I am not a UAV/UAS capabilities subject matter expert. My knowledge of them is limited to participating with UAVs in the air stack while conducting missions in support of prosecuting SOF objectives. What I know of them is that they have great sensor capabilities, extended aloft time, a low profile, strike capability on certain platforms and they are a cost-efficient solution in an environment where finding targets, fixing them in time and space, and finishing them is difficult, to say the least.
It is due to these capabilities that drones have been relied upon during the war against a growing and dispersed terrorist threat. With the amount of weakening and failed states across the Middle East and Africa, the geographic area of the conflict has expanded in the last few years. Quite frankly, at this point in time we are on the verge of losing control of the terrorist movement as it gains momentum under the Islamic State movement.
Without doubt, there is room for strategic review concerning our use of drones and the acceptable levels of collateral damage for drone strikes. There is plenty of evidence to support the notion that the use of drone strikes creates more terrorists than it neutralizes. When considering how their use factors into a strike decision, one must remain cognizant of the fact that target finishing opportunities are limited. Given the political ramifications of drone strikes, these are decisions that are not made lightly.
With all the debate about drone strikes and their effectiveness, little has been said about the challenges presented by alternative methods of finishing the targets that are currently the domain of drones. A strike by any platform carries the same results politically. Assault is the only viable alternative to drastically reduce the collateral damage that results from strikes.
The logistics and funding required for maintaining and coordinating assault solutions are enormous and contingent on the number of forces that are pre-positioned to conduct such operations. If such an option were to be used, the forces would have to be widely positioned across the growing conflict area. The insertion and extraction of personnel also creates risks in and of itself, whether they be delivered by HALO/HAHO or rotary wing. Regardless of delivery method, they must also be extracted.
Assault mission intelligence requirements are substantial (especially when compared to a drone strike), and sometimes it is impossible to get high-confidence intelligence that mitigates the risk to force. What does this mean? That assaulting objectives, which is one way to limit collateral damage, means our forces have to absorb significant amounts of risk. As intelligence volume and intelligence confidence drops, as it inevitably does in contingency operations outside established conflict zones, risks to forces rise. It is that simple. Our forces aren’t beyond taking risks, that is what they do. But SOF expect to take risks that are mission-appropriate. The civilians in charge of our government shouldn’t expect our forces to take inappropriate risks, either.
In the war on against violent extremists, nearly all targets are time sensitive, and opportunity for engagement is often limited. Time to Target (TTT) for assault forces would often preclude their use and compressed mission timelines would add to the assault force’s risk.
Drones continue to be the best/least worst option for eliminating terrorist threats across the expanded battlefield in the war on terror. But, given the evidence, it is time to review the amount of collateral damage that is acceptable when they are utilized.
(Featured Image Courtesy: Al Clark)