On the Limitations of Air-Power for Counter-Insurgency/ Counter-Terror Operations

Due to the intentionally vague language of the post-9/11 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), both the George W. Bush and Obama Administrations have been empowered to interpret their counter-terrorism mandate broadly, to include targets from the Taliban, ISIS, Boko Haram and other derivatives and affiliates of al-Qaeda—anywhere around the world and indefinitely.

A key component of these efforts has been the U.S. drone program, intended to eliminate high-value targets from these organizations and disrupt imminent terrorist plots against the United States.

However, through open-source data mining, analysts have long known that those killed in the strikes were generally not high-value targets, but low-level militants—with “militant” (or “Enemy Killed in Action” [EKIA]) denoting virtually any fighting-aged male struck down in a campaign. In fact, most of the time the U.S. was not even sure who they were killing, what (if any) group the “militants” belonged to, what (if any) crime they committed which warranted execution or what (if any) threat they posed to the U.S., its personnel or its regional interests.

A cache of military documents leaked to The Intercept confirms this picture by means of the Pentagon’s own statistics and internal reports. However, perhaps the most significant and least explored aspect of the leak is how the documents confirm that the program is not only fundamentally ill-suited to achieve its raison d’etre, it is actually counterproductive in many respects.


A supplement, not an alternative

Up to now the drone program has received overwhelming support, both from U.S. lawmakers and most of the American public, because it is viewed as a method of achieving critical foreign policy and national security objectives with minimal costs, commitments or complications—and particularly, without putting “boots on the ground.”

Of course, it has long been clear that despite the unrelenting air campaigns throughout the greater Middle East over the last decade and a half, groups like Al-Qaeda, the Taliban and ISIS have actually been gaining in strength—in large part due to the blowback and second-order effects of the strikes, ranging from popular outrage at collateral damage to the erosion of governance in the areas most affected.

Nonetheless, the fantasy persists that, with proper tweaking, it is possible to remotely contain, degrade and eventually destroy these groups. The documents released by The Intercept show this to be a fool’s errand: according to the Pentagon’s own assessment, the drone program is ineffective and inefficient precisely due to a lack of special operations and intelligence support on site in the areas of operation.

In other words, the only way that the drone program could realistically achieve its goals would be to sacrifice its primary selling point. Drones are a compliment, not a substitute, forboots on the ground.” And it is critical that policymakers adjust their strategies accordingly.


No ground forces, no ground gained

Warfare is increasingly asymmetrical, fluid and urban. It is no longer possible to simply bomb enemy formations, etc.—instead, effective air campaigns require Tactical Air Control Parties (TACPs) to help “fix” the target.

Without assets deployed to the field, the government is forced to rely extensively on Signals Intelligence (SIGINT), primarily uncorroborated metadata from phones and email accounts, to identify and track their targets. There are myriad problems with this approach:

First, phones and email accounts often have several possible or actual users which shift over time. And perhaps more importantly, it is easy to obscure information, or even feed misinformation to those eavesdropping, if the target believes they are being monitored (as terrorists generally do). Hence the importance of verifying any potential leads through more reliable methods. And in terms of fine-grained intelligence of this nature, there aren’t a lot of good alternatives to U.S. personnel on the ground.

It is difficult to compensate by means of foreign intelligence services in the countries of operation because they often employ methods which are inconsistent with U.S. standards and interests. In many cases, there are even lines of communication between the relevant governments and the militants being targeted (e.g. between the Pakistani intelligence services and the Taliban), and cooperation with these compromised governments could jeopardize, rather than enhance, operations. The Intercept leaks also point to instances where host governments fed misinformation in order to have the U.S. do dirty work on their behalf—for instance falsely portraying domestic dissidents and political rivals as terrorists to be targeted.

However, the U.S. simply does not possess enough drones with sufficient equipment and capabilities to allow remote surveillance to serve as an adequate substitute for direct intelligence. Even if the fleet were upgraded and expanded substantially to account for these shortcomings, there is a critical shortage of drone operators to manage the existing sorties, let alone accommodating a massive expansion. And even were the U.S. to successfully scale up the number of both UAVs and pilots, it would be extremely difficult to process the resultant deluge of information without thousands more analysts to translate the data into actionable intelligence, and then scores of new aides to read the generated reports and advise commanders and policymakers accordingly. The logistics and costs of recruiting, clearing, training, and coordinating all of these would be (or at least, should be) prohibitive.

But ultimately, this sort of upgrade and expansion may render the strikes more accurate, but would do little to mitigate opportunity costs from overreliance on unmanned systems:

It is impossible to effectively capture and/or interrogate enemies with drones. And so even in those instances when a strike successfully kills the intended high-value target, precious intelligence dies with them—information which could otherwise render subsequent strikes more accurate and effective. Not to mention the troves of critical data which could be derived from seized laptops, cell phones or documents, most of which are destroyed in the strikes or go otherwise uncollected because there are no friendly assets on the ground to retrieve them in the aftermath. As a result, each sortie erodes, rather than augments, our understanding of the organizations being targeted—which is one of the main reasons the program has become not only inefficient and ineffective, but counterproductive.


Side-by-side comparison

The Intercept leaks provide a table that powerfully drives home the immense differences between manned v. unmanned missions. During “Operation HAYMAKER” the Pentagon carried out 27 “Enabled Ops” (i.e. special operations ground missions) and 27 “Kinetic Ops” (i.e. drone strikes).

As the chart above shows, the manned missions resulted in the elimination of 13 high-value objectives (JP refers to “Jackpot” i.e. the killing of the intended target), managed to capture 61 additional militants for interrogation, and only killed 2 people who they were not specifically assigned to eliminate–and all without taking a single U.S. casualty.

Over the same number of missions, the drone campaign managed to kill 6 more high-value targets, but captured no one (meaning they collected no additional intelligence on the organization being targeted), and killed 155 people beyond their mandate.  The advantage of “boots on the ground” is very straightforward.


Dual deployment

Of course, there are complications involved with deploying more assets in the field. For instance, Special Operations (SOCOM) is already stretched extremely thin.  In order to deploy Spec Ops teams in conjunction with drone sorties there would have to be both a significant expansion of special operations units and a significant narrowing in the scope of operations worldwide to prioritize the most essential leads. But this rebalancing would ultimately prove advantageous.

Consider the likely reduction in kinetic operations worldwide:

As we’ve previously explored, U.S. forces on the ground would render targeting more precise. Additionally, if these teams were able to more frequently capture, rather than kill, high-value targets (seizing laptops and other assets in the process)—it would be much easier to determine who and where to target in order to maximally disrupt an organization and its operations. The net effect in both instances is that fewer strikes would be required in order to achieve a far superior result.  So what the reduction in scope would amount to, in practice, is fewer unnecessary missions, less collateral damage, and less blowback—all at a lower cost. This narrower suite of missions would probably also be easier to sell to the public, as needed.

However, the primary motivation for replacing human assets with UAVs was never efficiency or effectiveness, but instead, the public’s profound aversion for U.S. personnel being injured, killed or captured by enemy forces. Because Special Forces and drones are more effective together, their simultaneous deployment should help mitigate the dangers of more manned missions. Nonetheless, it is critical for the public and policymakers to internalize a few essential truths:

War is always costly. It is always risky. It is always messy and ugly; its outcomes are always difficult to control, predict or even comprehend. This is why kinetic action, or even the threat of force, should be used as a last resort–and only in the service of vital national interests. If a proposed intervention is not important enough to justify the deployment of Special Operations or intelligence agents, this is a sure sign that it is not essential to U.S. security or interests–and therefore it probably shouldn’t be carried out at all.

Overreliance on unmanned systems pushes the government in the opposite direction, towards military overreach, by creating the impression of a “clean war.”  In reality, there is no such thing.


Published 10/27/2015 by Al-Jazeera America

4/25/2016 Update:

As it relates to manned v. unmanned missions, a recent report presented in Foreign Policy adds another important layer to these arguments. Not only are airstrikes by drones far more accurate and effective when deployed in conjunction with forces on the ground, but it turns out that manned aircraft missions are far more accurate than those carried out by drone. Specifically, airstrikes executed by UAVs are roughly 30 times more likely to kill a civilian than those carried out by manned pilots.

In other words, insofar as the U.S. is going to rely on airstrikes, manned missions should be preferable. Where this is not feasible, it is even more important that UAV’s be deployed in conjunction with intelligence operatives, special forces, and TAC’s as relevant. Relying on drones as an alternative to soldiers is a bad policy any way you slice it.

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