While everyone navel-gazes at the morality and efficacy of drone warfare in the current frame, there’s a bigger shift pending.
Technology Review (love my alma mater) published this article in the August 2013 issue as a brief survey of the history and politics of drone warfare, focusing predominantly on their contemporary use in the War on Terror. But I don’t doubt that we are all relatively aware of concept of drone strikes, and able to infer their positive and negative consequences. So I wish to skip ahead. Quite a bit. Because the current discussion, owing as it does to current leadership and the politics surrounding it, misses the point.
I believe the true point is a much more fundamental, much more dangerous shift: the democratization of force projection. Force. Projection. The thing that normally refers to one group’s ability to impose its will on another group in another place. Free to all. After all, they’re not the most fundamentally difficult or expensive devices to make. Everything (other than diamonds – hi sweetheart!) only becomes cheaper and easier to build over time. And the public policy discussions in vogue make clear that they are both powerful and scary to the mass base – able to influence political will as well as action targets.
When this democratization (I don’t care for the word, but it predates me) becomes fully realized, the short answer is that the principles of success in high-intensity conflict – still with sustained notes of counterterrorism and COIN, as well as a dash of nuclear-era theories of strategic targeting and protection – become applicable to everyone, everywhere, everywhen. I do not mean to limit that pervasiveness to lawful combatants, state actors, and geopolitical issues. It has the potential to be every bit as dangerous as it sounds. We need look only to history.
It seems obvious to state that technology has always driven geopolitics and warfare. Still, too many times the impact of new technology has been underestimated or misinterpreted, allowing the international regime to turn over by amplifying deeper metrics in ways that are assumed to be emergent, but might have been predicted under different observation. One example appeared around the turn of the 16th century. The infamous Cesare Borgia had none other than Leonardo Da Vinci on his payroll and he still didn’t reach all his objectives; despite their combined genius they did not field anything that pressed the right advantages in operations or deterrence amid a typically large group of competitors. Broadly speaking, the Western Renaissance featured a feudal level of self-interest and security competition, fed by a patronage-accelerated innovation cycle and influenced by multiple cultural agendas. Does this sound familiar?
We’re in the “Attitude Era” of international affairs now, people. Hold onto your turkey legs and buxom wenches. More mixed metaphors to follow. (Although I’m frankly not sure I want to post any more details of what I think the best ideas are, given who might read them. The above is intentionally high-concept.)