What’s New About Drones?

Obligatory picture of a drone
Credit: Hizballah

In a recent video short (embed doesn’t work) on Andrew Sullivan’s blog, Spencer Ackerman of Danger Room argues that warfare has not fundamentally changed with the advent of drones.  I don’t understand why lack of “fundamental change” should lead us to be any less concerned about the potential consequences of a thing.  In any event, I think Ackerman overlooks one way in which drones are different from other conventional weapons.

In one sense, Ackerman is right: Standoff weaponry is not new.  The measure-countermeasure spiral in which each side seeks to attack the enemy from an effective range greater than that afforded by the enemy’s technology is not new.  In this sense, drone pilots are members of a long tradition alongside Inuits who throw spears with the atlatl and the English longbowmen who devastated relatively helpless French knights at Agincourt.

In this sense, what’s new about attack drones is the totality of the standoff. The operator of the weapon is rendered utterly invulnerable to return fire.  Those targeted for assassination in Waziristan can’t invent an English longbow or a rifled bore and bring their enemy back in range.  It wouldn’t even help them to invent a longer-range drone because in the absence of a whole slew of other intelligence technology, they wouldn’t know where in Nevada to send it.  In this sense, the search for standoff weaponry is essentially over until someone figures out how to operate drones from the moon.

Just to clarify, the technology to target people on the other side of the world is not technically new. ICBMs have been able to do this since the 1960s.  What drones have that ICBMs don’t is the capability to kill single people or mere handfuls rather than hundreds or thousands—and at a fraction of the cost. This combination of technologies—globe-spanning standoff, precision, and point target proportionality–is new.

I don’t doubt that drone pilots understand the gravity of killing another human being.  However, as a physical act, piloting a drone truly is like playing a video game. Regardless of the strategy that drones are used to serve, drones demand of us an examination of the morality of a man killing another man that his government has deemed an enemy combatant (or not) with no risk, even on a very unlucky day in which many things go wrong, to his own life.

Individual moral examination aside, a grave political consequence arises from this technological novelty:  The president of the United States can now order the use of deadly force on an undesirable with none of the political risk associated with friendly casualties.  In the event of mission failure, he will face no backlash from his democratic constituents for causing the death of one of their own in his attempt to bring about the death of an other.

This state of unaccountability has certainly been heretofore attempted by American presidents.  As Ackerman notes, reliance on tactics and techniques that minimize the risk of friendly casualties—even sometimes at the cost of military effectiveness— for political considerations is not new.  In recent decades, pilots have been driven to ever higher altitudes above the known range of enemy air defenses to avoid the political damage that would come with their being shot down over enemy airspace.

But as with the technological novelty described above, what’s new is the totality with which drones achieve the desired political state.  Ackerman asserts that drone warfare is not inherently different from aerial bombardment, but a fighter pilot flying at 26,000 feet—so high that he has difficulty identifying his target—can still be shot down over Bosnia.  A U2 pilot flying at 70,000 feet can still be shot down over the Soviet Union.  With drones, that risk is no longer a consideration at any margin of error, which is why drones are used over Waziristan instead of manned aerial bombardment.

Has an analogous situation ever existed in human history?  Maybe.  It could be that some Chinese statesman in the era of Sun Tzu felt that his use of an expendable assassin carried no political risk.  His constituents (if they can be called that) may never even have learned of the dead assassin’s existence.  However, for the purposes of democratic consent, living Americans need to think of this phenomenon as new.  The targeted assassinations in our name that are taking place in Pakistan would, in all likelihood, not be authorized were it not for the existence of drones.


  1. I think you are spot on. The greatest risk the drone pilot faces is a car accident on his way to work in the morning or after a “flight.” The morality of these weapons and the chilling effect they have on our international relations should be weighed heavily before their use.

    But if the drone is a counter-terror weapon, is the terrorists’ ability to strike quickly and quietly deep in America not the poor man’s drone?

    And great pic of a done, by the way.

  2. Jaylemeux says:

    Tom Barnett has made the argument that drones are merely a symmetricization of the tactics used by terrorists, et. al. but the 9/11 hijackers (for example) sacrificed their lives for their cause. Of course, terrorism involves a much bigger moral quandary about whether killing civilians is justified in service of the greater good. It’s pretty common for folks to deflect criticism of US foreign policy or military conduct by retorting that our enemies use much more brutal tactics than we do. They’re not factually wrong but my answer is that the terrorists aren’t acting in my name or with my tax dollars.


  1. […] an earlier post, I responded to a point from Spencer Ackerman about the novelty, or lack thereof, of drones as standoff weapons. […]

  2. […] inspired by my post on drones, our 39th President takes a stand: Despite an arbitrary rule that any man killed by […]

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