Ever since the days of Billy Mitchell proponents of air power have tried to convince the civilian leadership how much better their model was. The promise of a “clean kill” by air power never quite worked in the gritty reality of war. Death from above often turned out to be messier, and less efficient then sending in a rifle team or other forms of ground pounders. It turned out that to make sure the other army was truly done for, you had to get up close and personal. From the near pointless mucking about in the air in great war right up to the First Gulf war, the first, second and last consideration of warfare was boots on the ground. The most effective form of air-power continued to be tactical air power, flying low and slow in support of ground units.
Unfortunately for the pilots of those close in support mission, low and slow made them excellent targets for all sort of anti-aircraft fire. From WWI to Vietnam attack aircraft got routinely shredded. The US Air Force, still fans of the oxymoron of strategic air power, finally came up with a solution for the venerable attack airframe, the A-10.
But even the beloved “Warthog” could be brought down along with its expensive and vulnerable pilot on occasion, how to reduce the casualty figures for the US troops? Modern technology came up with an answer: the drone.
Drones have been around for a while, ever since the V-1 cruise missile of WW II. All the way to the nineteen eighties drones were used for target practice. They could fly simple patterns and be ever more complex targets for pilots to shoot at. With the explosion of electronic miniaturization and advances in other components, it became feasible to build small unmanned aircraft capable of taking on one of the most risky of flying tasks: recognizance.
From the ill-fated U-2 flights, to the bird-dogs of Vietnam and beyond, finding out where the bad guys (as defined by the military mission) were was a very dicey proposition. With most of the airframe devoted to cameras and other intelligence gear, there was not much left for any kind of self-defense, never mind offensive punch. Recon planes were often sitting ducks once identified. Only the SR-71 provided any real security; it flew so high and so fast that most times its missions were uneventful. More mundane airframes did not have the Blackbird’ s ability to skedaddle with alacrity, and suffered accordingly.
The first drones changed the paradigm. Small, quick, and able to hug the terrain they became the perfection of the eye in the sky. Clothed in super-secret radar defeating material, the drones were invisible to air defenses of even the most technically advanced opponent. Ground fire from small arms and manually directed A-A batteries could bring them down, but with less consequence to their operators.
It was not long before some person got the idea to arm these new air frames. At first it was a simple matter of strapping on 20mm or .50 cal guns to the vehicles. The eye in sky could now defend itself and chew up soft targets below. Of course that was not enough, a little more offensive punch was desired. The drones got bigger, and the death they could deliver could be whole lot nastier. This eventually lead to the Predator drone, our weapon of choice in the badlands of the Afghan-Pakistan border. Armed with “precision” bombs or missiles, predators have been making all kinds of Al Qaeda operatives lives exciting, if brief.
But it has not been all wine and roses for the plucky little flying robots, not nearly. The issue in the obscuring language of brass-hat speak is “collateral damage.” This is a nice way of saying that innocent bystanders are getting blown up right along with those dirty, rotten, no good Talibs and jihadists. Every time the military boast about a safe house with the odd terrorist in residence getting flattened, there is alway others in the house who are getting gravely injured, or killed. They have the bad luck to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Sometimes the whole mission is PR disaster, with a wedding party becoming the unintended target instead of some nefarious Islamist cell.
Needless to say, wedding parties getting pink-misted by US air power queers the whole hearts and minds part of the COIN strategy. The US is slightly more popular than the bubonic plague in many parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan; but not by much. We have been rather reckless with the lives of Pakistanis and Afghan. That recklessness is creating a vast pool of anti-US sentiment for the Jihadists to draw upon. OBL may have finally shuffled off his mortal coil, but our drone attacks have created a legion of OBLs growing like top seed in Central Asia.
If anything points out what a false bill of goods Barack Obama sold the electorate in 2008 it his continuation of the Bush-Cheney strategy and tactics in Af-Pak. One could accept that incurious George would be indifferent to savagery and slaughter dealt out by these flying robots; Obama was supposed to be much more reflective and considered in these matters. But the strikes not only continued, they intensified under Obama. If anything, the alleged philosopher king, he of the three dimensional chess, has been much more the blood-thirsty Visigoth than his predecessor. Obama even managed to blow up a US citizen with these drones; something that never occurred under Bush-Cheney.
Interesting; how having a tool that renders you nearly unaccountable can transform the most mild-mannered, totally professorial personality into a blood-soaked killer that would give Genghis Khan pause. The soulless, paper-pushing, unemotional decision to slaughter a citizen of the US for the crime of fomenting terror would make even the old Mongol butcher’s blood run cold. Obama butchered Anwar Al-Awlaki with same detachment and rubber-stamping efficiency that he would in ordering office supplies.
The myth of a “clean kill” by drone allowed Obama to do that. No troopers were ever in danger from that operation, no airman was put in harms way. There was just the small matter of treating the sovereign airspace of Yemen like trash. There was the other small matter of a massive violation of Anwar Al-Awlaki’s right to stand trial, to face his accusers in a court of law. There was the other small matter that Yemen had already tried Awlaki in absentia and had convicted him. Awlaki’s sentence was far short of the capitol punishment the POTUS dealt out to him. Yemen gave him twelve years for his criminal speech. Obama, the Constitutional law scholar, ignored the 1st, 5th, 6th, and 8th; Amendments, taking on powers that even the Sun King of France dared not to.; Obama took the program of Bush-Cheney lawlessness and put on steroids. Obama cheerleaders should shudder at the precedent their hero has set. The POTUS is now judge, jury and executor, able to act on intelligence that a US citizen is bad actor abroad, and snuff that citizen’s life out by remote control. If you don’t think Republican NeoCons are not going to take that precedent to places never dreamt of before, you are just not paying attention to the nitwittery of those merry bunch of propeller heads and chicken hawks.
If that does not give you pause, also remember that Obama is setting the default for the proper use of Drones not only for the US, but for all other powers that will get these weapons. How does a drone strike against the Dali Lama by China sound? Obama just gave the Middle Kingdom cover for that act. China has plenty of reasons, plenty of “intelligence” to support the move. By the Politburo’s reasoning the Dali Lama is attempting an illegitimate succession from China, he is attempting to tear the nation apart. This is more than sufficient grounds for vaporizing him, and his monk “co-conspirators” in their “lair” in India. After all, former president Obama killed Awlaki for nothing more than talking trash; the Dali Lama is fomenting treason.
The US’s reckless use of drones will come to cause it grief down the road. The utter unaccountability of two successive administrations, the anything goes mentality, sets a very low future bar. When this behavior is copied by other powers we will not have a leg to stand on; our claims of war crimes will be laughed at by even our closest allies. We have sewn the wind with these drones, and we will eventually reap the whirlwind.
Addendum: This subject was also covered by Cjuo359 http://cujo359.blogspot.com/2011/06/air-power-without-consequences.html