Special Operations or Drones?

November 4, 2013 Topic: Military StrategySecurity

Special Operations or Drones?

Modern policymakers must often choose between them. Which offers a preferable set of consequences?


Which is a worse violation of sovereignty—an airstrike from above by an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), or a ground raid from below by special operations forces?

The question is not a purely theoretical exercise. As Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan’s new prime minister, stated in his first public speech since taking office. "We respect the sovereignty of others, but others don't respect our sovereignty. These daily drone attacks must stop." Earlier this month the United States violated the sovereignty of two countries, Libya and Somalia, after carrying out a pair of near-simultaneous missions to “snatch and grab” terrorist suspects. The Obama administration has ordered over four hundred drone strikes and expanded the scope, scale and budget of its special operations forces program by 10 percent. “Where you’ve got active plots and active networks,” President Obama told reporters after the raids, “we’re going to go after them.”


So which use of force is worse?

Absolutists might answer: It doesn’t matter. A violation of sovereignty is a violation of sovereignty, regardless of style. But most legal and military experts would probably say there are shades of gray along the continuum of the uses of force, short of declaring war, and that sovereignty is not absolute. Within this normative framework, some violations are obviously worse than others. Sovereignty, as Stanford’s Stephen Krasner correctly notes, has many different meanings. To be clear, our principal concern is what Krasner calls Westphalian sovereignty, or excluding external actors from the territory of a state. This principle, the foundation upon which the current international system is built and stretches back to the Thirty Years War, is meant to eliminate external interference and protect territorial borders.

Instinctually, we might think that a special-operations raid is a more brazen violation of one’s sovereignty than an unauthorized flyover mission by an unmanned aircraft. After all, such raids require human transgression of borders, unlike sending some remote-controlled plane across the sky to do the same thing. Such missions entail actual boots on the ground, hand-to-hand combat, and hints at a local government’s inability to patrol its own shores or borders.

Yet, almost counterintuitively, it is crossborder ground raids that are emerging as a new international norm, whereas the use of drones is becoming taboo. It would seem that “snatch and grab” is a preferable use of force than “bomb and pray” (not to mention it is more useful

from an intelligence-gathering standpoint). Dozens of states, from Kenya to Colombia, have carried out such cross-border missions using commando forces in recent years (often with targeting intelligence and assistance from the United States). In Africa, according to the

Christian Science Monitor, it is nearly impossible “to count the times that forces of one country have entered another.” States tend to invoke their right to “self-defense” as enshrined under Article 51 of the UN Charter (Similarly, the United States still justifies its use of UAVs and special-operations raids by citing the 2001 Authorization of the Use of Military Force).

The normative implications of this debate cannot be overstated. Consider the contrasting policies of two rising powers: Brazil and China. Beijing recently pondered the use of a UAV—a crude prototype, to be sure—to kill a Burmese drug lord accused of killing fourteen

Chinese sailors in 2011 and who resided in a lawless part of Burma’s frontier, the Golden Triangle. And yet the Chinese resisted, instead opting to extradite him and then have him executed on public television. They cited their responsibility under international law to respect Burmese sovereignty as the decision not to use a drone.

Brazil, meanwhile, has carried out a number of crossborder incursions in recent years against drug kingpins in neighboring countries, even deploying 10,000 troops along its border with Paraguay, Bolivia, and Peru to combat drug smuggling. "Brazil is crossing a threshold that it hasn't even come close to in the past," Douglas Farah, a national security consultant and advisor to the U.S. Department of Defense on Latin America and drug issues, recently told the Wall Street Journal. These raids raise questions of what Brazil will do once its drone

program is fully operational (at the moment it is used mainly for commercial and surveillance purposes, mostly to patrol illegal activities in the Amazon). Brazil, after all, has recently bought 14 drones from Israel for surveillance purposes against drug smugglers. Would it use such drones for offensive purposes? If so, would that be worse than sending in irregular ground forces?

Yes, in fact it would.

It is precisely because these commando missions are more serious and risky that they have become more legitimized in the eyes of the international community than drone strikes. Because of their potential to escalate or go awry—think of the 1993 Black Hawk Down fiasco in Mogadishu—such missions signal a greater seriousness and commitment to the mission. They require states to have more “skin in the game” and thus are seen as coming from a position of strength. They require leaders to more seriously calculate the odds of escalation—consider the Situation Room debate in 2011 over whether to use special-operations forces or an airstrike to kill Osama bin Laden.

“The operations that took place both in Libya and Somalia were examples of the extraordinary skill and dedication and talent of our men and women in the armed forces,” President Obama recently told reporters. “They do their jobs extremely well, with great precision, at great risk to themselves.” Notice his use of the word “risk.” It is hard to imagine him saying the same thing after a series of successful drone strikes (which go unacknowledged). The use of UAVs are not only seen as unfair, but also signal a lack of commitment, since they require little “skin in the game,” or risk of losing lives. Special-operations raids, by contrast, create a deterrence effect by their very bravado, unpredictability, and ability to surprise wanted terrorists, even in their Tripoli flats. As then-President Clinton is said to have told his Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “You know, it would scare the sh*t out of al-Qaeda if suddenly a bunch of black ninjas rappelled out of helicopters in the middle of their camp. It would get us enormous deterrence and show those guys we’re not afraid.”

Despite their growing use, such missions rarely result in mass condemnation, sanctions, or military retaliation. This may be the case, in part, as they are often privately sanctioned by the state whose sovereignty is violated in the first place, but also because such missions are seen as legitimate acts of self-defense. As such, they enjoy high approval ratings among their respective publics. In Turkey, for example, there is widespread support for crossborder

incursions against Kurdish rebels into northern Iraq. “I can’t recall any action this government has ever undertaken that has received just unalloyed public support,” a journalist noted after Kenya’s 2011 raid against al-Shabaab militants in Somalia.

That is not to say that such missions are cost-free or do not risk the loss of innocent life. Our 1993 raid in Mogadishu left dozens of Somalis dead, as well as eighteen U.S. servicemen. As recently as February 2010, a special ops raid in the Afghan province of Uruzgan killed 27

civilians. Over 400 special operations troops have been killed in action since 9/11, while over 2,000 have been wounded. We should not fool ourselves that such missions are a “panacea,” as Linda Robinson notes in her new book, One Hundred Victories.

Still, because of the lack of appetite for any Iraq-style interventions, we can expect future uses of force to be limited in scope and duration, often done under the radar, to “hunt and kill”

targets. These missions are cost-effective and politically expedient in an age of slimming Pentagon budgets. The most difficult part of such missions, of course, is the hunting part, not the killing part. That requires good human intelligence on the ground, which cannot be

replaced or replicated by eyes in the air. It also requires cooperation from local authorities.

Yet, we should be aware that tradeoffs exist with such missions. Indeed, the recent uproar over civilian casualties from U.S. drones misses a larger and more important point: Our use of UAVs in places like Pakistan, after reaching its zenith in 2010, is actually on the decline. The number of strikes this year is only 23, compared to 117 in 2010, a nearly 400 percent decrease (and the same goes for civilian fatalities). Does this signal a new trend in U.S. counterterrorism

policy? Or is it part of a larger international norm against the use of drones? Maybe drones are overhyped: Consider that despite the fact that of the seventy states that now possess the technology, to date just three countries—the U.S., UK, and Israel—have used them for offensive military operations. That is not to suggest a state like China or Brazil won’t open Pandora’s Box, only that a kind of taboo—not unlike the one that forbade the use of chemical weapons after World War I or nuclear weapons after World War II—may be emerging around this type of lethal technology.