“What makes aerial drones so different from manned aircraft is not their efficiency as hunters or killers but their ability to linger.” So writes William M. Arkin, a former army intelligence analyst. (“Loitering With Intent,” by William M. Arkin, Harper’s, June 2015 pg. 12) The remark took me by surprise as I tend to think of drones as an unimpassioned means of killing people who are thousands of miles away and whose faces we never see. A sanitary war, to be sure, and a far cry from hand to hand combat which Winston Churchill ennobled in his memoirs.
But Arkin’s essay isn’t about honor and morality in combat. He admits Predators are an efficient way of doing damage to our enemies with little risk to ourselves. What he wants us to comprehend is the burden of this new technology. First, we must understand that only 5% of our drone arsenal is comprised of Predators. The remaining 90% “are small, short-range, and unarmed.” (Ibid, pg. 11.) Their value lies in their ability to “loiter” over a location for hours, providing the military with ground information formerly gathered by manpower — spies and special forces incursions. This new, safer method of securing data is expensive and becoming more so. In 2004, the military allocated $700 million for drone operations, which included an army of technicians to support it. By 2014 that number had risen to $4 billion. (Ibid pg. 12.)
As Arkin admits, drone technology with its “…hunter-killer special operation requires far more exhaustive preparation and much more detailed intelligence than industrial armies ever needed.” (Ibid pg. 13). The areas under surveillance have expanded to include anywhere around the globe. More data requires Big Data to provide the precise degree of information needed to enhance our security. Unfortunately, using and maintaining this technology requires vast sums of money and a bureaucracy to support it. In Arkin’s estimation, “The ratio of people actually fighting to those processing the information and operating the machines has reached a historical extreme.” (Ibid pg. 16)
If anyone marvels at the imbalance of money and personal required to sustain our efforts against a finite number of perpetrators, I think they would be right to do so. But that’s not Arkin’s point. He worries about where drone warfare is taking us. Now that we have the potential to fight wars with a minimum risk to ourselves, will there be those with a mindset that will want to “root out evil” everywhere? Will we, as a nation, be tempted to intervene in conflicts around the globe? If we follow that course, we should be aware of the cost. The morality of drone warfare aside, the distortion to our budget if we undertake these pursuits would degrade our way of life, leave us impoverished and, possibly, in greater danger than before.
I admit, Arkin’s article opened my eyes to an aspect of 21st century warfare I hadn’t considered. When I did, I was struck with a perverse thought. Perhaps there’s an upside to the cost of all this technology, despite Arkin’s warning. As a species, we’ve never been dissuaded from war by blood spilling, including that of the innocent, or by wiping a culture from the face of the earth. But if it becomes too expensive, there’s a chance, having spent ourselves down to our last dollar, war might come to an end.