Free Syrian Army fighters watch smoke rising from buildings at the front line in Aleppo, December 26, 2012.
Free Syrian Army fighters watch smoke rising from buildings at the front line in Aleppo, December 26, 2012.
Ahmed Jadallah / Courtesy Reuters

For the past four years, Americans have been preoccupied with drone technology as a cheap, low-risk, and discriminate way to eliminate emerging global threats without getting entangled in protracted conflicts. The U.S. government has even dramatically changed its military force structure to make armed drones a lynchpin of U.S. power projection. Yet these weapons have been virtually useless in the last two conflicts that the United States has faced, first in Libya and now in Syria. Why is that?

Broadly speaking, the United States has used armed drone strikes overseas in two ways: during war and to prevent war. Battlefield use of weaponized drones is not new (it dates back to World War I), and is fairly ubiquitous. A spring 2013 report by the U.S. Air Force estimated that unmanned aircraft fired about a quarter of all missiles used in coalition air strikes in Afghanistan in the early part of this year. Drones have proved remarkably effective at providing reconnaissance to U.S. troops on the ground, protecting them from enemy attacks, and reducing civilian casualties. When used within a war, in other words, drones are a great way to give U.S. soldiers an edge.

Armed drones have a preventive role to play, as well. They can keep terrorist threats at bay, and thus reduce the chance that Washington will need to send troops to battle insurgents in faraway places. Since 2009, U.S. counterterrorism efforts have involved hundreds of remote-controlled strikes by unmanned aerial vehicles. These were meant to prevent attacks on the United States and its allies by al Qaeda, the Taliban, and other groups. In these cases, the argument goes, discriminate targeting to prevent such attacks beats invading countries after them.

Prevention has thus become a watchword of U.S. policy, but its logic has rarely been applied to belligerent states. The international community had plenty of warning that the Syrian government might use chemical weapons, and now Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has apparently employed sarin gas to kill thousands of civilians. Photographs of rows of children left dead and videos of civilians running in fear have shocked the world. The last time the gas was used -- in Japan by Aum Shinrikyo, a terrorist group, to kill 13 people on the Tokyo subway -- pales in comparison with the recent slaughter in Syria. Could the United States have deployed its drone fleet to destroy Syrian arsenals or to kill those planning to make use of them before this happened?

The answer is no. Armed drones have serious limitations, and the situation in Syria lays them bare. They are only useful where the United States has unfettered access to airspace, a well-defined target, and a clear objective. In Syria, the United States lacks all three.

First, the airspace. So far, armed drones have been used either over countries that do not control their own airspace (Somalia, Mali, Afghanistan) or where the government has given the United States some degree of permission (Yemen, Pakistan). Those circumstances are rare. When the foe can actually defend itself, the use of armed drones is extraordinarily difficult and could constitute an act of war -- one that could easily draw the United States into the heart of a conflict.  

Drones are slow and noisy; they fly at a low altitude; and they require time to hover over a potential target before being used. They are basically sitting ducks. Syria has an air force and air defenses that could easily pick American drones out of the sky. The only real way for the United States to use them would be to first destroy Syrian planes and anti-aircraft batteries. But that would be no different from a full-scale intervention and would negate the tactical advantage of remote strikes. In other words, the conditions under which armed drones are effective as preventive weapons are limited. And the more drones are used for prevention and during war, the more state belligerents will take note of that fact, and will make sure that those conditions are never met on their own territory.

Second, the target. Using armed drones against the Syrian government’s enormous chemical weapons stockpiles would have risked causing the very release of deadly agents that the United States was trying to avoid. Drones are precise but not perfect. Like cruise missiles, their effectiveness mainly depends upon the quality of their targeting information. Worse, an imperfect attack could inadvertently give the Assad government political cover to use the weapons with impunity. Assad could blame the release of chemical weapons on a misfired U.S. drone strike. Since U.S. drones are deeply despised in the Middle East, that argument could enjoy wide hearing. 

Perhaps the United States might instead have tried to target chemical weapons delivery systems or tried to kill the people who were loading or moving them. But intelligence has been insufficient for such delicate operations. And even if U.S. officials got it right, a remote drone attack would have risked giving the rebels access to remaining stockpiles of chemical weapons or delivery systems. As the United States knows, some of those group are connected to al Qaeda. In such a mess of a situation, and especially in the presence of Syria’s large arsenal, there is no alternative to putting humans on the ground to secure dangerous, volatile weapons. Drones –- or cruise missiles, for that matter -- cannot do it.

Third, the objective. The United States wants to punish the Assad regime for using chemical weapons against the Syrian people and to prevent them from being used again. Drone attacks are ill suited for this purpose. They are unlikely either to inflict sufficient pain or to deter other tyrants from following Assad’s lead. A broader objective is to reinforce the global norm against the use of chemical weapons, and such a lofty goal can only be accomplished with a robust international response.

In a politically complex environment -- one in which the United States is not at war and the targets are unclear -- armed drones are really not all that useful. They might seem like a cool new tool to many observers and policymakers, but the horrible predicament in Syria reveals the sharp limitations of the technology -- and the serious problem of relying upon it so heavily in the U.S. force structure. Rather than looking for a quick technological fix, U.S. policymakers should invest more in good analysis and robust human assets on the ground, so as to sort friend from foe. The United States can take the pilot out of the aircraft, but it cannot remove human judgment, risk, and willpower from war -- especially if it plans to keep intervening in murky conflicts in the Middle East.

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