Let’s Not Limit Our Asymmetric Advantage


2013-02-27 By Dave Deptula

Recently there have been multiple commentaries questioning the efficacy, legality, and appropriateness of using remotely piloted aircraft (RPA)—also referred to inaccurately as “drones.” 

Many of those who embrace constraining America’s RPA operations have formed their positions as a result of two fundamental areas of misunderstanding.

One is the actual reality of “drone” operations, and the second is how our adversaries are conducting an aggressive perception management campaign—very effectively if the recent hysteria over RPA use is a measure of effectiveness.

In military parlance, a “drone” is a target. 

The media like to use it because it is only one word and they don’t have to explain, “remotely piloted aircraft.”  The word “drone” connotes a degree of autonomy that the RPA being questioned simply do not have.

An MQ-1 Predator Unmanned Aerial Vehicle launches for a night flight mission over southeastern Iraq, July 29, 2009. The aircraft serves in a surveillance and reconnaissance role but is also capable of firing two AGM-114 Hellfire missiles (Credit: 407th Expeditionary Group Public Affairs, 8/15/09)
An MQ-1 Predator Unmanned Aerial Vehicle launches for a night flight mission over southeastern Iraq, July 29, 2009. The aircraft serves in a surveillance and reconnaissance role but is also capable of firing two AGM-114 Hellfire missiles (Credit: 407th Expeditionary Group Public Affairs, 8/15/09)

In fact, it nominally takes over 200 people to operate a MQ-1 Predator or MQ-9 Reaper RPA for a 24 hour orbit.  This little known fact among the RPA naysayers is one of the reasons that the use of “drones” allows for more ethical oversight than any other means of force application.

There is significantly greater control, oversight, and review before force is applied than occurs using manned aircraft or surface-based operations conducted by soldiers, sailors, Airmen or Marines. 

The persistence, situational awareness, and degree of control with RPA allows for the immediate suspension of lethal engagement if new circumstances develop or questions emerge.  In addition to the hundreds of operational, maintenance, and analytic personal—many lawyers—and senior-most leadership are directly involved with RPA lethal engagements.

That kind of oversight is rarely if ever conducted with the use of manned aircraft or with boots on the ground or sailors at sea.  RPA essentially carry around their own command and analysis center, and legal counsel as an integral part of their payload.

RPA are the most precise means of employing force in a way that reduces collateral damage and minimizes casualties. 

The accuracy of weapons employed from a RPA is nominally less than 10 feet.  The accuracy of a 155mm howitzer is around 1000 feet, and mortars accuracy range from 200 to 800 feet—and none of the procedures for use of artillery, mortars, missiles from ships, or manned aircraft employ the oversight associated with the use of RPA.

A principal value of RPA is that they provide a perspective only available from operating in the air and persistence to a degree much greater than an aircraft occupied by a person.  That persistence allows time to observe, evaluate, and act very quickly, or to take all the time necessary to be sure of a particular action to assure precise engagement not available any other way in areas.

Several well meaning, but misguided commentators are calling that a new doctrine should guide “drone” warfare.  Some have even gone so far to suggest that “We are in the same position now, with drones, that we were with nuclear weapons in 1945” (David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker).  “Drones” do not define warfare—they are tools that are used as part of its conduct.

Accordingly, they should be regarded and employed as all other “tools” of war are in accordance with the laws of armed conflict and congruent with the Geneva Conventions.

With respect to warnings on consequences, some have gone so far to postulate that the use of RPA allows the adversary to paint us as “distant, high-tech, amoral purveyor[s] of death.” 

Doing so ignores the real motivation of our adversaries in decrying the use of remotely piloted aircraft.  A significant advantage of RPA is that they allow us to project power without projecting vulnerability—something that can’t be done when ground forces are put in harm’s way.  That provides us with an asymmetric advantage that our adversaries find difficult to counter.

As a result they try to manipulate our perceptions to create the conditions that we would do what they cannot—limit the use of what is one of our asymmetric advantages—by spreading falsehoods that “drones” cause reckless collateral damage or are somehow not accurate.  The fact of the matter is that “drones” are one of, if not the most accurate means of employing significant force in our military arsenal.

Airpower, in the form of RPA, is the one Allied capability the Taliban in Afghanistan, Al Qaeda in Pakistan, Yemen, and around the globe cannot defeat directly, so by creating international focus on civilian casualties, and attributing those casualties to “drones” vice the biggest cause of those casualties—themselves, they create political and societal pressure to limit the use of “drones.”

Adversary falsehoods regarding inaccuracy and collateral damage divert attention from the fact that the massive intentional damage, intentional killing of civilians, and intentional violations of international law have been conducted by Al Qaeda and the Taliban—not U.S. “drones.”  These atrocities—not collateral damage—but targeted, intentional violations of international law are masked by the attention given to the misrepresentations of our adversaries.

Adding to the desired effects of adversary actions in decrying the use of “drones” is the inordinate amount of time and concern spent in recent commentary and Congressional “theater” regarding the “rights” of traitors to America.  This “discourse” obscures the fact that Al Qaeda is at war with the U.S.  That makes any member of Al Qaeda—U.S. citizen or not—an enemy combatant, and that makes them subject to engagement using lethal force.

The recent frenzy associated with the supposed legal rights of traitors is the distraction from the fact that the number one cause of the killing and injuries of innocent men, women, and children in Afghanistan and Pakistan is the Taliban.

Another disturbing implication of many of the “anti-drone” commentaries is that our standard of warfare should come from some form of “fairness” in dealing with our opponents.  War is not about “fairness,” it’s about creating asymmetries to our advantage.

RPA provide one of those asymmetries for the U.S. today.  The use of RPA has substantially boosted effectiveness in accomplishing our critical national security objectives—with zero RPA operator casualties, at less cost, and with less collateral damage than have the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade.  The anti-drone crowd keeps saying how much ill will drones generate, but never discuss how much ill will the alternatives generate.

If the people harboring Al Qaida around the world don’t like drones, do you think they like U.S. boots on the ground more?

That said, while introducing enormous capability and employment advantages, RPA are not a panacea for warfare or replacements for the operational components of each of our military services.

But let’s not assist our adversaries by limiting our asymmetric advantages provided by our use of RPA, particularly using rationale rooted in misunderstanding the reality of RPA operations, and shaped by the adversary’s apparently effective ability to manage perceptions.

The carpenter can blame the best hammer for nailing crooked.  

Those who would restrict drone use are saying that the tool is prone to causing problems.

We should be more concerned about the skill of our national security “carpenters.”  Commentators’ concern for collateral damage, morality, consequences, others gaining RPA capability, and national identity has nothing to do with our RPA “tools.”

Rather, all of these concerns are issues that should be more appropriately focused on leadership’s ability to craft and execute coherent strategy and policy.

Dave Deptula is a retired Air Force general. He was in charge of Air Force intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance including remotely piloted aircraft. He directed air operations for Operation Enduring Freedom during the first combat use of a weapon off a drone in 2001.  He is currently an independent consultant and senior military scholar at the US Air Force Academy.

Deptula is also one of our regular contributors.


An earlier version of this piece appeared on AOL Defense.


Editor’s Note: RPAs are part of the evolution of the tools for airpower; they are not some unique fungus to be studied by the Inside the Beltway crowd. 

They are part of the evolution of what Secretary Wynne’s calls the wolfpack.


And they in conjunction with weapons and fifth generation aircraft going to generate an entirely different approach to the weapons enterprise.

We have a piece to be published shortly on the subject of the interaction among fifth generation aircraft, robotics and weapons.

Avoiding the “fair fight” was a constant theme of Secretary Wynne’s time in the Pentagon both in acquisition and as Secretary of the Air Force.

And as we try to rebuild our forces post Iraq and Afghanistan, doing this will be a challenge, but certainly allowing critics to take off the board a capability which is central to evolving Anerican and allied capabilities would be a step backward.