The coming drone wars

Updated

The Associated Press published a profile this morning of “John,” the veteran CIA analyst tasked (for the better part of a decade) with finding Osama bin Laden. It is more than just an insider’s look at espionage; there are some insights about military policy, as well. One insight concerns how drones factored into the hunt for bin Laden:

While he was shepherding the hunt for bin Laden, John also was pushing to expand the Predator program, the agency’s use of unmanned airplanes to launch missiles at terrorists. The CIA largely confined those strikes to targets along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan. But in late 2007 and early 2008, John said the CIA needed to carry out those attacks deeper inside Pakistan.

It was a risky move. Pakistan was an important but shaky ally. John’s analysts saw an increase in the number of Westerners training in Pakistani terrorist camps. John worried that those men would soon start showing up on U.S. soil.

“We’ve got to act,” John said, a former senior intelligence official recalls. “There’s no explaining inaction.”

The report made me go back and take a look at something else I’d read this morning – the Washington Post’s look at the recent Zhuhai air show, which they call the premier event for China’s aviation industry (the video embedded above played there):

…the thin, sleek drone locates what appears to be a U.S. aircraft carrier group near an island with a striking resemblance to Taiwan and sends targeting information back to shore, triggering a devastating barrage of cruise missiles toward the formation of ships. Little is known about the actual abilities of the WJ-600 drone or the more than two dozen other Chinese models that were on display at Zhuhai in November. But the speed at which they have been developed highlights how U.S. military successes with drones have changed strategic thinking worldwide and spurred a global rush for unmanned aircraft.

I’m not sure this is what President Obama meant when he told the UN two years ago that the United States were ready to “lead by example.” Whenever he leaves office, one of his more striking legacies will be his allegiance to, and acceleration of, drone warfare. It appears now that particular legacy will extend far, far beyond our borders.

The coming drone wars

Updated