Khashef, Yemen is at the heart of one of the most lawless regions on the planet. The deserts of northern Yemen are an inhospitable, backward land of illiteracy and tribal warfare that has not much changed since the eleventh century. In September of 2011, Anwar al-Awlaki, the inspirational leader behind the Fort Hood attacks and the “Underwear Bomber,” was hiding in Khashef in the hope that he remained beyond the reach of the United States. On the morning of September 30, he emerged from his compound and began to speed away in a convoy of supporters. However, he was not alone. At over 20,000 feet in the air, two U.S. Predator drones watched him climb into his vehicle, and followed his trail. Within minutes, three Hellfire missiles fired by the drones obliterated him.
No Americans were actually present on the scene. The triggers that fired those missiles were pulled by either CIA or Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) officers based in the United States. Drone warfare has become the standard instrument of America’s anti-terror operations. Yet drones have been vilified by those on the left, oftentimes for the very aspects that have made them an integral part of our war machine. The Nation recently warned in a front-page editorial that “drones foretell a future that is very dark.”
On the contrary, drones should be celebrated for their contributions to our military. Recently, drones have targeted terrorists in unforgiving regions in Pakistan, Somalia, and the Philippines, suggesting that there are very few places safe for terrorists to hide and plot against the United States.
The rise of drone warfare epitomizes the famous line from the movie Patton that “no bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.” Since Predator drones first debuted over the battlefields in the Balkans in the 1990s, the United States has lost over 70 of the aircraft — but not a single Predator pilot. There have been no desperate rescue attempts behind enemy lines, no torture in enemy prisons, and no solemn visits to inform loved ones of their loss. These drones have changed the essential equation of modern warfare by removing any chance of physical harm for our pilots.
The Predator and Reaper drones that are the main stalwarts in the United States’ arsenal have also increased the reach of our military power. These drones can remain airborne for over 24 hours, allowing our forces uninterrupted control of the airspace. Furthermore, the lack of an onboard pilot removes the previous restrictions imposed by human limitations. No longer will a pilot’s exhaustion curtail the ability of a plane to remain the air; instead, a pilot can simply get out of his chair and allow another pilot to take control.
This very advantage of drones has been subject to criticism by the Left. Some say the U.S.’s ability to strike without endangering its own soldiers could lead to reckless attacks that take innocent lives without securing much of a military benefit. And it is true that some drone strikes against terrorists have led to civilian casualties. However, on balance, drones represent the best opportunity to limit collateral damage. Drones have the ability to hover over an area and ensure positive identification of the target before committing to the attack. They also deliver a lighter payload than a fighter jet.
There is also legitimate concern that we will be seduced by our drones to believe that all we need are high-tech strikes from afar — that there will no longer be a need for ground troops. It is imperative that we remember the failures of the retaliatory cruise-missile strikes against Bin Laden in the 1990s; only with the deployment of American troops on the ground did we succeed in destroying the regimes that sheltered him. Iraq would have been lost without the surge of troops under General Petraeus. Actual wars can be won only on the ground.
Opponents of drone warfare frequently invoke a dystopian future of automated robots roaming the battlefield, killing humans without any guidance from afar. But nightmares inspired by Terminator’s Skynet or Battlestar Galactica’s Cylons should not distract us from the current, positive reality of drones controlled by human operators. It is a good thing that our drones dominate the skies while our pilots remain safe in the United States.
— Nathaniel Botwinick is an editorial intern at National Review Online.