Micah Zenko

Politics, Power, and Preventive Action

Zenko covers the U.S. national security debate and offers insight on developments in international security and conflict prevention.

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What Else We Don’t Know About Drones

by Micah Zenko
February 27, 2012

U.S. secretary of defense Casper Weinberger and Israeli minister of defense Ariel Sharon inspect a pilotless airplane September 2, 1982 (Courtesy Reuters/Stringer). U.S. secretary of defense Casper Weinberger and Israeli minister of defense Ariel Sharon inspect a pilotless airplane September 2, 1982 (Courtesy Reuters/Stringer).


In 1982, on a tour of the Middle East to monitor the deployment of U.S. Marines to Beirut, Lebanon, Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger received a security briefing from his Israeli counterpart, Ariel Sharon. As Weinberger later recounted of his visit with Sharon in his memoirs:

“I was also shown the Israeli camera-carrying drone, a remotely piloted vehicle that had made video tape recordings of me the day before, on my visit to our troops in Beirut. It was a most impressive technical achievement. The drone was in effect a model airplane, but one equipped with sophisticated photographic and recording capabilities. Its small size and low cost were also welcome features, particularly for short range battlefield reconnaissance. Especially appealing was the fact that the drone did not put lives at risk, and was hard to detect, given its small size. Later, I directed the Joint Chiefs to give us that same capability again: The Israeli drone had actually be developed by us, but the Congress had refused to fund its deployment. It was then sold to the Israelis.”

In the thirty years that have passed since Weinberger was awed by drones, the U.S. military and intelligence community have developed drones for an ever-expanding number of surveillance, strike, and transportation missions. For a description of some of these missions, as well as some little-known facts on drone technology, read my new piece in the current issue of Foreign Policy, “10 Things You Didn’t Know About Drones.”

A point that I did not address—to which no one knows the answer—is the scope of potential applications of drones in the future. In a recent op-ed in the New York Times, Peter W. Singer of the Brookings Institution concluded with an important insight (which echoes conversations I’ve had with countless U.S. officials): “Last year, I met with senior Pentagon officials to discuss the many tough issues emerging from our growing use of robots in war. One of them asked, ‘So, who then is thinking about all this stuff?’”

Two weeks ago, I posed this question to a senior Air Force official whose military occupational specialty is unmanned systems, to which he replied, “You’re speaking to him.” Although this official could have been exaggerating, there is a disconcerting lack of critical thinking and strategic planning for the future of drones in support of U.S. foreign policy and military objectives.

I can think of three reasons to explain this apparent disconnect:

First, the average senior civilian appointee in the Pentagon serves less than two years, so critical institutional knowledge comes and goes as some head into the private sector or a new administration enters the White House.

Second, the relatively limited number of drone experts has been extremely busy over the past five years supporting the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Consequently, many may not have received time off for staff or joint appointments, or to go back to school in the professional military education system, which is an essential prerequisite for promotions.

Third, drones are incredibly popular. Representative Brian P. Bilbray declared, “If you could register the Predator for president, both parties would be trying to endorse it.” As a result, some members of Congress and their staffs simply have not performed the necessary oversight into drone acquisition, system-wide architectures, or military and intelligence missions. As the aforementioned senior Air Force official told me, “When you speak with members of Congress about the differences between C-Band, X-Band, and KA-Band [microwave bands on the electromagnetic spectrum] their eyes glaze over.”

Despite the demonstrated popularity of drones today, a number of current and former officials, policy analysts, nongovernmental organizations, and concerned citizens have voiced their unease over the use of drone technology, and the apparent lack of ceiling for how and where it might be used in the future. Some of this concern stems from the relative absence of transparency and accountability, particularly regarding the use of drones for targeted killings. President Obama inched the CIA drones out of the shadows when he acknowledged the strikes in Pakistan during a Google+ “Hang Out.” However, the president’s temporary transparency was soon reversed by his administration, and many remain apprehensive about America’s unmanned future.

Post a Comment 2 Comments

  • Posted by Rahul Menon

    Quite an interesting piece.

  • Posted by Kir Komrik

    Great article on a sleeper topic.
    What concerns me about unmanned vehicles is how their use will impact U.S. foreign policy decisions. As more and more military tasks become automated fewer and fewer American lives will need to be put in harm’s way. When that number becomes sufficiently small USG can apply military force globally with little or no public oversight or interest since no American lives are being lost or endangered.
    I think we are already seeing the beginnings of this in the rampant use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles presently. And I believe these technologies will reduce the quality of foreign policy decisions in proportion to increases in automation.
    – kk

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