Recently, I read a Center for a Stateless Society tweet linking to an interactive map on Slate.
The map compares the drone campaigns waged by the Bush and Obama administrations. Its description contends that “Obama has ratcheted up his predecessor’s tactic of deploying unmanned aircraft into Pakistan and Yemen to kill supposed terrorists …”
In replies to that tweet, I suggested that the alleged “five to one” increase in drone attacks comes not from a difference in policy between the two administrations but from an increase in drone production and deployment capacity. In other words, if W could have conducted as many attacks, he would have.
The number of drones in service over time corroborates my analysis. As of 2009, “… the total number of military drones has soared to 5,500, from 167 in 2001.” As of this year, the US drone fleet has grown to 7000 and Pentagon officials want $5 billion from Congress to buy more.
That comes to a 130% increase, but not all of those are attack drones. I am not sure exactly which models would qualify as such, but I think we can safely assume that the Predator and Reaper models constitute the bulk of them. In 2009, the Air Force owned 195 Predators. In 2010, that number increased by 137% to 268. In 2007, the Air Force owned nine Reaper drones. In 2010, 57 Reapers. That’s roughly a six to one increase.
So, not only do we see an increase in drone capacity, but we also see an enhancement in capability, as 2011 marked the last Predator delivery and its succession by the Reaper, which can deliver more ordinance and has longer range. And I think we can safely assume that the military has come into more attack drones by now. This six to one increase in Reapers obviously exceeds the five to one increase in drone attacks under Obama, and it does so for practical reasons.
Firstly, workers with the training to operate these drones were in short supply, at least as of 2009.
Secondly, it would appear that drone attacks don’t take place without some sort of diligence in terms of target selection. Or, perhaps we can just chalk it up to a shortage of targets. The Disposition Matrix should eventually fix that.
These drones do not and cannot come into the possession of the military at the whim of any president. Large military contracts take time to fulfill and contractors rarely deliver on schedule. And that comes on top of decisions and investments made well before Obama’s inauguration.
So, we ought not to draw a conclusion pertaining to Obama’s war policies and how they compare to W’s in terms of viciousness. Rather, these administrations share a more fundamental policy of class preservation, of maintaining the status quo. The defense contractor and military elites depend on their budgets and must constantly buy and deploy new toys to perpetuate that funding, and thereby their purpose as a class.
What we have often heard before from military-first proponents, that we must devise new weapons and procure more of them in order to preempt and counter our enemies’ countermeasures, does not work for drone warfare as we currently wage it. These proponents cannot make that excuse this time around. The likes of al-Qaeda have no means to counter drones beyond employing better operational security and adhering to it more strictly. What we have is simply blatant rent-seeking behavior.
If you found my previous arithmetic somewhat tenuous, that’s okay. I never intended to establish a strong correlation between the size of the attack drone fleet and the number of attacks. Obama simply has more attack drones at his disposal as well as a more developed means of producing them than his predecessor, so what else would he do? I suppose that if he really wanted, he could either let the drones sit idle or devote them entirely to the humanitarian/rescue missions that the industry never fails to mention in its public relations material.
But relegating to either fate an attack drone, something engineered as a weapon, would make it pointless. And that is one of the greatest threats to authority, that the people should realize that its stately investments are pointless, that the emperor wears no clothes. In one of my favorite films, Cube, the characters debate over the purpose of the terrible machination in which they find themselves trapped. One of them provides a succinct and chilling answer: “Because it’s here. You have to use it or admit it’s pointless.” Sadly, I have yet to hear a more apt analysis for Obama’s escalation of drone warfare.