the target. Using armed drones against the Syrian government’s enormous chemical weapons stockpiles would have risked causing the very release of deadly agents that the United States was trying to avoid. Drones are precise but not perfect. Like cruise missiles, their effectiveness mainly depends upon the quality of their targeting information. Worse, an imperfect attack could inadvertently give the Assad government political cover to use the weapons with impunity. Assad could blame the release of chemical weapons on a misfired U.S. drone strike. Since U.S. drones are deeply despised in the Middle East, that argument could enjoy wide hearing.

Perhaps the United States might instead have tried to target chemical weapons delivery systems or tried to kill the people who were loading or moving them. But intelligence has been insufficient for such delicate operations. And even if U.S. officials got it right, a remote drone attack would have risked giving the rebels access to remaining stockpiles of chemical weapons or delivery systems. As the United States knows, some of those group are connected to al Qaeda. In such a mess of a situation, and especially in the presence of Syria’s large arsenal, there is no alternative to putting humans on the ground to secure dangerous, volatile weapons. Drones –- or cruise missiles, for that matter — cannot do it.

Third, the objective. The United States wants to punish the Assad regime for using chemical weapons against the Syrian people and to prevent them from being used again. Drone attacks are ill suited for this purpose. They are unlikely either to inflict sufficient pain or to deter other tyrants from following Assad’s lead. A broader objective is to reinforce the global norm against the use of chemical weapons, and such a lofty goal can only be accomplished with a robust international response.

In a politically complex environment — one in which the United States is not at war and the targets are unclear — armed drones are really not all that useful. They might seem like a cool new tool to many observers and policymakers, but the horrible predicament in Syria reveals the sharp limitations of the technology — and the serious problem of relying upon it so heavily in the U.S. force structure. Rather than looking for a quick technological fix, U.S. policymakers should invest more in good analysis and robust human assets on the ground, so as to sort friend from foe. The United States can take the pilot out of the aircraft, but it cannot remove human judgment, risk, and willpower from war — especially if it plans to keep intervening in murky conflicts in the Middle East.

  • 19 comments

Leave a message…
  • TAYLOR SAPPINGTON

    Very interesting article and something to ponder over when putting the conflict and our abilities in perspective. There’s actually a coming book series that addresses the underlying reasons for staying out, individual details not included. https://ioamerica.squarespace….

    • OG_Locc TAYLOR SAPPINGTON

      If you want to put our abilities in perspective – the very first thing you should do is purge this article from your memory and pretend you never read it. It’s that bad.

      • MATTHEW GIDDINGS OG_Locc

        I’m not at all sure why you think that. The author makes a series of very valuable points, namely that those in the United States who are calling for the use of drones in Syria as an antidote to the use of manned aircraft or troops fail to realize that given the Syrian military’s extensive and up to date air defenses and the lack of reliable on the ground targeting data, these devices would be next to useless.

        Furthermore, she correctly points out that when drones have been useful, it is when we have had access to reliable targeting data as well as unfettered control over the airspace to use drones either in a non-war zone (Pakistan, Yemen) to kill specific targets or we have used them in war zones to directly support American troops (Afghanistan). Syria promises to be neither, thus radically limiting the effectiveness of these weapons.

        • OG_Locc MATTHEW GIDDINGS

          And what of her claim that they were “virtually useless” in Libya, and doesn’t list Libya as a country where drones have operated? (They have, they had two full orbits of Reapers).

          Then she goes on to claim “Drones are slow and noisy; they fly at a low altitude; and they require time to hover over a potential target before being used.”

          Again – this is just completely uninformed gobbledegook.

          If the intention of the article was to argue that drones aren’t the right choice for a punitive strike against Assad, then some of her nonsense could be excused. But it’s not. Read the headline.

          • Michael OG_Locc

            WRT Libya, the issue was in the first phase of the campaign when Gaddafi still had a functioning air force and controlled the airspace. RPAs didn’t play a significant role in that phase, though they have since the US gained control of the airspace. This is critical as Syria right now would be more like the first phase as Syria has a relatively formidable IADS network (though if we wanted to go all in we could take it down pretty quickly) limiting the utility of RPAs.

            The low altitude part is false (except for tactical ISR RPAs), but they are noisy, easy to spot, and represent sitting ducks for a country that is actually willing to defend its airspace (in theory they could notch an intercepting fighter but that would be tricky, while they still would be highly vulnerable to SAMs).

            Overall, RPAs as they exist today are of limited utility, but really only the first point is unique to RPAs; the other two points speak to strategic bombing in general.

  • Shujaat Abbas

    Let hope for peace we are sick of this killing machines in our country (Pakistan). Is there no moral ground to stop investment of such level in these killing machines. Why don’t we are investing our resources for development of world irrespective of man made boundaries. . . This whole world is our mother don’t invest its resources on bombs and warheads.

    • Sean Shujaat Abbas

      The drone is designed to save lives — by killing the bomber/terrorist, you save the lives of the bomber’s/terrorist’s intended victims.

      • Shujaat Abbas Sean

        Save life of solders fighting and in our case it has brought only causality to innocent peoples , my question is why not we are using our resources to world betterment

      • GEORGE HOFFMAN Sean

        Sean, they have caused a lot of collateral damage during their attacks. And it’s rather ironic that President Obama has probably killed more innocent people in his drone attacks than Assad had killed with his chemical weapons.

        • dontdoitagain GEORGE HOFFMAN

          George, I want to add that it’s disingenuous to express all this shock and alarm about some ALLEGED gas attack in Syria when WE use gas against our own people. Tear gas, pepper spray, mace and flash bangs are used extensively here in the US. Innocent people along with criminals are being harmed and sometimes killed by being gassed by our “police” depts. Where is the outrage?

    • dontdoitagain Shujaat Abbas

      I don’t want them either Shujaat. While I disagree about a “borderless” world, I object to the constant threat and surveillance of these drones. We here in America allegedly live in a “free” country, but we are subjected to drones as well. It’s only a matter of time before the maniac in the white house turns these drones on his own people and starts killing them. Who will help US?

  • Edmund Algeo

    and now Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has apparently employed sarin gas to kill thousands of civilians –party line

  • mladenm

    I’m not sure Syrian government would like foreign drones over own territory, hunting AlQaida. And if you try them against military with functioning air force or anti-aircraft defence, they are nice moving targets.

  • Aditya Mookerjee

    The issue of chemical weapons must be resolved, not within Syria, but around the world. The French armed forces were going to use chemical weapons on the border, also against French ‘collaboration’ elements working with German forces, due to misplaced patriotism during the First World War. Marshal Petain won the French, the first great war, and he wanted a semblance of decency for the French nation, and Hitler agreed that he head ‘Vichy France’, which could claim a modicum of freedom, as a state. Even Hitler wanted France to feel free, and he didn’t tell Marshal Petain, I presume, how to run the nation.

    What if the Iraqi’s had claimed, that the U. S. asked them to use chemical weapons in Iraq? I mean, would Saddam Hussein, a Sunni Muslim, use chemical weapons against a Shiite population, of Kurd, when the Kurd aren’t a majority in Iran? What if he needed to placate the Shiite people of Iran, against rebellion, and the Kurd were an identity, who could be conveniently killed in large numbers? Also, would the Kurd identity have wanted to be Iranian, even if they were Shiite, if there were major differences with non-Kurd but definitely Shiite Iranians, without the Sunni Saddam Hussein, backed by the U. S. being a uniting President?
    I think the world must do itself a favor, and even if admittedly, Mr. Hollande is a great person, the post of President must not function in a way, where it is perceived in an independent circumstance, that the President takes responsibility for what his expert and experienced advisers want to act for, and against. The U. S., must also reflect, as must every nation. If a nation is seen to be great, for an era, because a ‘wise and great leader’, was responsible for democracy, then it is a fallacy to democracy.

  • OG_Locc

    Um, I’m sorry, but this article is really bad. Get this shit proofed by somebody who knows what they’re talking about.

  • ReneChang

    The above article discusses technical issues in a very realistic way. However it misses the point in that who gave the US the right to intervene in a sovereign state’s internal affairs?.

  • ReneChang

    The “Surrender Monkeys” should look after its own economic crises instead of interfering in other sovereign states affairs. That is the legacy of the West which has always argued from the standpoint of “Might is Right”.

  • dontdoitagain

    Oh, but we have the damn things in OUR OWN SKIES!

    Copyright © 2002-2013 by the Council on Foreign Relations, Inc.
    All rights reserved.

    …and I am Sid Harth

Print Friendly