Sunday, 9 November 2014

Desiring Precision? The desire behind the use of drones.

James I Rogers evaluates the political significance of the role of drones in conflict zones.

We see ourselves as noble warriors and our enemies as despicable tyrants. We see war as a surgical scalpel and not a bloodstained sword. In so doing we mis-describe ourselves as we mis-describe the instruments of death.
Michael Ignatieff, (2001).

Ignatieff’s argument is compelling. By using the term mis-describe he suggests that when ‘we’ (America, Britain, NATO, ‘the West’) conduct warfare in a manner which is dominated by our technological superiority, a disconnect between ‘reality’ and ‘desire’ appears.

Of course, realities and desires are often not akin (especially in times of war). Take for example the conflicting perceptions of drone use. It is commonplace to suggest that in reality drone strikes are a “scourge targeting innocent civilians”.[1] When juxtaposed with President Obama’s desire for them to be part of a “just war — a war waged proportionally” it is clear to see where such differences in perception lie.[2]

So, where does this leave us? Well drone deployment is increasing, and the negative connotations which surround them show no signs of abating. (If anything, attempting to identify the realities of drone use is set to remain the ‘sexy-topic’ of academic, journalistic and media study). However, if we are to truly expose the disconnect between ‘drones desire’ and ‘drone reality’ (and attempt to bridge it) then we must surely spend equal time unpacking the desires and perceived successes which make drones an increasingly dominate part of our strategic thought?

This article will unpack some of these desires. Specifically, it will focus on the desire for ‘precision’ held by the most prolific operator of drones, the United States (U.S).

From Kosovo…

The Kosovo campaign saw widespread use of precision strike as well as advanced reconnaissance means. It was there that the process and procedures for their effective use on the battlefield began to be developed.
General Wesley K. Clark (2001).
Former Supreme Allied Commander, Europe.

At the turn of the twenty-first century, the Kosovo campaign, building upon the initial success of the Gulf War, marked a fundamental milestone for the way in which the U.S conducted warfare. It was within this conflict that precision was achieved with near perfection, paving the way for it to become the staple of American strategic thought.

No longer did the United States need to concern itself with justifying a heavy cost to both civilian and American military lives (once common in times of war). Instead, through the use of “unmanned aircraft with real-time, full-motion video transmitted to command centres thousands of miles away”[3] and Tomahawk cruise missiles, the American political and military elites were able to mitigate the cost of war at a societal level whilst maintaining strategic advantage.

Through these perceived successes American strategy became dominated by the strategic utility and moral justifiability that came with being able to deploy force in a proportionate and discriminate manner, to ensure a cost-free and rapid end to conflict.

A desire for such, proportionate, discriminate, rapid and cost-free precision characteristics continued to dominate American strategic thought as the first decade of the new century progressed. From Operation Iraqi Freedom to Operation Enduring Freedom, and the various theatres it encompassed, precision continued to sit at the core of American warfare.

Through the use of drones, the American military has been able to pin-point and destroy IEDs, carry out the targeted killing of suspected terrorists and monitor or engage with all issues in-between.

Furthermore, this use of precision has allowed the American political leadership to morally justify its strategy within the framework of proportionate and discriminate warfare. As President Obama stated in 2012, “conventional airpower or missiles are far less precise than drones, and are likely to cause more civilian casualties and more local outrage”[4]. As such, the desired characteristics of precision have come to dominate American strategic thought.

This domination continues. As the latest of the 9/11 wars draws to a close and other opens, it is a strategic thought centred on the desire for precision which America continues to choose to guide it through the amorphous conflicts of the unknown.

The United States made up 64 per cent of the world’s drone expenditure in 2013; with this projected to rise to 90 per cent by the end of the decade. Furthermore, in January 2012 the American military possessed 7454 drones, up from 163 in February 2003.[5] This is a 4470 per cent increase in under a decade. From the hand launched RQ-11 Raven to the symbolic MQ-9 Reaper and MQ-1 Predator, these weapons embody American strategic thought centred upon the perceived strategic utility and moral justifiability of precision.

Thus, it is clear that a desire to be proportionate, discriminate, rapid and cost-free in war, through precision, has come to dominate American strategic thought. And the perceived success of drones to achieve these desires goes some way to explaining their increasing use. However, as mentioned in the introduction, desire and reality are not often akin. Therefore, to build upon Ignatieff’s earlier argument, as drones deployment increases at an exponential rate, we must be sure not to mis-describe the reality of drone use to match our desires. As it is here that the disconnect appears.
James I Rogers is a PhD candidate at the University of Hull, where he is researching military strategy and foreign policy. 

[1] Masters, J. 'Targeted Killings', 23 May 2013, accessed at
[2] Obama, B. 'Transcript of President Obama’s speech on U.S. drone and counterterror policy', 23 May 2013, accessed at
[3] Clark, W. (2001). Waging Modern War, New York: Public Affairs p. xxiv.
[4] Obama, B. 'Transcript of President Obama’s speech on U.S. drone and counterterror policy', 23 May 2013, accessed at
[5] Gertler, J. (2012). U.S. Unmanned Aerial Systems, Washington D.C: Congressional Research Service. p.8


  1. Accuracy is merely hitting the target aimed at. Precision, in military terms is much broader - hitting the right target with the right effect. Precision involves a full concern for both intel about the 'correctness' of the target and 'safe' operational procedures avoiding and mimimizing 'collateral' damage and the death of civilians, as well as a full evaluation of the strike and its effects (including 'blowback' and media reports). In this sense the American Spectre Gunship strike on the MSF facility in Kunduz was both highly acccurate but wildly imprecise.

  2. The purpose of mis is similar to writing your mission as this allows you to communicate your goals and objectives.

  3. Thanks for sharing some useful information about drones. I can remember two years ago on my school walk a drone was flown to capture the images of the walk.

  4. It’s better to insurance the drone because it’s also acts like other insurance policies. If we lose our drone or get into an accident, the company will cover our damage and liability costs to a certain extent.