The trouble with drones

predator-firing-missile4There are a number of problems with a drone war, as some in Washington prefer to wage it. One of these, and one which fits their worldview in which all veterans are damaged goods, is explained by this Spiegel article about a drone pilot who claims to have been traumatized to the point of dysfunction. It’s in three parts so we’ll give you the three links:

  • The woes of an American drone operator

OK, we get it, the guy not only has a sore callus on his button-pushing finger, he’s twaumatized. Roger that.

We have another objection to Air Force style push-button war: it doesn’t work. No matter how good your multispectral multisensor electronic ISR is, you still don’t know what (or whom) you’re unloading on, and that means you have no idea what the immediate effects will be, let alone the second and third order effects.

A look at the history of war technology shows that each new advance has been marked by commentators and theorists as an end to the old way of war, in which boots (formerly sandals) and bayonets (formerly spears) took and held contested ground to impose national will. A few examples of these:

  • The Maxim gun, some theorized, made war so terrible that no one would try. The First World War showed the truth of the “terrible” bit, although a greater killer was artillery, and a greater terror, phosgene and mustard gas; that same war disproved the second half of the theory thoroughly.
  • Inter-war theorist Giulio Douhet was deeply influential on world air forces, with his belief that strategic bombing alone could bring a combatant nation to its knees in total war. (He expressed this in a novel which most people who think they understand him have never read, The War of 19–, as well as in a theoretical book, Command of the Air). His theory was thoroughly believed by not only the Italian but also the American, British and German air arms. It was the essence of the theory taught at the US Air Forces Tactical School between the wars, which formed the conceptual firmament of the WWII and Cold War Air Force. His theory has a number of flaws, as you might expect from a theoretician who had no practical experience of war and limited understanding of the technology, aviation, that he was promoting. In fact, long before bombing makes an enemy give up, it stiffens his will to resist; and despite devastating bombings, German war production kept increasing until the factories began to be overrun by Allied … boots.
  • The nuclear weapon changed everything, to the point where the US cut back its Navy greatly and very nearly disbanded its Army in the 1950s. After all, what problems can’t you solve with a copy of Douhet and a few nukes? Most of them, it turns out.
  • In the 1970s, CIA Director Stansfield Turner downgraded espionage and special operations capabilities because with signals intelligence, imagery and other technological intelligence disciplines that can be operated from DC via satellite, face-to-face dealing with bad people in bad places is obselete. We’ve been blinded in most conflicts since.
  • After Vietnam, it was precision-guided munitions. No more need for muddy boots; we’ll just push these buttons and blow the sensor-derived targets to Kingdom Come. Of course, the Serbs, being rational and intelligent humans, concealed their high-value targets and fed our sensors and the Turnerites who were reading them all the sensor signatures a bombing campaign could ask for. Our PGMs (completely apart from ) blew the living daylights out of 1950s fighter jets and World War tanks that the Serbs dragged out of their museums to decoy us. Let’s not dwell on the own goal caused by bombing French and Chinese embassies… which was caused by Turnerite sensor-happiness.

That was then, drones is now. Expect it to end well?

4 thoughts on “The trouble with drones

  1. McThag

    I’m an avid flight simmer, sign me up.

    These real pilots can’t take it, time for us tubby disabled ex-tank crewmen to take over.

  2. Oberndorfer

    Valid thougts. Remote-controlled warfare is rapidly developing and expanding (DARPA’s M3 program and their Robotics Challenge for example).
    The articles feature two very different characters, the one with problems scoring high for potentially risky personality traits like neuroticism, emotional lability, narcissism, excessive introspection and lack of foreward thinking/future orientation.
    Too difficult to assess and identify you say? Well, then consider McThag’s offer from the previous comment.

  3. GBS

    These things have their place, but the hype as a “wonder weapon” reminds me of those promoting ship-launched cruise missiles in the 1990s. As an aviator trained to fight the Soviet Navy from the cockpit of my trusty war-Hoover, but then assigned to a CV Battlegroup staff, I found it surreal that my first personal involvement in a “shot fired in anger” was done while supervising a TFCC watch section with a cup of coffee in my hand. My “heads up” that a launch order was coming came from the TV monitor tuned to CNN. Indeed, the launch order showed up and was executed, and we had NO idea what we had accomplished. For all I knew, we hit some empty buildings and a couple of sand dunes. I don’t remember any “trauma”, but if it was there, it was cured by breakfast. That, along with several other examples from that decade, showed exactly how NOT to use that type of technology to the best effect.

    In a REAL shooting war against a competent “peer” adversary, these drones will be next to useless. The more links in a weapons system, the more vulnerable it is to counter-measures. The remarkable simplicity of a GPS-guided bomb requires a highly vulnerable set of satellites to become “smart”. These drones require the GPS, a data / comm link, and a lot of other moving parts to simply take off and land. Even in the permissive environments in which they now operate, the loss rate is high. History shows us that when relying on technology in combat, those who fix things the fastest and get the job done with a damaged system ultimately prevail. A trained onboard pilot is the most effective at dealing with degraded systems and making real-time decisions. I have little doubt that those on the ground would rather talk to someone actually flying IN the overhead aircraft rather than sitting in a dark room in CONUS.

    These drone pilots do appear to be rather fragile emotionally. Perhaps someone older, better educated, and less prone to guilt would be a better fit.

    1. McThag

      It might have a lot to do with the distinctly different culture the USAF has from the other branches. The hardships described sound downright palatial compared to those inside a tank under MOPP4 or a submarine.

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