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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You Might Have Missed: Drones, Syria, and Technology

by Micah Zenko
October 25, 2013

Drone site People gather at the site of a drone strike in southern Yemen on August 11, 2013 (Stringer/Courtesy Reuters).

Allegation of U.S. Spying on Merkel Puts Obama at Crossroads,” New York Times, October 24, 2013.

“This was colossally bad judgment — doing something because you can, instead of asking if you should,” said one career American official with long experience in Europe. A senior administration official declined to say what Mr. Obama knew or did not know about monitoring of Ms. Merkel’s phone, but said the president “doesn’t think we are in the right place.”


Rep. Smith: Armed Drones ‘No Perfect Instrument,’ but Welcomes DoD Shift,” Military Times, October 24, 2013.

“Whenever we do a targeted strike…we need to, at least, explain why. We can reveal what we want to reveal,” Smith said bluntly. “We can reveal enough to say, ‘This is why we hit this person, and it was self-defense’.”

“The administration—every administration—seems to think it should share nothing,” Smith said. “I think the administration believes…we gave a speech, we explained it…and now leave us alone, we’re going to go back to work,”


Former Defense Secretary Gates Warns Against Lure of Drone Warfare,” Washington Post, October 23, 2013.

“Remarkable advances in precision munitions, sensors, information and satellite technology and more can make us overly enamored with the ability of technology to transform the traditional laws and limits of war,” Gates said in a speech to a group of current and former soldiers, according to a copy of his prepared remarks. “A button is pushed in Nevada and seconds later a pickup truck explodes in Kandahar.”

Too often, Gates said, U.S. defense experts have come to view war as a “kind of video game or action movie. . . . In reality, war is inevitably tragic, inefficient and uncertain.”


Army Lets Air Out of Battlefield Spyship Project,” Los Angeles Times, October 22, 2013.

Near the height of the Afghanistan war, the Pentagon spent $297 million on a seven-story blimp-like aircraft—as long as a football field—that would hover over the war zone for weeks at a time, beaming back crucial intelligence.

Last month, the Pentagon quietly decided to sell back the sophisticated spyship to the British company that built it for $301,000 — a fraction of its investment.


Obama’s Uncertain Path Amid Syria Bloodshed,” New York Times, October 22, 2013.

Jordanian officials were even offering to allow the C.I.A. to use the country as a base for drone strikes in Syria — offers that the Obama administration repeatedly declined.

President Obama had signed a secret order in April—months earlier than previously reported—authorizing a C.I.A. plan to begin arming the Syrian rebels. But the arms had not been shipped, and the collapse of rebel positions in western Syria fueled the atmosphere of crisis that hung over the June meeting.

Yet after hours of debate in which top advisers considered a range of options, including military strikes and increased support to the rebels, the meeting ended the way so many attempts to define a Syrian strategy had ended in the past, with the president’s aides deeply divided over how to respond to a civil war that had already claimed 100,000 lives.


Between a Drone and Al-Qaeda,” Human Rights Watch, October 22, 2013.

The US Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) are estimated by research groups to have carried out 81 targeted killing operations in Yemen: one in 2002 and the rest since 2009. The strikes by drones, warplanes or cruise missiles by various counts have killed at least 473 combatants and civilians.

These attacks, one from 2009 and the rest from 2012-13, killed 82 people, at least 57 of them civilians. At least four of the strikes were carried out by drones, a fifth strike by either drones or warplanes, and a sixth one by cruise missiles releasing cluster munitions, indiscriminate weapons that pose unacceptable dangers to civilians.

(3PA: Amnesty International also published a report on the same day. The HRW and AI reports are invaluable, but the policy window in DC for reforming drone strike policies is closed. The Senate and House intelligence committees should invite HRW and AI to brief them on their drone strike investigations.)


USAF Leader: QDR Process Helps DoD See Vulnerabilities,” Defense News, October 19, 2013.

Maj. Gen. Steven Kwast: The facts are that it costs more money to put up a CAP [24-hour combat air patrol] than it does to have a squadron of F-16s. It costs more people to man a CAP than it does to man a full squadron. The data link is vulnerable. The machine is vulnerable. The command and control is vulnerable. So we have built into it the one thing you don’t want to build into any military approach, and that is vulnerability.

Right now, we’re on a path that you want to be able to see everything, anywhere, all the time. Can we really afford to be able to watch every nook and cranny of the globe 24/7? We can’t even process the information, let alone distill it into decision-quality data.


Technology and Innovation Enablers for Superiority in 2030,” The Defense Science Board, October 2013.

In the future, increasingly technically capable and economically strong adversaries are likely to develop counters to some or all of the foundation technologies on which the U.S. has come to rely. The advantages provided by capabilities such as GPS, internet-based network communications, satellite reconnaissance, and stealth aircraft will be diminished, and in many cases, eliminated. To maintain superiority, it will be necessary for the military to develop new capabilities or tactics, techniques, and procedures to continue to be effective…(pg. viii)

With more capable adversaries, the unfettered access to their homeland that the U.S. has exploited in its recent wars may no longer be achievable. This concern is the motivation for much of the Department’s interest in anti-access and area denial capability. Existing bomber and missile systems that can penetrate adversary defenses from long range are expensive, limited in fleet size, and may need to be reserved to achieve vital strategic effects…(pg. xv)

Bespoke Materials

A substantial expansion of research could produce meaningful playoffs in the design and fabrication of custom materials for a variety of Department of Defense applications. Examples include lasting materials that can generate any wavelength, detector array materials and associated optics for sensing from ultraviolent through infrared, structurally embedded radio antennae, high-strength lightweight materials, ultra-efficient solar cells, biocompatible materials, and cost-effective nanostructures for microelectronics, to name a few.

Thought-based Machine Control

Research is in its infancy on devices and systems for facile human-machine interfaces without physical contact, either exclusively via transmitted thoughts or aided by microelectronic implants. Systems currently exist to control computer curosrs and joysticks via concentrated thought.

Portable Compact Fission to Provide Megawatt Power Levels

Power availability is an essential enabler for a variety of defense missions. Portable fission reactor concepts are being considered or developed today that are designed to operate with low-enrichment fuel to minimize proliferation concerns. The negative thermal coefficient in this design means that neutron moderation decreases with increasing system temperature, leading to an inherently safe design without potential for thermal runaway or meltdown. (appendix B)

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