Explained: Why America's Deadly Drones Keep Firing

Paul Pillar

President Obama's announcement last month that earlier this year a “U.S. counterterrorism operation” had killed two hostages, including an American citizen, has become a fresh occasion for questioning the rationales for continuing attacks from unmanned aerial vehicles aimed at presumed, suspected, or even confirmed terrorists. This questioning is desirable, although not mainly for hostage-related reasons connected to this incident. Sometimes an incident has a sufficient element of controversy to stoke debate even though what most needs to be debated is not an issue specific to the incident itself. More fundamental issues about the entire drone program need more attention than they are getting.

The plight of hostages held by terrorists has a long and sometimes tragic history, almost all of which has had nothing to do with drones. Hostage-taking has been an attractive terrorist tool for so long partly because of the inherent advantages that the hostage-holders always will have over counterterrorist forces. Those advantages include not only the ability to conceal the location of hostages—evidently a successful concealment in the case of the hostages mentioned in the president's announcement—but also the ability of terrorists to kill the hostages themselves and to do so quickly enough to make any rescue operation extraordinarily difficult. Even states highly skilled at such operations, most notably Israel, have for this reason suffered failed rescue attempts.

It is not obvious what the net effect of operations with armed drones is likely to be on the fate of other current or future hostages. The incident in Pakistan demonstrates one of the direct negative possibilities. Possibly an offsetting consideration is that fearing aerial attack and being kept on the run may make, for some terrorists, the taking of hostages less attractive and the management of their custody more difficult. But a hostage known to be in the same location as a terrorist may have the attraction to the latter of serving as a human shield.

The drone program overall has had both pluses and minuses, as anyone who is either a confirmed supporter or opponent of the program should admit. There is no question that a significant number of certified bad guys have been removed as a direct and immediate consequence of the attacks. But offsetting, and probably more than offsetting, that result are the anger and resentment from collateral casualties and damage and the stimulus to radicalization that the anger and resentment provide. There is a good chance that the aerial strikes have created more new terrorists bent on exacting revenge on the United States than the number of old terrorists the strikes have killed.

This possibility is all the more disturbing in light of what appears to be a significant discrepancy between the official U.S. posture regarding collateral casualties and the picture that comes from nonofficial sources of reporting and expertise. The public is at a disadvantage in trying to judge this subject and to assess who is right and who is wrong, but what has been pointed out by respected specialists such as Micah Zenko is enough to raise serious doubt about official versions both of the efforts made to avoid casualties among innocents and of how many innocents have become victims of the strikes.

The geographic areas in which the drone strikes are most feasible and most common are not necessarily the same places from which future terrorist attacks against the United States are most likely to originate. The core Al-Qaeda group, which has been the primary target and concern in northwest Pakistan, is but a shadow of its former self and not the threat it once was. Defenders of the drone strikes are entitled to claim that this development is in large part due to the strikes. But that leaves the question: why keep doing it now?

The principal explanation, as recognized in the relevant government circles, for the drone program has been that it is the only way to reach terrorists who cannot be reached by other tools or methods. It has been seen as the only counterterrorist game that could be played in some places. That still leaves more fundamental questions about the motivations for playing the game.

Policy-makers do not use a counterterrorist tool just because the tool is nifty—although that may be a contributing factor regarding the drones—but rather because they feel obligated to use every available tool to strike at terrorists as long as there are any terrorists against whom to strike. In the back of their minds is the thought of the next Big One, or maybe even a not so big terrorist attack on U.S. soil, occurring on their watch after not having done everything they could to prevent it, or doing what would later be seen in hindsight as having had the chance to prevent it.

The principal driver of such thoughts is the American public's zero tolerance attitude toward terrorism, in which every terrorist attack is seen as a preventable tragedy that should have been prevented, without fully factoring in the costs and risks of prevention or of attempted prevention. Presidents and the people who work for them will continue to fire missiles from drones and to do some other risky, costly, or even counterproductive things in the cause of counterterrorism because of the prospect of getting politically pilloried for not being seen to make the maximum effort on behalf of that cause.

TopicsTerrorism RegionsUnited States

Meet America's New 'Bunker-Buster' Super Bomb

The Buzz

The U.S. Air Force has developed a new, lighter bunker-buster bomb that can be launched from the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

Flight Global reports that David E. Walker, the Air Force’s chief scientist, says that the U.S. Air Force research laboratory has proven the technology for its high velocity penetrating weapon (HVPW). The HVPW program, which was launched in 2011, was aimed at building a 2,000lb, rocket-propelled bomb that would be small enough to be integrated onto the F-35 and other non-strategic bombers.

Like other bunker-buster missiles, such as the gigantic 30,000lb Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP), the HVPW is designed to destroy buried targets like underground bunkers and tunnels. However, unlike MOP and traditional bunker-busters, his new kinetic weapon is rammed into the ground like a pile driver instead of being accelerated naturally by gravity. The force with which the HVPW strikes the ground allows it to penetrate underground targets while still being compact enough to be carried on the F-35.

“The idea is to get a heavy weapon effect with a much lighter weapon and a more compact weapon,” Walker, whose official title is Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Science, Technology, and Engineering in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, told Flight Global. “That technology, we’ve proven that the concept works.”

Still, Walker emphasized that it isn’t clear how the U.S. Air Force will proceed with the HVPW program, which will depend on funding and the priority given to other bunker buster bombs. “The analysis of alternatives will determine what we’re going to do and how much actual funding we’ve got to go forward.”

When the Air Force first unveiled the program in 2011, it presented the HVPW as specifically designed to be carried on the F-35 joint strike fighter. However, Walker explained that the bomb could also be eventually used on other aircraft.

“[It’s] not just with the F-35, but for our entire fleet. How can I get a much more compact, lighter-weight capability which allows me to have more carriage? It’s very important in the future to have that capability.”

The United States’ has numerous potential uses for a bunker-buster capability in general. The one most often discussed, most often with regards to MOP, is to attack Iran’s nuclear sites, particularly the Fordow fuel enrichment plant, which is buried deep inside mountains (should a comprehensive nuclear deal with Iran be reached, the Fordow plant would be converted into an exclusively research and development facility.)

Less often discussed is how a bunker-buster capability could be deployed against China’s nuclear weapons arsenal. Although China is believed to have a fairly small nuclear arsenal, with roughly 300-400 warheads, Beijing conceals its arsenal within an extensive underground tunnel system to deter adversaries from trying to conduct counterforce strikes that destroy China’s strategic deterrent.

Interestingly, the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) ordered U.S. Strategic Command to submit a report on the “underground tunnel network used by the People’s Republic of China with respect to the capability of the United States to use conventional and nuclear forces to neutralize such tunnels and what is stored within such tunnels.”

Thus, any new American bunker-buster capability is surely to be viewed with suspicion by leaders in Beijing. This is doubly true when the bunker-buster bombs can be carried by F-35 joint strike fighters, which many Asian nations— including Japan—are purchasing.

Zachary Keck is managing editor of The National Interest. You can find him on Twitter: @ZacharyKeck.

Image: Flickr/Official U.S. Air Force/CC by-nc 2.0

TopicsSecurity RegionsAmericas

Revealed: The Islamic State's Two Most Powerful Weapons

The Buzz

The ominous shadow of the notorious Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) looms over Southeast Asia and Australia, judging from the scores of recent arrests throughout the region.

In order to neutralize ISIS, it is important to understand what we are confronting. Synthesizing various analyses of the entity appears to provide the following composite picture: ISIS seeks to create a geographically demarcated Islamic political entity that is potentially expansionist. The leadership of the organization is hierarchical and comprises a curious mix of hardline Islamic fundamentalists combined with genuine strategic and operational nous provided by disaffected and radicalized former Baathists of Saddam Hussein’s decimated military.

The core fundamentalist theology of ISIS emphasizes a deity that is punitive, keen on preserving religious purity above else. Consequently outsiders—Muslims who disagree with them; Shia, Christians and other minority groups and their religious symbols—can be disposed of as they are regarded as filth to be cleansed, not parties to a negotiable dispute.

Such an extreme religious narrative readily cloaks the base motivations of the many thugs who have been drawn into the movement and who rape, mutilate and kill for sadistic pleasure. The ensuing political ideology issuing from such a puritanical theological core is a version of Salafi jihadism, whose political goals appear to be as totalistic as its essential theological assumptions.

In the basic ISIS worldview, Islam must dominate all comers, by force if need be. Hence there is no logical reason to assume that ISIS leaders will be content with securing territory in Iraq–Syria only. If they can, they will expand further. Little wonder that they have sought to expand their influence into Taliban territory in Afghanistan–Pakistan and Libya; while conversely, similarly motivated violent Islamist entities such as Boko Haram in eastern Africa, and the East Indonesian Mujahidin in eastern Indonesia have pledged allegiance to it as well.

We are witnessing an institutional evolution of global jihadism in the Iraq–Syria region with potentially seismic worldwide implications. In short, ISIS is the new, improved, more resilient ‘mutation’ of al Qaeda.

Like its older, rapidly-declining, al Qaeda incarnation, ISIS does not seek to directly engage and defeat the armed might of its chief enemies: the ‘Jews and Crusaders’ – Israel, the U.S. and their coalition allies—as per stock Salafi jihadi narratives. ISIS has apparently adopted but refined the original al Qaeda ‘indirect’ strategy of aiming at the true centre of gravity of the Western and allied coalition: its largely multicultural publics.

The main political goal of this strategy appears to be to consolidate and opportunistically expand its self-proclaimed Islamic caliphate. ISIS’ objectives involve destabilizing and ultimately collapsing the fragile ‘near enemies’ of the Shia-aligned regimes in Damascus and Baghdad, as well as simultaneously corroding the political will of the ‘far enemies’ of Western coalition countries to carry on the struggle against it.

In line with this indirect strategy, ISIS emphasizes primarily non-kinetic means of expanding its power and influence. As much or possibly more thought and effort appear to be put into employing social media to attract followers worldwide to its religiously-legitimated enterprise of rebuilding the lost Islamic caliphate.

Social media—a weapon al Qaeda never really fully exploited—has truly been a force multiplier for ISIS. Thus not only untrained Muslim fighters, but trained military and law enforcement officers, as well as civilian professionals, and, as we have seen, entire families, have been targeted to conduct a hijrah (migration) to the caliphate to populate it and build up the ‘perfect’ Islamic society.

Even generally moderate Muslim societies like Malaysia and Indonesia have been affected by this skillful ISIS appeal. Meanwhile, another key element of the ISIS indirect approach has been to promote ‘crowd-sourced’ lone wolf or ‘wolf pack’ terrorism by self-radicalized supporters within Western and allied countries to internally destabilize them and sap their political will; whilst sowing discord within them between Muslim and non-Muslim communities and creating fecund conditions for the ISIS ideological virus to gestate further.  The December 2014 Sydney incident demonstrated the ISIS crowd-sourced terror tactic all too well, and Malaysian authorities have recently warned of potential lone wolf attacks as well.

In a following post I will discuss how a Western coalition ‘direct’ strategy, employing kinetic means as the principal instrument but supported by a host of non-kinetic measures, represents a potentially effective response to the ISIS indirect approach.

This piece first appeared in ASPI’s The Strategist here

Image: U.S. Marines Flickr

TopicsIslamic State RegionsMiddle East

Syria's Next Potential Crisis Could Turn the Middle East Upside Down

The Buzz

With the Assad regime now more vulnerable in its fight against rebel groups, there is a strong case for the preparation of contingency plans to deal with a new and even greater humanitarian disaster that may unfold in and around Syria.

The potential for a genocide of the Alawites cannot be discounted. But the more likely impending threat is that of a sudden and massive population movement, especially from the western seaboard of the country into Lebanon. As noted in my previous piece (Assad's Regime is Brittle, and it May Fall Fast), fear of genocide, amplified by actual incidents and social media campaigns, could produce a population movement on a scale not witnessed in the region since Palestine in 1948.

Any substantial outflow of the Alawite community (whose total number is uncertain, but if estimated to comprise 10% of the Syrian population, could be up to 2 million people) would almost certainly risk overwhelming the institutions and confessional balance of the Lebanese state.

Given the recent weakening of the momentum of the Syrian regime in its military contest with the rebel forces, and the historical precedents (Palestine in 1948 and more recently the Yazidis and Kurds of Iraq), the international community should prepare for the worst.

If the Syrian regime is seen to be collapsing, attempts by the Alawites to flee will be all but unstoppable. And for the vast majority of the refugees, particularly the Alawites and other minorities, there will be little prospect of returning to Syria. The consequences are grave. Should there be such an outflow, its legacy will reverberate around the region for decades at humanitarian, political and strategic levels.

The Lebanese Government is struggling to cope with the present burden of around 1.2 million Syrian 'persons of concern' (to use the UN High Commission for Refugees terminology). It is anxious to prevent an additional inflow further distorting the confessional political balance of the country in general and exacerbating the ongoing conflict between Sunnis and Alawites in northern Lebanon in particular. It will be keen for a further wave of refugees to be protected or absorbed elsewhere.

Europe, which is already receiving more Syrians by boat than from any other country of origin, will be the preferred destination for many. For others, the Persian Gulf states might provide an option. But neither the Gulf, European nor other Western countries are likely to be willing to countenance opening their doors to Syrian refugees on a large scale.

The challenge for the international community will be to find a comprehensive strategy that helps existing refugee populations in Lebanon and Jordan, as well as the likely Alawite influx. It will need to be focused on enabling host countries, particularly Lebanon and Jordan, to cope with the financial and social burdens of absorbing such a presence.

Because it is clearly a scenario posing a threat to international peace and security, and would be seen as such by the permanent members of the UN Security Council, planning for an international response should be led by the UN. It would need to draw upon the experience and skills of UN agencies, supported by international and national non-government organizations with specialist capabilities in such areas as child protection.

The primary and immediate aim of the international response should be to minimize the risk of an additional outflow. In that regard, the UN and Western countries should encourage and influence Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and others to urge their client rebel groups to refrain from victimizing Alawite populations. They should insist that their partners avoid the use of the imagery of retribution as a weapon to weaken the Assad regime. They should highlight their responsibilities, both religious and under international humanitarian law, to protect civilian lives and property. The rebel forces should be encouraged to see the value of creating a clear distinction between their standards of behavior and those of the Assad regime.

UN agencies and NGOs will also need to negotiate directly with rebel groups to obtain security assurances for Alawites. The work of building strategies and approaches for negotiating such arrangements, and identifying the key individuals and other factors likely to shape the outcome of such efforts, needs to begin now.

The international response should also devise ways to provide some degree of security to those seeking to leave or who have fled. Lebanon may be reluctant to open its borders even in an emergency. An intense dialogue with both the Lebanese Government and other actors may be needed if an even larger tragedy — and the risk of further derogation of Lebanese sovereignty — is to be avoided.

A longer-term aim would be to facilitate the earliest possible return of the refugees to their homes. That may prove impossible in the vast majority of cases. However, for those Syrians who do return (perhaps in the event of some sort of stand-off between the regime and its opponents), there is little likelihood they could be reabsorbed without significant financial assistance to rebuild their homes and livelihoods.

The preliminary work that needs to be undertaken to give decision makers well-defined and credible choices on such issues is immense, and there is a great deal of relevant experience from the Balkans and elsewhere that ought to be tapped to assist in that process.

This piece first appeared in the Lowy Interpreter here

Image: Flickr/UNHCR. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsMiddle East

Russia Reveals New 'Super' Aircraft Carrier Plans

The Buzz

Russia has revealed key details of a new supercarrier it plans to build.

In a new interview with IHS Jane’s, Valery Polyakov, the deputy director of Russia's government-owned Krylov State Research Center, the company designing the new carrier, outlined some new details about the ship, which is being billed as Project 23000E or Shtorm (Storm).

According to Polyakov,, the vessel will displace between 90,000 and 100,000 tons, roughly double the size of any carrier Russia has built to date. It will also be 330 meters in length, 40 meters wide, and have a draft of 11 meters. The carrier will have a cruising speed of 20 knots (kt), with a top speed of 30 kt. The vessel will also have an endurance of 120 days and require a crew of between 4,000-5,000 sailors.

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The carrier will be able to carry between 80-90 combat aircraft of various kinds. Jane’s revealed that “the model features a split air wing comprising navalised T-50 PAKFAs and MiG-29Ks, as well as jet-powered naval early warning aircraft, and Ka-27 naval helicopters.”

A mockup of the carrier built by KRSC will be unveiled at the International Maritime Defense Show 2015, Polyakov said. That show will be held July 1-5 in St. Petersburg.

In addition, the carrier mockup KRSC built has four launching positions. Two of the launching positions are of the ski-ramp variant, while the other two are electromagnetic aircraft launch systems (EMALS), which the U.S. Navy itself just tested last week. As the U.S. Navy explained in a press release announcing the test, EMALS offer a number of advantages over the traditional steam-based launch systems.

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“Using electromagnetic technology, the system delivers substantial improvements in system maintenance, increased reliability and efficiency, higher-launch energy capacity, and more accurate end-speed control, with a smooth acceleration at both high and low speeds. By allowing linear acceleration over time, electromagnetic catapults also place less stress on the aircraft.”

One of the major shortcomings of the vessel, as currently designed, is that it will be powered by a conventional power plant, rather than a nuclear one. This could be later changed, per the customer’s wishes, Polyakov said.

In the Jane’s interview, Polyakov also detailed some of envisioned missions of the proposed heavy aircraft carrier: "The Project 23000E multipurpose aircraft carrier is designed to conduct operations in remote and oceanic areas, engage land-based and sea-borne enemy targets, ensure the operational stability of naval forces, protect landing troops, and provide the anti-aircraft defense."

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Reports that Russia was planning a new aircraft carrier first emerged in local media back in February. Those reports were confirmed by Russia’s naval chief the following month. "The Navy will have an aircraft carrier. The research companies are working on it, and strictly in compliance with the requirements from the Chief Commander," Viktor Chirkov, Russia’s top naval officer, said at the time.

Russia currently operates one carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, which was launched by the Soviet Union back in 1985. This should make it easier for Russia to construct a new aircraft carrier than a country like China, which has less experience with naval aviation than Moscow.

That being said, the proposed new carrier will be exponentially more complicated to build than Russian and Soviet carriers of the past. As such, it is extremely likely that the proposed Shtorm carrier will never come to fruition, especially given Russia’s mounting fiscal difficulties. As Jim Holmes wisely counseled, “Let’s not make too much of this.”

Zachary Keck is managing editor of The National Interest. You can find him on Twitter: @ZacharyKeck.

TopicsSecurity RegionsEurasia