Can You Spare a Drone? (Drones Downtown in Damascus???)

September 4, 2013

A great colleague of mine has a worthy article with strategic implications about the utility of drones in Syria over at the Council on Foreign Relations site.

Dr. Audrey Cronin is one top-notch professor of strategy, and teaches at George Mason University (where I took an interdisciplinary graduate degree a few decades ago).  Dr. Cronin’s credentials, including a stint at Oxford University and at the National War College, are superb.  Her major works includes a magnificent book titled How Terrorism Ends: Understanding the Decline and Demise of Terrorist Campaigns, (Princeton University Press). However, her argument against drones in Syria should be challenged on a few points.

Dr. Cronin and I share a strong concern about the strategic effectiveness of drones in our counterterrorism strategy (see her larger argument on the front cover of the current issue Foreign Affairs and my piece at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, “To Drone or Not to Drone.” I worry that we’ve been too quick on the draw with drones, and that tactical expediency may be outpacing our understanding of what it takes to be strategically effective with them.  But I also realize that drones are simply more visible than the other pillars of an overall comprehensive strategy.

Professor Cronin’s latest article raised a number of issues.  The short version of her argument is that Syria proves that drones don’t have a lot of value.  My take on the argument is that “weapons have to be employed pursuant to a strategy, and be relevant to the specific context.”  Would anyone have a problem with that?  I certainly don’t.  This doesn’t mean that I agree that drones or bad, or that I agree that they could not be relevant to Syria.  In fact, I believe they have a lot more utility than she gives them credit for.

I did find a number of curiously worded statements at the end of the article, the premises of which are not as clear as the author seems to suggest:

A.  First, Audrey notes “the serious problem of relying upon [drone use] so heavily in the U.S. force structure.”   I don’t think we’ve thought enough about where Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) fit in our force structure, which is why we are buying too many Joint Strike Fighters.  It’s not clear to me, though, who is relying upon drones so heavily.  I would argue that the upcoming Pentagon review needs to incorporate more unmanned systems into the acquisition objectives of each of the Service’s force structure.

B. Second, Professor Cronin argues that “U.S. policymakers should invest more in good analysis and robust human assets on the ground, so as to sort friend from foe.”  How is this relevant to Syria?  I am not naïve enough to think we lack assets there, nor that unmanned systems have not been overhead already.  We may need to invest in human intelligence, but god knows (thanks to Mr. Snowden) that we’ve invested a lot already in intelligence.

C.  Finally, Audrey states that “The United States can take the pilot out of the aircraft, but it cannot remove human judgment, risk, and willpower from war.”  Even with RPA, who can claim that we have removed human judgment and willpower???  I am a big proponent of the Human Domain (see my take at Small Wars Journal).  We may be trying to minimize risk with drones, to some humans, not others.

In short, I am willing to wager that we will find drones deployed in Syria in short order (if they have not already been used).


Frank Hoffman is a Contributing Editor to War on the Rocks, and serves as Senior Research Fellow in the Center for Strategic Research, at the National Defense University, Washington DC.  These insights and comments are his own.

 Photo Credit: Jetpack5