Leading from Above


Imagine turning on the news and seeing the headline: “Drone Attack Kills Rebel Leader. Five Civilian Casualties.” You can’t help but think, “Why did five innocent people have to die to take out one target?” Perhaps you think that drones are ruthless, colorless, killing machines, bent on spying and death alone, with zero accountability — you wouldn’t be the only one. These drones (officially known as unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs) have gained a reputation for wiping out targets instantly and causing high rates of civilian casualties. This, however, isn’t the full story. These drones may cause collateral damage, but they still achieve the purpose for which they are built: to protect our country.

Drones are beneficial to our nation’s military and intelligence agencies. They allow agents to gather intelligence about high value targets from a remote location without deploying a ground team, which is often a high-risk move. Additionally, they are more discreet than attack squads, enabling the United States to conduct clandestine operations more efficiently. And the ultimate benefit of the U.S. drone program is that American lives are kept safe.

Take into account a normal F-22 pilot. Whenever he flies his stealth fighter on a mission into enemy territory, he risks being shot down by aerial or ground forces. He must also face the elements, such as storms, wind, and rain, which can take his life just as easily as any bullet can. If something goes wrong, that pilot faces capture and torture, and his plane could be used by the enemy against its country of origin. Now, replace the pilot with a remotely operated drone. Even though it similarly faces the threat of being shot down, there would be no U.S. casualties. A drone crash in stormy weather similarly would not result in a loss of human life. In addition, even if the drone survives a crash, it would likely be of no use to the enemy because rewiring a drone to work from a different computer is difficult and requires advanced technology not readily available in areas where drones are commonly deployed. It is also difficult for enemy forces to salvage any of the drone armaments such as missiles for use on the ground. Overall, drones are safer and more efficient for use in operations that would otherwise put humans in danger.

Drones move stealthily and quickly; if they miss their target, they can easily evacuate the target zone without a trace, which would be impossible with a human strike force. Their onboard cameras and other equipment allow the United States government to conduct round-the-clock surveillance on a target to confirm whether the person is indeed dangerous, and can wait until an opportune moment to strike. They also make use of advanced computer systems with algorithms that measure the damage a strike could cause to nearby civilian areas like hospitals or public spaces, ensuring that drone pilots are always aware of the consequences of their drone use. Far from being ruthless and without discretion, drones are actually very efficient in carrying out attacks by providing more intelligence, surveillance, and attack opportunities than any other program could provide.

There are, of course, numerous concerns related to drone use, one of which is the issue of privacy. Drones, after all, are “eyes in the sky.” In theory, don’t they then have the potential to see everything? The answer to this question lies in their programming. Drones can be programmed so they cannot see what they are not supposed to: their built-in warning mechanisms have overrides in place to prevent any user’s attempts to use a drone for getting close to buildings and spying. Moreover, they can have built-in sensors that disable the drone if someone tries to install better cameras for unwarranted surveillance. Furthermore, security systems are improving, so it is harder to hack drones for malevolent purposes. And this doesn’t even start to cover the government regulations in place to enforce proper use of drones. Currently, it is only legal to use a drone to conduct a targeted killing if the target is believed to be an Al-Qaeda operative or affiliate, or if the target is involved in this terrorist network. In addition, before any attack is carried out, intelligence, security, and other personnel engage in extensive debates and try to determine if alternatives — such as capture — are possible. Members of the House and Senate intelligence committees also review the details of every successful strike by examining footage as well as intelligence confirming whether the target was a threat. If members of these committees or their aides, who include several veteran intelligence analysts, find any behavior by the CIA objectionable, they can have CIA officials testify in closed hearings to explain themselves. The idea of drone usage involving no discretion and zero accountability is largely a myth; like any government operation, it involves much oversight and careful consideration.

As military technologies advance and as usage of drones proliferates across the globe, it is important to keep in mind that these machines exist for the better. Just as machine guns replaced muskets and iron ships replaced wooden ones, these drones represent a natural step in the evolution of weaponry. They represent the future of warfare, but just like warfare of the past, their use involves planning, discretion, and accountability. Best of all, though, they serve to protect the lives of American men and women from unnecessary dangers of the battlefield. If given a choice between putting a human being on the frontlines or sending in a robot to do the job, I’m sure many of us would choose the latter.

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