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