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Sunday November 6, 2011

Drones may win battles, but not the war

IN September, Anwar al-Awlaki, the alleged Osama bin Laden of the Internet, was killed by an American drone after he stepped out of his truck in the remote interior of Yemen. Last week, another American drone killed the brother of a top Pakistani Taliban commander and three other aides.

It is hard to diss drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), as they are known. For one thing, UAVs are able to carry out tasks considered too “dull, dirty and dangerous” for humans. Packed with technology, UAVs have a “Jetsons meet the Flintstones” quality about them, particularly in Afghanistan, where the Taliban reportedly ride on horses.

Most importantly, UAVs have shortened the process of finding, identifying and destroying potential targets. In military jargon, this “kill chain” has been reduced to a matter of seconds – near-instantaneous death by robot.

Writing in Wired For War, Peter Singer, a fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institution, argues that battle robots and UAVs such as the Predator and the Global Hawk presage a new wave in the history of warfare.

The PackBot, a robot designed to carry weapons and fight like an infantryman, is the bigger and meaner brother of the iRobot, the robotic vacuum cleaner found in many Singaporean homes.

Singer writes: “PackBots... Predators and Global Hawks and all their digital friends are the first signs that something big is going on. Man’s monopoly of warfare is being broken. We are entering the era of robots at war.”

He is right, but he could be overstating it. The concept of drones is not entirely new. During the American Civil War, for example, Union and Confederate forces used explosive-laden balloons.

UAVs are part of the so-called revolution in military affairs (RMA). Such revolutions started around the 14th century, when the use of the longbows by the English ended the reign of the then-impregnable French knights in chainmail armour.

But as with all RMAs, there is a risk of overstating the putative benefits. For one thing, UAVs cause collateral damage. The New America Foundation has estimated that of the roughly 1,400 people killed because of drone strikes since 2004, one-third were civilians.

The fact that war by drone has become so clinical also lowers the threshold for violence. UAVs are essentially the real-world version of Call Of Duty, a popular first-person shooter computer game.

More importantly, sophisticated hardware such as UAVs does not lift the fog of war and friction – the former referring to the inherent uncertainties in battle, the latter to Murphy’s Law.

During the “shock and awe” invasion of Iraq by US-led forces in 2003, for example, the forward thrust was delayed due to a shortage of the ubiquitous BA-5590 batteries used in radios and anti-tank missiles.

Singer says: “War will still involve all the unexpected confusion, mistakes and dilemmas that go hand-in-hand with both technology and war. The fog of war isn’t going anywhere.”

The reference to “the fog of war” is interesting, as it taps on a long-running debate about war.

Supporters of Antoine-Henri Jomini, a French general who served under Napoleon, argue that war is deterministic. To them, war is a science, and can be won if one follows certain principles with regard to manoeuvres and massing armies.

Proponents of military strategist Carl von Clausewitz, however, argue that war is an art, which is buffeted by unscientific phenomena such as fog and friction.

The argument is simple, but enduring: War is composed of two opposing wills, with military force used as the means to subdue an enemy’s will. If an enemy’s will is not subdued, one has not won, no matter what advanced technology has been employed.

Professor Colin Gray, a respected British strategist, argues that the US military is essentially Jominian in nature. Not surprisingly, US strategy has floundered in the Clausewitzian swamps of Afghanistan and the war on terror.

All this boils down to a simple definition of what ‘strategy’ is. Generals like to think that the overt use of military power, such as advanced UAVs, represents strategy. This is a fallacy, given that strategy involves the application of military means to achieve political ends.

In Afghanistan, UAVs have made massive inroads, but there are political problems that technology cannot solve. For example, the recent killing of Kabul government peace envoy Burhanuddin Rabbani has crimped efforts to talk to the Taliban.

UAVs have been moderately successful in killing Al-Qaeda’s leadership. But they have done little to attenuate Arab suspicions – and anger – over America’s intentions in the Middle East.

During Hizbollah’s 2006 war with Israel, a news editor told Singer that the use of UAVs was another sign that “cold-hearted, cruel Israelis and Americans” were too cowardly to fight their enemies on the ground.

“Americans want quick technological fixes in warfare. UAVs are nice, but relying on their tactical use as a strategy is a mistake,” says Bill Roggio, editor of the Long War Journal, a blog that tracks the US war on terror.

In short, the US might excel at winning battles, but this doesn’t necessarily mean it would win the war.

In 1975, American colonel Harry Summers met a North Vietnamese colonel and bragged that the North Vietnamese Army had never defeated US forces in battle. The North Vietnamese colonel pondered for a moment and said: “That may be so

. . . but it is also irrelevant.”

UAVs are doing well from their lofty perch, despite political problems on the ground. On their own, however, such technological fixes will not change the facts on the ground. - Asia News Network


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