At Large

Wars Without Soldiers

A look at the Obama view of our military future.

By 10.18.13

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For various reasons, the killing of innocent civilians in drone strikes has become a domestic American concern as well as a volatile international issue. The logic in both areas seems at the very least to lack consistency. The impetus given the subject by political motivations, such as in the case of sanguinary Pakistani and Afghan Taliban, tends to weaken the argument.

Within the West there has always has been an antipathy toward innocent civilian deaths during war. Nevertheless, this has not kept warring Western nations from killing civilians indiscriminately and sometimes with intent to induce fear as a weapon in itself. Arguments by some who seek to proclaim moral superiority within the Judeo-Christian ethical standard are not well served by the history of wars and war instruments used by the Western world. The use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV), otherwise known as drones, need not be defended on moral or historic grounds. This system is simply the latest in the evolution of war implements.

Weapons of war – any war, by anyone – are always justified by the requirements of the battle itself, or so it is explained by the victor. Napalm was required in WWII to annihilate Japanese troops hidden in Pacific island caves.The precedent to napalm and flame-throwers of all kinds harks back to the famous “Greek fire” of the Byzantine Empire, an incendiary mixture under pressure used first in naval combat. Burning oil was used in the West going back in antiquity to castle defense. Does this justify use of such a horrible weapon? No, but as long as it was effective, it was used and will be again if deemed necessary.

Comparatively, the use of unmanned flying platforms with both reconnaissance and destructive explosive capabilities, i.e., drones, has the potential for far more accurate modes of individual attack than the heavy artillery and bombers of earlier periods; to say nothing of long range and high altitude maneuverability. In terms of tactical use, the drone has been found to be an effective weapon against high value human targets that otherwise would have required a special operations team slogging many miles toward the target area in order to destroy the target. Exfiltration of the attacking SOF team then poses another problem. The drone removes those problems while accomplishing its mission.

One would have thought the highly sophisticated unmanned weapon would be viewed more benevolently by the political community. Instead, drone use has been roundly condemned as particularly dangerous to civilian populations that fall victim to even carefully targeted drone attacks. It is true, of course, that even the most carefully directed drone attacks tend to kill innocent bystanders simply because hiding within the civilian population is a typical modus operandi of those seeking to avoid detection.

This has been the case with the Afghan/Pakistan-sited Taliban leadership. Casualties among villagers in the vicinity of drone strikes have taken on considerable political significance in both countries and widened into anti-American propaganda attacks around the world. In the U.S. there has developed an antipathy even toward drones viewed as mechanisms for intrusive surveillance without warrant.

It seems counter-intuitive that a weapon system that attempts to target individual terrorist leaders and specific support installations is so vigorously objected to. Warrantless surveillance in the United States, on the other hand, is a serious invasion of individual rights and it is to be expected that the domestic public must gain assurance its privacy rights are protected. At the same time, however, military operations abroad should not be impeded by a mistaken perception that stealthy operations from the sky against America’s enemies should be equally restricted and inhibited.

Military actions abroad do not follow the same order of conduct appropriate to civilian security departments in the U.S., though there are indications that the Obama administration would have it so. In fact there have been many signs in restricted rules of engagement that the defense posture of the White House appears to be aimed at severely reducing or totally eliminating traditional heavy weaponry in the military arsenal.

With a mind set convinced that major wars on land are a vestige of past political realities, tank divisions no longer need to exist; squadrons of heavy bombers with conventional armament as well as fighter escorts are outmoded; aircraft carrier battle groups should be done away with; and large scale infantry units with their substantial support and logistics “tail” can and should be substantially reduced.

President Obama and his advisors are said to see a military world dominated by an increasingly sophisticated long range drone capability augmented by a special operations command as a centerpiece of U.S. military posture. An increased and diversified nuclear submarine force is considered to be an adequate replacement for surface sea-fighting.

All in all, the White House view of the military future has been heavily influenced by advisors from the anti-war wing of the liberal left. These denizens of liberal think tanks view the military future requiring heavy reliance on drones and satellite surveillance/attack capability. Eliminating to the greatest extent possible human participation, this reflects the perception of a reduced American strategic role worldwide. It also means “Star Wars” has some new supporters. These, however, seek to replace the conventional standing force rather than complement it to aid in making the entire defense posture more effective and economical. 

Photo: UPI

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About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.