For Professor Carrigan
Essay: We Should Be Using Dones In Place of Soldiers Whenever and Wherever Possible
It is a cold night in Pakistan in 2011, and a group of soldiers jumps out of a helicopter. They knock down a door and rush into a house, killing everyone. Osama Bin Laden is finally dead (BBC). Two years before in the same country, a man named Baitullah Mehsud was sitting on a roof with his fellow terrorists, leading the Taliban in Pakistan when suddenly, fire rained down from the skies, killing them all. (Walsh) London’s The Economist goes into detail about several key differences between these two events. They report that using drones instead of manned aircraft is up to 95% cheaper. The Economist quotes Christopher Oliver, a colonel in the American army, as crediting the use of drones with “the significant drop in American casualties.” Drones can fly anywhere in the world and give us access to gather intelligence and execute precision attacks at a moment’s notice (The Economist).
America spends about as much money on war as the next fourteen countries combined (The Washington Post), most of whom are allies. Any cost reduction would be enormously helpful in facilitating the long-term sustainability of our military strategy. This alone may be enough argument for the use of drones, but there is a larger point to be made which greatly reinforces the crucial role of drones today. For a century, the high-level American military strategy has been simple: overwhelming power. Naval strategist and author Alfred Thayer Mahan crafted much of the academic theory that has come to define America’s role in the world today by building on what he saw as the declining efficacy of the navy contributing to the fall of the British Empire. In “Writing to Think: The intellectual Journey of a Naval Career,” author Robert C Rubel gives a great and concise articulation of Mahan’s work and perhaps explains why it has come to form the foundation for modern American military strategy:
By the time the American naval historian and theorist Alfred Thayer Mahan wrote about sea power, international trade as a foundation for a nation’s economy had become an inherent element in the concept of command of the sea. Although Mahan did not use the term directly, his notion of “that overbearing power on the sea which drives the enemy’s flag from it, or allows it to appear only as a fugitive; and which, by controlling the great common, closes the highways by which commerce moves to and from the enemy’s shores” encapsulates the strategic condition in which not only is the enemy’s navy unable to interfere with the movements of one’s own army but his sea commerce is so constricted as to starve his economy.
Drones give us overwhelming power in every corner of the world at a fraction of the cost of an old-fashioned military. We should be using drones as a substitute for military personnel wherever and whenever possible.
Drones make us safer. The United States military is currently logging about a million hours a year in drone flights, and during that time, no human pilots and crew are at risk. Instead, the pilots of the drones are sitting safely in offices a world away, with ready access to the freshest intelligence and the best information about their mission objectives. (The Economist) These swift, precise attacks can take place as soon as the information is available without needing to wait for personnel to gear up and deploy to the target’s location; instead a fleet of flying death robots is already in place and ready to spring in to action and destroy the targets.
If we accept Mahan’s theory that we should always maintain dramatically overwhelming power above and beyond any other countries, drones are a natural extension of that strategy. Drones give us the ability to exert incredible force anywhere, any time. From subtle and discreet reconnaissance to devastating hellfire attacks, drones have a versatile arsenal of technical and combat abilities which can give us a huge edge over less advanced militaries throughout the world, even among developed countries (The Economist).
Fighting naval piracy is one obvious example where drones could make a world of difference right away. Mahan’s core theory that an overwhelmingly powerful navy is partially needed in order to defend economic interests in order to prevent the starving of an economy immediately made me think of the Somalian pirates. The World Bank reports that hundreds of millions of dollars have been lost in recent years to pirate attacks along the trade routes off the coast of Somalia. If we were to invest in a fleet of drones to follow and observe trade ships passing through this area, and allow the drones to use incredible force to incinerate the pirates from the sky, we could likely effectively deter many future attacks and save an enormous amount of money.
Donald Trump plans to spend tens of billions of dollars building a wall along America’s southern border. There is very little evidence to suggest this would have any effect whatsoever on halting or even slowing illegal border crossing. We know there are already lots of tunnels constantly being dug under the border, and a wall does nothing to prevent the use of a simple ladder, or taking a boat or submarine around the wall. These are all common ways people are already using to get into the country undetected. These common examples are just a few which have received widespread media coverage in recent years. Despite that, they are apparently not common knowledge to the new President. The people facilitating the illegal crossings won’t even need to change tactics. Their existing tactics will go unaffected by this pointless waste of an incredible sum of money. A better tactic might be to invest a much smaller amount in a fleet of reconnaissance drones which can monitor both land and sea and flag any suspicious activity to be investigated or followed up on. It is conceivable that drones could even do that part, requiring little to no human presence to effectively deter illegal border crossing with very high accuracy and at a much lower cost than a pointless and ineffective wall.
Imagine a very different kind of war in a very different time. The year is 1914; the setting is the Western front of World War I. It is Christmas, and both sides of the carnage spontaneously lay down their arms and band together in the no-mans-land between the trenches to share food and carols (Chamberlain). This very human moment is one that gives hope to those who would try to make peace, even between bitter enemies in a setting such as this. I think it is important to keep in mind that after the songs and games ended, both sides went right back to wholesale slaughter. A common argument against drones is that their use dehumanizes the enemy, and makes it too easy to think of the killing of people on the other side of the world like playing a video game (The Economist). I would say this argument falls short in the setting of today’s battle arena. There aren’t lines drawn and trenches dug today, demarking clearly defined opponents on each side of a field of battle. There is a cancer in the world with innumerable cells hidden throughout civilization and actively working towards a stated goal of its destruction. The only good answer to this cancer is to wield the precision scalpel at our disposal and excise those who would make the very idea of civilization their enemy.
Drones make us safer and dramatically increase our power throughout the world. Our military can now kill anyone anywhere with very little notice. This dramatic increase in our nation’s destructive power is consistent with the last century of theory and strategy that have shaped our role in the world today. Having drones in the battle arena is much cheaper than people, and drones are often more capable and diverse in terms of technical ability than manned alternatives. We should be using drones as much as possible instead of personnel to better solve many of the problems we face in the world today.
BBC. 2 5 2011. 15 3 2017 <http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-13256791>.
Chaimberlain, Craig. 100 years ago: The Christmas Truce of World War I. 22 12 2014. 15 03 2017 <https://news.illinois.edu/blog/view/6367/198419>.
The Economist. “Attack of the drones.” Technology Quarterly Q3 2009.
Rubel, Robert C. “Writing to Think: The Intellectual Journey of a Naval Career.” Newport Papers 2 2014.
The World Bank. “The Pirates of Somalia: Executive Fact Sheet.” 2012. 15 3 2017 <http://siteresources.worldbank.org/INTAFRICA/Resources/pirates-of-somalia-executive-fact-sheet.pdf>.
Walsh, Declan. The Guardian. 7 8 2009. 15 3 2017 <https://www.theguardian.com/world/2009/aug/07/baitullah-mehsud-dead-taliban-pakistan>.