Drones and the human cost of war

The debate about drones continues on the pages of Cato Unbound. You can check out the site and become part of the conversation here.

In my most recent posting I counter Daniel Goure’s assertion that drones do not increase the temptation to intervene militarily. I and many others have argued to the contrary, that drones are troubling precisely because they lower the domestic costs of using military force.

We know that concerns about casualties play a role in decisions about military intervention. This is as it should be in a democratic society where leaders are supposed to be accountable to public concerns. Some military operations have been called off because of military casualties, for example after the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut and the ‘Black Hawk down’ disaster a decade later in Somalia. Because of the political sensitivity of military casualties government officials sometimes try to hide the human costs of war.  Drones change these dynamics. The ability to launch military strikes without the risk of American casualties removes one of the principal political burdens associated with the decision to use force.

Consider the military interventions in Pakistan and Somalia. Without the use of drone strikes, the only option for precise military strikes in Pakistan or Somalia would be ground operations. These would be much bloodier than drone strikes and far more dangerous. They would carry a high risk of failure.  If drones did not exist, and invasions were the only option, would the United States really launch major ground operations in Pakistan or Somalia? Highly unlikely. Without drones there would be no campaigns of military strikes against Pakistan and Somalia. And that’s the point. These weapons allow the use of military force in settings where otherwise it would not be an option.

License to Kill

Do drone weapons make war more likely?  Evidence suggests that countries may indeed be more inclined to use military force when they have highly accurate weapons that can be used without risking the lives of their service members. Drone warfare has become a centerpiece of U.S. counterterrorism policy. Secretary of Defense Panetta has called drone warfare “the only game in town” for suppressing Al Qaida.

The use of these weapons perpetuates the illusion that terrorism can be defeated by military means. It detracts attention from the political solutions and law enforcement measures that have proven to be more effective for that purpose.

I address these and other critical issues surrounding drone warfare in the current issue of Cato Unbound. Read more here