Drones are a tool built for a policy preference. Lurking high above the danger on the ground, first Predators and then Reapers defined an era of American warfare, a revealed preference for a diligent, high-tech answer to the messy work of counter insurgency. Yet what if the choice of tool itself shaped how policy makers understood the problem?
A new report out July 31st by the Center for New American Security wants to instead see how much the availability of hammers led to a preference for hitting nails. As paper author Loren DeJonge Schulman writes, the report is an attempt to answer “whether drones have changed us – that is, whether and how drones alter policymakers’ approach to crises and the use of force.”
Through interviews with senior Obama administration officials and other methods, Schulman, herself a former member of the White House National Security Council and Department of Defense, constructs a portrait of a technology whose use was guided at least as much by intimate knowledge as by formal doctrine. The effectiveness of this norm setting is unknown, with the norms of the present lost in a general scaling back of transparency by the current administration.
“In short: many officials seemed moderately satisfied that they had been able, through process and judgment, to apply a limit on the risk that drones would lower the threshold for kinetic action,” writes Schulman, “But even this approach to controlling drone usage has limitations. First, it supplanted traditional forms of kinetic oversight – Congress, public debate – with secret oversight by senior officials who would transition out.”
Drones as a tool of national security, and especially as a tool of counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism, pose a tremendous challenge to oversight. The information they collect is sensitive, the missions drones are used for are often life-or-death, and it is easy to see how a fear of compromising those missions could lead to a fear of disclosure through normal oversight channels. Yet, as the report notes, that places the full public trust for oversight of drone programs into the hands of the same government officials running the drone missions, and involving lawyers in the process to render legal judgement of targeted killing decisions in narrow windows of time.
It’s worth contrasting the CNAS report on managing drones as an instrument of policy with the Stimson Center’s annual drone war report cards. The latest, published in June 2018, noted that the gradual moves towards transparency in drone use during the last years of the Obama administration have all been discarded. While we can infer that the intensity of strikes have increased and read tea leaves for a signs that this is a break from the past, the only way for people outside the administration to comprehensively study the impact of the drone program is through disclosures. Without transparency, it becomes difficult to evaluate drone policy at all, much less determine if that policy is achieving the objectives it was set out to address.
Like the Stimson report cards, Schulman’s look at drones as a tool that drives policy reads as an attempt to discern what conversations might be happening inside the Trump Pentagon, as a new administration of staff and appointees tackle the same challenges of long-running wars abroad with a similar set of tools on hand. The CNAS report closes with an extensive list of policy recommendations, including many calls for oversight by Congress and by the public, as well as baking more transparency into the process. Managing a forever war is a learned skill, and a difficult one, and one that the previous administration struggled with, despite the tools on hand. And those tools are only going to increase: while the Obama administration contended with the labor-intensive work of human analysis of drone footage, the Trump administration will have to determine for itself how it incorporates AI into the intelligence collection and targeting process.