The Drone Beats of War: The U.S. Vulnerability to Targeted Killings


The fiery explosions from the recent U.S. drone attack that killed Iranian general Qassem Soleimani have sent shock waves reverberating across the Middle East. Those same shocks should now be rippling through the American national security establishment too. The strike against the man widely considered the second-most powerful leader of a long-standing U.S. adversary was unprecedented, and its ultimate effects remain unknown. But regardless of what happens next, one thing is certain: The United States has now made it even more likely that American military and civilian leaders will be targeted by future U.S. foes. As a result, the United States will have to dramatically improve the ways in which it protects those leaders and rethink how it commands its forces on the battlefield.

Over the last 20 years, the United States has been able to target and kill specific individuals almost anywhere around the world, by matching an increasingly advanced array of precision weapons with a strikingly effective intelligence system. It has employed this capability frequently, especially across the greater Middle East, as it has sought to eliminate senior leaders of the Taliban insurgency or highly placed terrorists directing jihadist cells. And it has been able to pursue this decapitation strategy with impunity, because it has held a monopoly on this bespoke use of force. Not even the most powerful states could attempt the types of complex targeted strikes that the U.S. military and CIA conducted so routinely.



But U.S. adversaries were watching closely. As advanced technologies inexorably became cheaper and more widely available, the U.S. monopoly on these capabilities started to erode. By 2016, for example, eight countries other than the United States had conducted armed drone attacks, including Iran, Pakistan, and Nigeria. By 2019, Russia and two other countries joined this exclusive club. And at least one non-state actor has already used an armed drone for a targeted killing. According to one estimate, 27 other countries currently possess armed drones while dozens of states and non-state actors have unarmed drones. These capabilities can now be used against specific individuals even in the absence of large intelligence networks, thanks to the constant streams of personal information flowing from personal phones, fitness trackers, and other devices.

The Soleimani strike has given potential U.S. adversaries every reason to accelerate their efforts to develop similar capabilities. Moreover, these same adversaries can now justify their own future targeted killings by invoking this U.S. precedent. Sooner or later — and probably sooner — senior U.S. civilian and military leaders will become vulnerable to the same types of decapitation strikes that the United States has inflicted on others. Enemies will almost certainly attempt to target and kill U.S. officials during any future major war, and such attacks will likely become a part of future irregular conflicts as well. Though such strikes would dangerously escalate any conflict, committed adversaries of the United States may still find that the advantages outweigh the costs, especially if they can plausibly deny responsibility or if the strength of their resolve makes them willing to accept any resulting consequences.

In the face of this growing threat, what does the United States need to do in order to protect its key military and civilian leaders from a potential decapitation strike? Here are some potential first steps.

  1. Improve personal protection for senior leaders. The president and the vice president are well protected against a myriad of threats by the Secret Service, but levels of protection quickly diminish for those who work beneath them. A number of senior officials, including cabinet officials and the chiefs of the military services, have their own security details, but those focus primarily on providing traditional physical security. They typically offer little if any protection against newly emerging threats such as a targeted missile attack or swarming suicide drones. Most senior military and civilian leaders have no security at all, and they and their family members (like most other Americans) are constantly emitting electronic signals that give away their location. Improving their protection will require rethinking nearly every aspect of their daily lives, especially their extensive vulnerabilities when traveling. For example, the obtrusive motorcades and conspicuous convoys of black SUVs currently favored by many senior U.S. officials may need to be replaced with lower visibility alternatives, to include employing decoys that travel along multiple routes in high risk situations.
  1. Harden key meeting locations, headquarters, and transition points. U.S. adversaries will be particularly interested in targeting locations where numbers of senior military and civilian leaders gather. Many such locations today in the United States and overseas are not sufficiently hardened against attack. The locations of most offices and meeting spaces are either publicly available or easily found, and few are protected from any sort of aerial attack. (At a minimum, senior officials should stop having their photos taken in front of their offices where the room number is clearly visible.) And even hardened command centers usually have key vulnerabilities at entrances and exits, and at exposed transition points between different modes of transportation (such as airfield aprons). Ironically, current U.S. military security measures can unintentionally make leaders more vulnerable in other ways. Shortly after the Soleimani strike, for example, many U.S. military bases imposed stricter security measures at their entry points, including extensive identification checks and reducing the number of open gates. These reflexive measures caused long traffic backups that spilled onto local roads and highways — which made everyone entering the bases far more vulnerable as they sat in these traffic jams. Any senior leader stuck in those lines would have become a remarkably easy target with no clear avenues of escape.
  1. Exercise wartime succession in the U.S. military chain of command. Combatant commanders and other senior military officers often use high-level wargames to validate key war plans and operational concepts. Yet most exercises and simulations deliberately avoid removing senior commanders from the battlefield, which reinforces the flawed notion that they will always be in charge. This problem also extends to the tactical level, where commanders of brigades, divisions, and corps are rarely assessed as casualties. Exercises at all levels need to regularly include scenarios where one or more senior commanders are killed or incapacitated, to test succession plans and to ensure that subordinates gain valuable leadership experience.
  1. Further decentralize battlefield command and control. The military chain of command necessarily relies upon centralized control, with commanders directing the actions of their subordinates. The U.S. military does decentralize some authority through concepts like mission command, which empower subordinates to make independent decisions about the best ways to achieve the commander’s overall intent. Yet as we’ve written extensively elsewhere, the military’s growing culture of compliance and risk aversion already undermines this critical principle, and modern command and control systems make it far too easy for senior commanders to intervene in routine tactical operations. In an environment where senior commanders can be individually targeted and killed, truly decentralized authority becomes absolutely vital — and even efforts to reinvigorate mission command may no longer be sufficient. One recent article, for example, called for an entirely new, bottom-up approach to command and control that would build resilience and speed by reducing the reliance on a small number of increasingly vulnerable senior leaders.

The U.S. government needs to acknowledge that its senior leaders are becoming more vulnerable to targeted attacks, and that the Soleimani attack will only accelerate the determination of U.S. adversaries to be able to conduct similar attacks themselves. Yet threats like this are too easily discounted or ignored until it is too late. The U.S. government must recognize the grave dangers of this threat before it occurs. It needs to protect its senior officials more effectively, and ensure that the military chain of command will continue to function effectively after one or more commanders are killed by a targeted strike.



Lt. Gen. David W. Barno, U.S. Army (ret.) and Dr. Nora Bensahel are visiting professors of strategic studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and senior fellows at the Philip Merrill Center for Strategic Studies. They are also contributing editors at War on the Rocks, where their column appears monthly. Sign up for Barno and Bensahel’s Strategic Outpost newsletter to track their articles as well as their public events.

Editor’s Note: Due to an internal error, we published the near-final version of this article rather than the final version. While the differences between the two drafts are minor, we apologize for the error and have fixed our mistake. The final version of this article is now published below. 

Image: President of Iran