Keeping Drones in Context

David Rem­nick, edi­tor of the New York­er, thinks drones are just like nuclear weapons.

We are in the same posi­tion now, with drones, that we were with nuclear weapons in 1945,” said David Rem­nick, edi­tor of The New York­er. “For the moment, we are the only ones with this tech­nol­o­gy that is going to change the moral­i­ty, psy­chol­o­gy, and strate­gic think­ing of war­fare for years to come.”

But it’s inevitable that oth­er coun­tries — includ­ing coun­tries that are hard­ly Amer­i­can allies — will fol­low. Then what?” he said. “We want to have it both ways: to be rid of ter­ror­ist threats with­out going to war in the old way, and not to have to think about the ram­i­fi­ca­tions.”

There are two things here: the anal­o­gy to nuclear weapons, and the pro­lif­er­a­tion argu­ment. Both bump up pret­ty hard against real­i­ty.

First, the nuclear weapons anal­o­gy is… curi­ous. For starters, the rea­son nuclear weapons spawned their own field of study (both for effects and for coun­ter­pro­lif­er­a­tion) is because nuclear weapons cause such cat­a­stroph­ic, indis­crim­i­nate dam­age that no coun­try can coun­te­nance their use in wartime with­out risk­ing total oblit­er­a­tion. For exam­ple, here’s a map of a mod­er­ate-yield nuclear blast dam­age on Wash­ing­ton, DC.

A map of a small-yield nuclear device detonating in Washington, DC, from the website
A map of a small-yield nuclear device det­o­nat­ing in Wash­ing­ton, DC, from the web­site

In con­trast, the Hell­fire mis­sile, which is the most com­mon­ly fired weapon from the MQ‑1 Preda­tor drone (the most com­mon armed drone), car­ries 20 lbs. of explo­sive. More recent­ly, the Hell­fires have even been fit­ted with met­al slugs instead of explo­sives — the drones are pre­cise enough to not need a big boom to still get the per­son they’re tar­get­ing.

From a cat­e­gor­i­cal per­spec­tive, then, the threat to peo­ple, inter­na­tion­al secu­ri­ty, and the exis­tence of entire soci­eties are not threat­ened by drones the way they are by nuclear weapons.

Rem­nick then makes a dif­fer­ent argu­ment, which is that these weapons will seem more scary when oth­er coun­tries begin to use them. And this is true, to an extent: no one likes it when oth­er pow­ers get a hold of advanced tech­nol­o­gy. There are, how­ev­er, two real­ly big prob­lems with this line of argu­ment: the tech­nol­o­gy, and the pol­i­tics.

First, the tech­nol­o­gy. Despite much hype to the con­trary, drones are not fun­da­men­tal­ly new tech­nol­o­gy. Even big, hun­dred-mil­lion dol­lar drones like the Glob­al Hawk are real­ly just air­craft fit­ted with radios to allow a pilot to sit out­side the plane while it flies. Radio-con­trolled air­craft are a few decades old.

There are already shops online where you can buy the parts for a DIY drone kit and be off the ground run­ning video feeds for only a few hun­dred dol­lars.

But that’s not how the U.S. uses drones. Again, con­trary to pop­u­lar per­cep­tions, drones are rarely cheap­er to buy or oper­ate than con­ven­tion­al manned air­craft. For starters, while sin­gle drones are used in some lim­it­ed ways for sur­veil­lance, more often they are oper­at­ed in units called “orbits,” which are gen­er­al­ly four air­craft manned around the clock to pro­vide 24/7 cov­er­age of a lim­it­ed area. This is an expen­sive propo­si­tion.

Accord­ing to the DOD’s Select­ed Acqui­si­tion Report, the MQ-1C Grey Eagle, a more mod­ern drone than the old MQ‑1, is actu­al­ly more expen­sive to buy and to oper­ate than an F‑16 Fal­con. More­over, while it costs less to pur­chase than an F‑35 Joint Strike Fight­er, is actu­al­ly requires more peo­ple and logis­tics to oper­ate — mak­ing it more expen­sive over­all.

More­over, drones in their cur­rent state can only oper­ate with the full con­sent of the host gov­ern­ment. While it has the means to, Pak­istan declines to shoot U.S. drones out of the sky (they even go out of their way to clear their air­space so the drones can oper­ate unim­ped­ed). Sim­i­lar­ly, in Yemen, the gov­ern­ment wel­comes their use. Drones are slow mov­ing air­craft with­out the sophis­ti­cat­ed avion­ics manned air­craft have to evade detec­tion and tar­get­ing — there’s just not as great a need when there’s no pilot on board. So unless these hos­tile regimes either fig­ure out how to make even more sophis­ti­cat­ed drones that can evade detec­tion (an iffy prospect, since even the hyper-advanced U.S. has­n’t got­ten there yet), there’s no like­ly sce­nario in the fore­see­able future where drones can be used in the same way by, say, Rus­sia.

Final­ly, there is the ques­tion of logis­tics. The aver­age drone orbit requires around 170 peo­ple to oper­ate in a remote base near the area where the drones will be used. This is an expen­sive and com­plex prospect involv­ing some­times-secret bases and a great deal of diplo­mat­ic wran­gling along with mil­i­tary state­craft. Nei­ther Rus­sia nor Chi­na pos­sess the sta­bil­i­ty or depth of rela­tion­ship with host coun­tries that would allow such an arrange­ment, at least not any time soon.

To sum­ma­rize: drones are far less dead­ly, and their use far more expen­sive and com­pli­cat­ed, than their crit­ics describe. David Rem­nick­’s con­cerns are cer­tain­ly root­ed in well-mean­ing skep­ti­cism of the pro­gram (and it needs a lot of skep­ti­cism), but such con­cerns are sim­ply not ground­ed in fact. The fig­ures I dug up here are all eas­i­ly acces­si­ble on the inter­net — they require no access to priv­i­leged knowl­edge or inside access to offi­cials to dis­cov­er. It just takes some home­work.

Why so many crit­ics of the drones pro­gram do not put in the time to do this home­work, who­ev­er… well that I’ll just have to think about.

Joshua Foust used to be a foreign policy maven. Now he helps organizations communicate strategically and build audiences.

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