A Continuation of Fantasies by Other Means: The War Drones On


The breathless narrative about drones (or unmanned aerial systems, or remotely piloted aircraft,  the label dependent on whether you're reading a newspaper, a policy brief, or a 9-line) is actually two wrongly-conflated stories that get stuck together.

The first story, of drones that live under a relative sunshine of oversight ('cept for JSOC's herd) is about more staid matters than extrajudicial executions or Title 10 vs. Title 50 operations. It's about a slow-burning doctrinal kerfluffle over whether RPAs are the Next New Thing that upends budgets and provides new avenues to field grade, or a fad that will crater like a Reaper hitting non-GWOT denied airspace. The fighter jocks at the top of the Air Force lost the battle over letting non-flying officers take the helm, the result being the new 18X designation; instead of plucking fighter, attack and transport pilots from their billets and putting them into trailers at Creech, there's now a dedicated pipeline for officers who've never set foot in an airplane to train up as Predator, Reaper and Global Hawk operators. How did the ban on non-rates expire without the disastrous consequences expected of putting real aircraft with real weapons in the hands of neophytes? Let's see what the trainers have to say:

"'…the reason why we can teach someone how to do this that doesn't have any prior aircraft experience, is because [the RPA trainees] will never come in contact with the Earth with the aircraft. For RPAs, we have a mission control element and a launch and recovery element. The only portion we control here and train to do here is the mission control element.'
Not having to focus on the launch and recovery aspect significantly cuts the amount of training time, which could account for 75 percent of training at traditional UPT, [Lt. Col. Nathan Hansen, 29th Attack Squadron commander] added."

Those missileers, logisticians, and other non-flyer officers can get competent enough to fly these things in a short amount of time because takeoffs and landings, the most delicate and dangerous portions of any flight, are taken completely out of their hands. I assume a combination of autopilot and a supervising pilot handle the beginning and end, and the 18X handles the orbit, surveillance, and weapons release. It's not completely separated from a cockpit experience; there's still weather and other aircraft to worry about. But the drone can follow a GPS track and keep itself level. I imagine the experience to be 12 hours of babysitting interrupted every few weeks by a weapons release which definitely requires supervision by a senior officer.

It's a startling admission. Every interview at Creech and Holloway begins and ends with "this is real, balls-out flying. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise." The RPA operators on pilot forms are slightly less sanguine, and the attitude can be summed up as: "No, it's not a video game. Yes, we blow things up occasionally. Yes, the persistent ISR and overwatch we provide saves lives and is immensely valuable. It's also not at all comparable to flying and I can't wait to get out of this trailer."

There's an insatiable demand for drone feeds even beyond our current South Asian embroilments, so the pipeline seems like a good idea for putting bodies in front of consoles. But what will happen in the next war? As the drones and the threats they face get more advanced, the 18X's relative or complete lack of the situational awareness that defines good pilots will be a liability at best. As the airspace gets more crowded and as drones enter skies actually covered by air defenses, the training and experience gaps will be exposed in a hurry.

The juicier second story, the officially denied buzz-buzz-bang-bang in Pakistan and beyond, is the one that inflames NGOs and soothes CIA directors: the clandestine drone intelligence and assassination program. In one sense, it's a new and unbounded way (or a return to the old ways, depending how much one recalls of the older and deadlier CIA days) for the intelligence community to reach out and touch the goons they've come to know so well through signal intercepts: an unblinking stare on those who would do us or our allies harm, miles up, watching, waiting, until someone, maybe the president, likelier the person two levels above the targeter, decides that the grainy HiLux, funeral, or family compound would look better as a crater. It's cheap, it's lethal, and it's driven FATA militants into a tizzy of paranoia and mutual recrimination

But stripped of the gee-whiz, it's an idea as old as aircraft: victory through airstrikes. The earliest proponents of military aircraft wooed their superiors with tales of bloodless victories, the Tommies safe at home while untouchable aircraft pummeled their enemies' infrastructure and formations into surrender. Even after several wars and lines of white crosses as evidence, the myth of victory from the air is a stubborn one to dispel. It's just never worked that way. Just as LeMay's vigorous firebombing couldn't burn out Japanese will, the CIA doesn't have enough time or small warheads to immolate everyone with dark thoughts about harming the west.

The EZ-airstrike course of action has proven to be a hard genie to put back in the bottle, as it's really the only button we can press to affect denied areas like Yemen and the FATA. Publics, home and host, won't tolerate a big military footprint, yet our leaders still call for Salafi blood; the drones are a way for us to feel like we're doing something, anything to plug the terrorism dike. Old ideas, whose utility outshines their truth, prove to be durable. Victory won't come from the air, but when all you have is an AGM-114, everything starts to look like a Zawahiri.