When President Obama took office in 2009, he inherited a few things from his predecessor, President Bush. He inherited wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Guantanamo, use of enhanced interrogations (waterboarding), and a drone program. President Obama immediately signed an Executive Order revoking torture, and then the next day ordered CIA drone strikes in Pakistan, which killed an one militant and 10 civilians, including four to five children. Although President Obama was openly anti-hawkish when it comes to military action abroad, including stating over and over that he was one of the few Senators who did not want to invade Iraq, he has ramped up the drone program significantly. While promising to close Guantanamo, withdraw troops from Iraq, stabilize Afghanistan, he has none of the above. However, he does have a legacy to leave. Whether willingly or unwillingly, he has become the Drone President.
While President Bush ordered approximately 50 drone strikes that killed around 300, President Obama has ordered over 500 drone strikes that have killed approximately 3,000, including a handful of Americans.
What is a Drone?
A drone is an unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV. If you’ve ever had a remote control helicopter or plane, you’ve (technically) owned a drone. However, when someone uses the words “drone” or “UAV” now, they usually refer to technologically advanced planes used to collect information or conduct strikes. Collecting information can mean a variety of things. Real estate agents use drones to capture aerial shots and videos of properties they sell. Event managers use drones to take overhead shots of large crowds. Marketing professionals use drones to produce literature and videos to promote products for their clients. However, drones used by governments are often much larger, more powerful, and can be weaponized.
There are two key drone types used by Intelligence Agencies and the U.S. Military, The Predator and the Reaper.
Drones and DAESH
With all eyes on defeating DAESH in Northern Iraq, the Pentagon has quietly expanded its global network of drone bases to Tunisia, deploying unmanned aircraft and approximately 70 U.S. military personnel in order to conduct missions in neighboring Libya. Air Force Reaper drones began flying out of the Tunisian base over the summer and have played a key role in the U.S. offensive against a strengthening DAESH component in Libya.
U.S. officials have stated that the drones being flown out of Tunisia are unarmed and are principally being used to collect intelligence on DAESH targets in Libya, where the United States has conducted more than 300 airstrikes since August. Although the drones themselves are only being used for surveillance, they do provide actionable intelligence for the U.S. Air Force, who then conducts strikes from a Naval Air station out of Italy.
Some are concerned that another American presence in a fledgling democracy in North Africa could spell more trouble in the long run. DAESH has already struck in Tunisia over the past two years, including a high profile slaughter of foreign tourists at a beach resort in 2015. The U.S. military has other drone bases on the African continent, from Niger to Djibouti.
The Future of Warfare?
Drone strikes make warfare clean and painless, at least for the officers piloting the drones from thousands of miles away. For the communities, it makes it cowardly and destructive. Former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency and seemingly new Trump National Security Adviser General Michael Flynn says concerning drone strikes that, “You are going to cause more damage than you are going to cause good.” and “I think as an overarching strategy, it is a failed strategy,” Still, drone strikes are preferred over boots on the ground by the American public and by the majority of Republicans and Democrats. However, there’s an unintended consequence. A drone strike leaves no one to capture, no one to question, and very little physical intelligence to analyze. This leaves further intelligence wholes in areas where terrorists are active and where we have very little intelligence resources. As far as conducting strikes on Americans, most would argue that those Americans killed were indeed legitimate targets. The problem lies wherein that they were killed without due process, a right afforded to all Americans, regardless of action.
At this point, the question on everyone’s mind is, what will President Trump do?