Q. What are the advantages of using drones in combat?
Several factors have made armed drones appear to be the "cure- all" for counterterrorism, as President Obama referred to the administration's reliance on drones. First, drones allow for sustained presence over potential targets. The existing US arsenal of armed drones—primarily the Predator and Reaper—can remain aloft, fully loaded with munitions, for over 14 hours, compared to four hours or less for F-16 fighter jets and A-10 ground attack aircraft. The SolarEagle, a solar-powered drone that Boeing and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) are developing, will be able to remain in the air for five years because of its efficient electronic motors and a long wingspan to maximize solar absorption. The advantages for loitering and persistence compared to aircraft are evident, but the operational duration of a drone flying at stratospheric altitudes offers a plausible replacement for satellites, which are costly and can present nettlesome aerospace engineering challenges.
Second, drones provide a near-instantaneous responsiveness —dramatically shrinking what US military targeting experts call the "find-fix-finish" loop—that most other platforms lack. For example, a drone loiters over targets, collecting intelligence in real-time for hours, days, and sometimes weeks. Then the drone-fired missile travels faster than the speed of sound, striking a target within seconds—often before it is heard by people on the ground. This ability stands in stark contrast to the August 1998 cruise missile salvo targeting Osama bin Laden, which had to be programmed based on projections of where he would be in four to six hours, in order to allow time to analyze the intelligence, obtain presidential authorization, program the missiles, and fly them to the target.
Third, and most important, unmanned systems do not face the limitations associated with manned systems. In particular, drones do not risk the death or capture of human pilots or ground forces since unlike manned aircraft or raids by soldiers, drones fly directly over hostile territory without placing pilots or ground troops at risk of injury, capture, or death. States with armed drones can conduct strikes without risking the lives of their own forces, which minimizes casualties, thereby reducing public outcry at home.
It is not surprising, in light of these advantages, that the use of armed drones has increased dramatically in conflict, and that the stated preference for capturing rather than killing suspected terrorists has been belied by a low capture-to-kill ratio. As part of a 2012 Department of Justice memo, the Obama administration highlighted what it deemed to be a restrictive set of conditions under which it would engage in targeted killings. In this memo, the administration stated that it would kill an individual who presented an "imminent threat" and if capture were not "feasible."32 To be sure, it has seized some suspected militants. For example, the United States has detained a number of high-profile suspects through raids. In 2011, the United States seized Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame, an interlocutor between Al-Shabab and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula off Somalia, bringing him aboard the USS Boxer, where he was interrogated and then brought to New York for a trial. In 2013, the United States conducted a set of raids in Libya that captured Abu Anas Al-Liby, who had been accused of carrying out the 1998 East Africa embassy bombings and was later held in a secure location outside Libya and eventually taken to New York. He later died in custody in early 2015 from complications related to liver surgery, having contracted hepatitis C prior to his capture.33
These raids are more the exception than the rule, however. As of June 2014 fewer than 2% of the 473 non-battlefield- targeted killings have been conducted by raids or armed aircraft, with the remaining 98% by armed drones.34 That these raids, arrests, and interrogations should be used when possible but have largely been avoided may seem surprising since raids help produce intelligence and are less controversial than killings. One reason for the preference for killing suspected terrorists over taking them captive is that it is not always clear what should be done with captured militants. Guantanamo Bay has been long been off the table in terms of accepting new detainees, and the process of trying suspected terrorists in US civilian courts remains fraught from a domestic politics standpoint, with members of Congress from the President's own party resisting trials in their own state or district. While some of the domestic political opposition is simply political theater, there are unresolved questions about the logistics of transporting suspected terrorists in terms of both security and safety. Against this backdrop of having few palatable options for dealing with suspected terrorists, killing rather than capturing has become the centerpiece of the United States' counterterrorism strategy.
Perhaps more importantly, arresting militants in the war zones and unstable areas where they are found is far riskier than killing via an unmanned drone. A pair of attacks in Somalia in October 2013 illustrates the difference. In early October, the same weekend as a Delta Force raid captured Al-Liby, SEAL Team Six landed in Somalia with the intention of capturing Abdulkadir Mohamed Abdulkadir (known as Ikrima), an Al-Shabab leader. The assault landed in failure, with the Special Forces encountering stiff resistance as well as women and children, leading them to withdraw after a fire- fight. Later that month, the United States returned to target Al-Shabab leaders with drones, killing Ibrahim Ali Abdi, a senior commander, and his friend in the attack. Thus, whereas capturing the targets may have been ideal, it was a higher risk proposition to the United States than the use of the unmanned drone that later went in and killed the suspected militant. Conversely, the low-risk proposition of an unmanned raid killed the suspected terrorist in the later (unmanned) case.