Last month, Military.com reported on the development of the Gray Eagle, a new drone with a 56-foot wingspan and the ability to stay airborne for a full 24 hours. Fort Carson currently has 12 of these drones and they will soon be ready to be implemented in the ongoing war on terror.
The US Army considers drones to be a viable option for striking deep with drone operators staying close to the battlefield like a bunch of kids with remote control airplanes. But they need to carefully consider how they implement them and how they’re used.
Are drones a solid choice for counter-terrorism operations? The short answer is, yes. As Brookings.edu has wisely pointed out, they enable the military to target the enemy at little financial cost and at no risk to US forces.
While this is technically true, there are other factors to consider here. If we go on the word of Brookings’ Daniel L. Byman, drone strikes result in fewer civilian casualties than many alternative methods would cause, but that is a hard fact to confirm.
In 2016, the government claimed it had killed between 64 and 116 “non-combatants” in 473 counter-terrorism strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Libya between January 2009 and the end of 2015. Credible, independent attempts to determine how many civilians the Obama administration had killed arrived at numbers in the hundreds or even thousands.
Documents obtained by The Intercept have revealed that special operations in northeastern Afghanistan killed more than 200 people, only 35 of whom were the intended targets. During a five-month period of the operation, the documents claim that almost 90 percent of the people killed in airstrikes were not the intended targets.
None of this is to say that drones are not an effective weapon for combating terrorism. On the contrary, they have worked remarkably well when the military has employed them for taking out key leaders and denying terrorists sanctuaries in places like Pakistan and Somalia.
When it comes to entering enemy strongholds where intel suggests there many be a cache of radiological or biological weapons, it makes sense to target the enemy via airstrikes instead of boots on the ground, as it were.
Despite this, there is plenty of reason to believe that boots on the ground is integral to properly assessing threats. After all, a drone and its operator could never read a person’s body language up close and personal the way ground troops can.
Ground troops see things that an eye in the sky can never capture—they can see humanity, they can see someone subtly surrendering or informing them that there are children in a building with a target. These are things that drones will never do. At least, the odds are against it.
There is also the issue of drone failure or disruption; as we’ve seen with hobbyist drones here in the States, drones can collide with aircrafts as one did with an Army helicopter in New York City. These are all things that the military should be considering before deploying drones for special operations.
Special Weapons and Tactics Teams are typically armed with some variant of a 10mm pistol. Although such handguns are effective in common self-defense situations, they aren’t ideal for a SHTF scenario like the ones we face in broad combat environment. If you’re pinned down by ISIS in some Syrian s**thole, a pistol’s not gonna do you any good.
You’ve got a rifle, you say? So do they.
This is when drones could assist in an operation, but it’s important that they be implemented in concert with the human element of ground troops. It’s also imperative that we take note of what we’re up against. We’re not the only ones with drone capabilities.
ISIS have made their own mini-kamikaze fleet of drones; last year, factories built to modify UAVs were found in liberated regions of Mosul, pointing to an “increasing use by ISIS of weaponized drones,” said James Bevan, executive director of Conflict Armament Research.
In August of 2017, a suspected ISIS plot involving a drone attack on a Turkish air base used by the US Air Force was foiled when Turkish authorities nabbed a Russian national suspected of being an Islamic militant.
They have even used these drones to guide car bombs in addition to dropping explosives. The growing availability of commercial drones means that almost anyone can get their hands on one, often for very little money. This poses another conundrum altogether as homeland security needs to ponder the very real possibility of ISIS converts purchasing them on American soil for the express purpose of harming US citizens or authorities.
Defense Department spending plans portend a rise in funding for robotic systems in the coming years, according to a recent report by the Bard College Center for the Study of the Drone. The president’s 2018 defense budget has increased funding for research which suggests that he’s got his finger on the pulse.
With any luck, the boys in charge will place emphasis on studying and strategizing rather than rushing to send our the Gray Eagles when they’re ready for commission.