The debate over US use of drone strikes against militants continues, but soon engineering improvements may reduce some of the worst consequences of drone attacks.
Technology will make debate over drones obsolete
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), more popularly known as drones, have been in use since the 1930s. But it was the technological developments of the late 1980s and 1990s that allowed drones to be reliably fielded in military operations. As a result, today the US trains more drone operators than fighter and bomber pilots. And this is a matter of growing contention, a trend which will continue into the future.
What is so controversial about the drone debate is not the means, but rather the methods. The use of ordnance with which the user does not directly engage a target has been a part of war since the birth of long-range artillery. Cruise missiles, a weapon with a similar delivery mechanism to drones, were heavily deployed during the Gulf and Iraq wars with little criticism or controversy as to their legality.
Yet today, the monopolised use of drones by the American military and its CIA counterparts is widely condemned on ethical as well as legal grounds.
None of this has slowed deployment of the technology. On Friday, the US president, Barack Obama, announced that the Pentagon was opening a new drone base in Niger to assist France in its military campaign in neighbouring Mali.
As the drone debate heats up, a number of fundamental issues will continue to frame the conversation. They include:
Ÿ Civilian casualties. The killing of Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of the Tehrik-i-Taliban in Pakistan, in August 2009, resulted in the killing of his wife and several members of his family despite the fact that the CIA drone reportedly had a clear view of the civilian targets next to him. The attack was carried out even after a visual of civilian targets, and despite the fact that the Pakistani authorities indicated they would have cooperated.
Despite this type of recklessness with civilian casualties, drone operators do appear to be becoming more discerning. According to the New America Foundation, a US-based think tank, 60 per cent of targets killed by drone strikes were civilian in 2006. That dropped to 11 per cent last year. In many ways, drone warfare is becoming less lethal than conventional fighting.
Ÿ Secrecy. The lack of transparency in target selection, acquisition and result of engagement are among the most serious criticisms of the US drone programme.
Military officials may present more details to Congress, as required. But the CIA, not enthusiastic about oversight, uses drones covertly in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia despite having been banned from assassinations since an executive order issued in 1976.
While the CIA can operate more efficiently when both drones and intelligence assets are under its umbrella, the agency's mandate is to be primarily an intelligence gathering and analysis organisation. Indeed, many in the CIA, including its current acting director Michael Morell, have argued that the CIA's emphasis on drone warfare has come at the cost of its other more traditional forms of intelligence.
During his leadership of the CIA, David Petraeus slashed the funding of clandestine services while increasing funding for drones. Mr Obama's nominee for the CIA director post, John Brennan, says he would move the drone programme to the Department of Defence. The transferring of the drone programme to the military will allow for much greater scrutiny and for an international legal and ethical framework to be developed for the future use of drones.
While there is the risk that terrorist groups could take better protective measures as a result of greater transparency, failing to openly discuss how targets are selected will do further damage to the US's international reputation.
Ÿ Operational deficiencies. Like other weapons systems, drones should be deployed with a more combined-arms approach. Aircraft have not been the only beneficiaries of the revolution in military technology. Militaries should seek to expand Unmanned Ground Vehicle programmes to support intelligence gathering for aerial drones.
Drones that are currently deployed have optical systems that allow individuals to be identified in high resolution. However, using this technology is dependent on many factors such as weather conditions and whether the targets are out in the open. Getting closer to targets would ensure a greater probability of mission success.
Ÿ Legal and ethical concerns. Lastly, the issue of the killing of US citizens, such as Anwar Al Awlaki, on foreign soil without due process has entered into the drone debate. But this is misplaced; drones are not the only means by which extra-judicial killings occur. Had a manned aircraft or perhaps a ground contingent carried out the killing of Al Awlaki, it would still be in the same legal position.
Debates over drone warfare will continue, and responding to criticism will require finesse from its supporters. But rapid improvements in drone technology will result in a capability to detect, monitor and eliminate targets with much greater accuracy.
The cloud's silver lining is that by their lack of human operators and greater oversight at the level of operations, drones will eventually drastically reduce civilian collateral damage in conflict.
Ahmed Al Attar is an Emirati security affairs commentator
On Twitter: @AhmedwAlAttar