With very little discussion, the United States and as many as 50 other nations have inaugurated what amounts to a “drone revolution” that will profoundly change our very understanding of the security environment. There can be no doubt that unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, represent the future of counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency in remote and insecure lands such as Pakistan’s tribal region, Yemen, Somalia, Libya and beyond.  Where U.S. boots cannot be placed on the ground to hunt terrorists, drones will increasingly strike at those whom America deems to be its enemies. John Brennan, the president’s top counterterrorism adviser, recently announced that, “The United States does not view our authority to use military force against al-Qaeda as being restricted solely to ‘hot’ battlefields like Afghanistan” (New York Times, September 16, 2011). This means that the Obama administration believes it can utilize drones wherever al-Qaeda or allied terrorists may be, from North Africa to the southern Philippines. All signs indicate that the U.S. military and the CIA are planning a future where drones will play an increasingly important role in warfare and anti-terrorist operations.
This of course means more strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the primary focus of current drone operations. As the United States draws down its troops in Afghanistan in 2013-2014 and prepares to hand the fight against the Taliban over to the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police, its presence on the ground in this strategic country will be much diminished. It is increasingly clear that the Pentagon will transfer its anti-Taliban combat efforts to small, elite Special Forces groups, manned support aircraft and drones. These elements, which will most likely be based in so-called “Joint Facilities” in Jalalabad (eastern Afghanistan) Kandahar (southern Afghanistan) and Bagram (north of Kabul), will be used to assist the Afghan Army’s defensive efforts or to carry out offensives against Taliban-held sanctuaries. They will also be engaged in “hunt and kill” missions designed to take out local Taliban commanders and disrupt their networks.
With the coming withdrawal of most U.S. troops in Afghanistan, the need for counter-terrorism “personality strikes” (i.e. strikes on high value targets) will be greater than ever. This will certainly mean a continuation of ‘signature strike’ attacks (i.e. strikes based on “pattern of life” activities, such as transporting weapons to a known Taliban safe house or crossing the Afghan border with weapons) on Taliban foot soldiers as well.
The drones will also play a key role in keeping up the pressure on al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen and al-Shabaab militants in Somalia. New Yemeni president Abd Rabbuh Mansur al-Hadi appears to have condoned the recent strikes against the terrorists who have taken advantage of the recent turmoil following the 2011 downfall of the Saleh government to carve out sanctuaries in Abyan Province. In Somalia, U.S. Special Forces and drones are increasingly being used to raid al-Shabaab militants and to monitor pirates who have seized Western captives.
In Libya there were more drone strikes in 2011 during the overthrow of Gaddafi than in Pakistan. The Global Post described this as the new model for similar campaigns in the future saying Qaddafi’s death is “the latest victory for a new American approach to war: few if any troops on the ground and the heavy use of air power, including drones” (Global Post, May 23, 2011). By contrast, the conventional model of military intervention involving the insertion of ground forces is extremely costly and invites domestic and external criticism in a way that drones do not.
Drones and American Foreign Policy
Drone-centric alternatives to conventional warfare dovetail with the Pentagon and CIA’s long term plans for counter terrorism and counter insurgency operations in the Islamic world and beyond. Former CIA official Bruce Riedel has said the Obama administration “has made a very conscious decision that it wants to get out of large conventional warfare solutions and wants to emphasize counterterrorism and a lighter footprint on the ground” (USA Today, October 1, 2011). President Obama has announced the U.S. military of the future will focus on “intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, counterterrorism, countering weapons of mass destruction, and the ability to operate in environments where adversaries try to deny us access”  All of these missions translate to more drones.
While the recent economic crunch has led to huge cuts in the U.S. military’s size and budget, the Pentagon has called for a 30% increase in the U.S. drone fleet at a time of steep military cutbacks. This represents a shift from big bloody wars, like the invasion of Iraq which cost almost a trillion dollars and 4,500 American lives, to the model of the aerial campaign in Libya, which cost just over 1 billion dollars with no American loss of life. Other nations are following suit; British military officials have said that almost one third of the Royal Air Force will be drones in 20 years (Guardian, July 5, 2011).
In addition to bases in Turkey, Sicily, Afghanistan and possibly once more in Pakistan, drones will be found in forward staging areas some advisers are calling “lily pad bases,” like the ones currently found in Camp Lemonier (Djibouti) or Arba Minch (Ethiopia). Such bases may also be built in Jordan and Turkey to help monitor Iraq and in the Seychelles Islands of the Indian Ocean to hunt Somali pirates (AP, December 13, 2011). President Obama has also authorized the building of a new drone base in the Arabian Peninsula to carry out strikes on al-Qaeda operatives in Yemen (YemenOnline, September 22, 2011; Yemen Observer, September 22). President Obama’s defense budget also calls for funding for the construction of a new “Afloat Forward Staging Base” (AFSB), a launching pad for drones and Special Forces that can be sailed to potential hot spots (AFP, January 26).
The Drone Revolution
Whether one supports the drone strikes or is opposed to them there is no doubt that drones are here to stay. A few facts about drones will make this fact abundantly clear;
While the first drone attack on al-Qaeda in Yemen in 2002 was greeted with tremendous coverage by the international media, drone strikes today have become so mundane that they are now relegated to small articles on back pages of newspapers, if they are picked up at all. Both Democrats and Republicans seem to have accepted this radical development with little real debate as have the vast majority of Americans. In fact 83% of Americans are reported to approve of President Obama’s stepped up drone policy (Washington Post, February 7). For Americans, drone attacks in distant locations seem to be an accepted part of the new scheme of things in the post-9/11 world.
As for the CIA, which was so reluctant to get into the drone assassination business prior to 9/11, current CIA head David Petraeus has said “We can’t get enough drones” (Business Week, February 5, 2010). Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said “We are buying as many Reapers as we possibly can” (Politico.com, February 4, 2010). The Air Force’s 147th Reconnaissance’s Wing Commander, Colonel Ken Wisian said of drones “The demand for this kind of capacity is insatiable” (Houston Chronicle, June 28, 2010).
While America’s CIA is currently the only intelligence agency that flies killer drones beyond its borders, it is perhaps only a matter of time before Russia, China, India, Israel and other countries deploy killer drones abroad in search of their foes. Israel is already deploying its drones in the Gaza Strip, where Palestinian sources say they have killed over 800 people, mostly civilians (Press TV [Tehran], December 4, 2011). David Cortright of Notre Dame University has asked: “What kind of a future are we creating for our children? We face the prospect of a world in which every nation will have drone warfare capability, in which terror can rain down from the sky at any moment without warning” (CNN, October 19, 2011).
As rare voices like Cortright’s ponder the future of remote controlled aerial killers and their impact on war and counter-terrorism, drones are increasingly coming to shape the way the United States and other countries hunt and kill those they deem to be enemies. Peter Singer, author of Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century best sums up the future by writing "the [drone] technology is here. And it isn't going away. It will increasingly play a role in our lives…The real question is: How do we deal with it?" (Los Angeles Times, November 27, 2011).
Dr. Brian Glyn Williams is Associate Professor of Islamic History at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth. His interactive web page can be found at: www.brianglynwilliams.com.
1. For an introductory survey of the CIA’s drone campaign in Pakistan see: Brian Glyn Williams, “The CIA’s Covert Drone War in Pakistan, 2004-2010. The History of an Assassination Campaign,” Studies in Terrorism and Conflict. 33, 2010.
2. White House, Office of the Press Secretary; “Remarks by the President on the Defense Strategic Review,” January 5, 2012.
4. See video at http://dvice.com/archives/2012/03/hydrogen-fuel-p.php.
5. Innovation News Daily, September 6, 2011; see also: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-dgvBb5ke-E.