Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Air Power Without Consequences

Caption: An ML-1Q Predator unmanned aerial vehicle that now appears in the Smithsonian Museum. This was one of the first UAVs to carry armament. Click on the image credit link to see larger versions of this photo.

Image credit cliff1066

Shameful as it is to admit, it was only today that I actually thought this particular idea all the way through to the end...

It all started because Taylor Marsh asked this question in an article on our increased covert military activity in Yemen:
I wonder what [Republican Presidential candidate Jon Huntsman] thinks about drone power?”

Cue Obama’s Next Non-War Speech for Yemen
I can’t speak for Huntsman, of course, but what I think is that it’s air power without the consequences. Drones, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) as they're called by the military, are just airplanes that don’t carry their pilots. That has some distinct advantages. A UAV doesn't have to be big enough to carry a pilot and all the gear that keeps him alive - the ejection seat, oxygen tank and hoses, nor do the instruments need to have readouts or displays. Without the pilot along, the aircraft can be put through much tighter maneuvers, because a human being can only stand so much force on his body. Aircraft these days can be built to take much more.

Those are the tactical advantages. In other respects, a drone is like any other tactical aircraft. That means it is possible to have the advantages of a manned airstrike – the ability to search, improvise, etc., without the possibility that the aircrew will be shot down and captured. It’s no fuss, no muss for politicians who don’t give a damn about the consequences to people who can’t vote for them.

In short, they make foreign adventures less dangerous for the people who run our government. This, I think, is not a good thing. War has grievous consequences - if it's too safe and easy for a country's leader to strike another country without suffering any consequences, it's far more likely that he will. That we are simultaneously conducting such strikes on both Pakistan and Yemen shows this isn't some theoretical objection. We're conducting an experiment in whether it's true right now, and the answer is yes, that's exactly what will happen.

I hadn’t really thought of this until now, I’m ashamed to say. I'd considered that it made using air power less dangerous for the air force that was doing the attacking, but hadn't thought through the political consequences. But there it is, like all the “covert ops” stuff, one of its advantages is that we get to attack someone else without many of the usual political shortfalls.

I liked UAVs a lot better when they were too small to carry weapons.

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