Drones, Data, and the Illusion of Perfect Warfare


By William M. Arkin

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Unmanned is an in-depth examination of why seemingly successful wars never seem to end. The problem centers on drones, now accumulated in the thousands, the front end of a spying and killing machine that is disconnected from either security or safety.

Drones, however, are only part of the problem. William Arkin shows that security is actually undermined by an impulse to gather as much data as possible, the appetite and the theory both skewed towards the notion that no amount is too much. And yet the very endeavor of putting fewer human in potential danger places everyone in greater danger. Wars officially end, but the Data Machine lives on forever.

Throughout his career, Arkin has exposed powerful secrets of so-called national security and intelligence. Now he continues that tradition. The most alarming book about warfare in years, Unmanned is essential reading for anyone who cares about the future of mankind.


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Only Shamash the hero crosses the ocean:

apart from the Sun God, who crosses the ocean?


Held up by three lawn mower–sized wheels, two of them attached to the slimmest of metal poles bolted to its fuselage and the front one strengthened by struts and shock absorbers, the Predator drone has been described as "spindly," as if something weighing more than a ton and standing higher than a tall man, with wings extending the length of four automobiles, should nevertheless be thought of as fragile. The lone push propeller at the rear gives off the familiar whirr and swoosh of a baseball bat, and the engine whines away as it prepares for takeoff. The drone's body is all curves and humps, with that unmistakable rotating bug eye protruding under the cockpit up front, except that there is no cockpit, just as there is no pilot on board.

With its characteristic inverted-V tail, the drone trundles down the taxiway looking from a distance like any commuter plane, slightly flapping as the body turns. But when it takes off, with surprisingly little runway, those long wings capture the friction just perfectly to provide lift. Every second of every day, about fifty of these Predator-type drones are airborne worldwide, over Afghanistan and Pakistan, quietly flying over Yemen or Syria, working in Africa and Latin America, patrolling the US border, monitoring the oceans, conducting civilian and scientific missions of all kinds.1 These airplane-sized drones, which have become so much the staple of American military power, have amassed over a million flight hours in the past decade, hardly the toil of something fragile. They fly at an altitude of 15,000 to 40,000 feet and can stay airborne for as many as forty-five hours. Though they have been flying for over twenty years, they are also hardly static. Constantly updated models and accessorized packages leave the secret showrooms for duty, videotaping anything that goes on below, some even in high-definition. They have sensors that can see both day and night, in clear weather or in sandstorms, at narrow views or at wide ones. Some contain equipment that can listen in to radio and cell phone communications, even precisely locate where these communications are coming from.

The US military operated fewer than 200 unmanned aerial vehicles—drones 2—when the World Trade Center and Pentagon were hit in 2001; today, in addition to some 500 of this Predator class, it possesses well over 11,000 other kinds of drones.3 From just 50 remotely controlled unmanned ground vehicles enlisted to serve at the beginning of the Afghanistan war, the number grew to over 8,000.4 At sea, the navy employed a fleet of 70 unmanned surface and undersea craft at the time of 9/11; they now have over 500.5 Walking robots, unmanned ground sensors and surveillance towers, and reconnaissance blimps abound, not to mention satellites of an unprecedented variety, large and small, in high and low orbit around Earth. Government funding for drones and other unmanned systems increased from about $350 million at the time of 9/11 to well over $5 billion a year by 2013; even with defense budget reductions that come from the "end" of two wars, that spending is projected to surpass $4.5 billion annually through 2018.6

Though one might conclude from the global drone debate that the United States is the sole owner of aerial unmanned vehicles, eighty-eight other nations also operate drones, and fifty-four nations manufacture their own. Italy and the United Kingdom fly their own Predator-type drones. The European countries, propelled by their involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq, built up an inventory of over 3,500 unmanned aerial vehicles (or UAVs) in a decade of fighting.7 France has even flown its own lethal drone missions in Africa. Smaller countries strapped for manpower but heavily invested in their militaries—Israel, Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, and the United Arab Emirates, to name a few—play an outsized role in unmanned research, development, and adoption. The unlikeliest of US allies in the "war against terror"—Burundi, Uganda, Yemen, and of course Afghanistan and Iraq—fly American-made drones. China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea have healthy unmanned programs and innumerable growing inventories. And all these countries don't just have the drones: China uses them to spy on Japan near disputed islands in Asia. Bolivia uses them to spot coca fields in the Andes. Hamas in the Palestinian territories and the Lebanon-based Hizballah state-within-a-state both have and have used Iranian-made drones, Hamas even armed ones. Even NATO ally Turkey pilots drones that increasingly cross its neighbors' borders, American style.

Meanwhile, the unmanned civilian "market" quickly evolves into law enforcement, scientific research, industrial and consumer services, education, and even entertainment. Border agencies and local police have begun emulating their military brethren in acquiring drones not just for bomb disposal and other dangerous missions, but also for intelligence collection and surveillance. UAVs are playing greater and greater roles in agriculture, in weather forecasting, in identifying and locating forest fires and oil pipeline leaks, in assisting archeological and environmental research, and in relaying radio signals, and are increasingly present in businesses from real estate to journalism.

Like the military, the civilian unmanned world is also not just in the skies: Rovers explore the planets and the universe. Unmanned undersea vehicles abound, whether the Jacques Cousteau sort or mini-subs like the one that discovered the wreckage of Amelia Earhart's airplane, lost for almost a hundred years. Self-driving cars are almost in the rearview mirror: Google's experimental versions have already covered half a million miles under computer control. Wheeled and walking robots are no longer just the stuff of gladiator competitions and science fairs; they are increasingly smarter and more adaptive and flexible, and are now taking up regular jobs dispensing medications and even teaching languages. Scores of universities are acquiring their own unmanned vehicles, beefing up their robotics and aerial vehicle programs, some chasing the almighty dollar in homeland and national security grants but many just hungry to pursue the final frontier. And who hasn't seen the news stories about novelty drones delivering pizza, about Facebook buying its own fleet of Internet-in-the-sky drones, or about the promised fleet of Amazon super-primes supplanting the postal service and UPS? Civilian technologies and potential commercial applications have expanded so much and so rapidly that it is no longer the military that is driving technology development in this field, not even after a decade and a half of war.8

To many, this is just the arc of the future, with efficiency and a level of network interconnectedness merely paralleling the Internet of Things: a set of machines literally doing the repetitive and dirty work too dangerous or too boring for humans. To others, all of this is ushering in some nightmare of government spying and killer robots and autonomous decision-makers. "Drone" itself has become a sizzling curse word that for some invokes post-9/11 ethical failure and lawlessness. Predator's deathly name, one critic writes, "conjures images of a science-fiction dystopia, a 'Terminator Planet' where robots hover in the sky and exterminate humans on the ground"; the critic adds for dramatic emphasis that "this is no longer science-fiction fantasy."9 The skyline is so seemingly clouded with the unmanned that communities and states have begun restricting drone use, while gallant citizens declare their intent to do their own hunting, to literally shoot airborne intruders on sight.

Washington (and other governments) meanwhile doggedly and fiercely defend ubiquitous surveillance and targeted killing, claiming they are not only necessary for security but also legal. "It's the only game in town," former CIA director Leon Panetta famously said in 2009;10 "game" was an unintentional label but flippant enough wording to confirm the worst for those who already see this mode of warfare as too careless and remote.

"Remote" describes precisely the way many military and intelligence officers think about public misgivings. Sure, everyone wants less war, but do they really want more risk? Do drone critics really desire less precision, or decisions taken with inferior intelligence, or the greater number of casualties and destruction that would come if somehow the world went backward and returned to the grinding industrial warfare of the twentieth century? A 2013 Army War College study sums up the moment as seen by those who are unruffled by the advance of the unmanned:

Drones place no U.S. military personnel at risk. They do not require a large "footprint" of U.S. personnel overseas. They are armed with accurate missiles that have the capacity to target individuals, automobiles, and sections of structures such as rooms in a large house. Perhaps the most consequential advantage of drones is their ability to integrate intelligence collection with decisions to use force. These characteristics… make drones especially effective at targeting only the individuals against whom the United States wishes to use force, and minimizing harm to noncombatants.11

It is a rousing defense, and yet it is totally off the mark. The argument that drones place no US military personnel at risk is not only exaggerated but is also an evasion of much larger issues, such as who is ultimately at risk and whether the resulting mode of low-cost perpetual warfare really safeguards any lives in the long run (or indeed even contributes to the long-term security of the United States or the world).

And despite the 2010 withdrawal of US forces from Iraq and the end of conventional combat in Afghanistan, no one believes that the United States has really reduced its footprint overseas. The smaller number of troops is more indicative of a twenty-first-century reality, which is the end of the industrial era and the ability to generate even greater combat power than in yesteryear with fewer and fewer soldiers. But while fewer boots, fewer trainees, and fewer deaths and injuries are supposed to mean less human hassle (and less expenditure on people), the strategy is really a Washington bookkeeping trick. Machines do more of the work, but an invisible multitude of civilian contractors has quietly replaced soldiers. What's more, the United States hasn't earned any particular points for a softer touch or greater care; indeed, most people doubt that precision has genuinely been achieved, given the narrative of constant civilian casualties embedded within a competing legend of all-knowing intelligence. Nor has terrorism been defeated; some even argue that the threat from terrorism hasn't even diminished.12 And whatever the actual numbers of terrorists, the Muslim world (and much of the rest of the world) remains unpersuaded about the supposedly benign designs of American empire, even if the foot is smaller and the stomp is more of a grind.

Government propaganda, the mainstream news media, and Hollywood special effects merely add to unrealistic images of what "unmanned" means by characterizing drones almost solely as high-flying hunter-killers or all-seeing and instantaneous answer machines. Yet only about 5 percent of the 11,000-plus drones owned by the United States are airplane-sized.13 An even smaller subset—just a few hundred craft worldwide—are the infamous armed Predator types that garner so much public attention. And yet even one as supposedly knowledgeable as former secretary of defense Robert Gates has described the entire class of drones as "man hunters."14

In fact, far more than nine out of ten of the world's drones are small, short-range, and unarmed. The vast majority of these are no larger than a remote-controlled model airplane. In the United States military, most are just one type of drone, a 4.2-pound little spy machine called Raven.15 These and other personal-sized devices are little more than standard government issue for soldiers these days, the modern equivalents of binoculars or radios. They are increasingly ubiquitous, to be sure, but one could say they are remarkable merely in the same way that smartphones and interconnected everythings are: omnipresent, attention-grabbing, ultraconvenient, annoying, distancing, challenging to privacy and security, definitely exerting some kind of influence on our society even if the ultimate outcome is unclear. And whether or not weapons of today or tomorrow can fly through windows, the belief in such a vision of warfare has itself spawned the explosion of data collection and a shift in focus to information-based hunting. After all, now the military and intelligence agencies have to know where all the windows are. And there are a lot of windows.

The one characteristic that makes aerial drones so different from manned aircraft—a characteristic shared with robots and unmanned undersea vehicles—is that, relieved of the human being on board, they can loiter. They can linger aimlessly, moving about in a slow and idle manner and making purposeless stops in the course of a trip. Before the military started using the buzzphrases "persistent surveillance" and "perch and stare" to atomize intelligence and envelop the drone as just another one of the guys, they used the word "loiter"—as with Panetta's word "game," thereby saying way more than was ever intended.

Now, the reader might think I bring up the term "loitering" to suggest a metaphor for some sort of crime being committed, when in fact it is the aimlessness that I want to focus on. Loitering, drone war advocates say, provides "a clearer picture of the target and its surroundings, including the presence of innocent civilians." The danger is that this very confidence in "surgical precision"—this "laser-like focus," to use the words of drone war architect and CIA director John Brennan—self-validates the use of drones. Proponents argue that because the United States is taking unprecedented measures to be both discriminating and meticulous in its pursuit of terrorists, it is therefore doing the right thing.16

Defenders might argue that I am being unfair, that thirty hours hanging out on the aerial corner is neither random nor idle: like the window, that corner has to be carefully selected, the occupants cataloged; every pedestrian and automobile that goes by has to be identified. And the drone doesn't loiter at just any corner and start looking for bad guys, they'd say; the very driving factor is the bad guys, not the corner. Nothing is left to chance given the variables, they'd argue; the whole process is precise, and tens of thousands of operators and analysts are the human decision-makers and controllers. They'd say that intelligence-driven drone warfare is not harassment of vagrants or dispersal of hooligans or preying upon some poor corner dwellers. It is the very opposite of the indiscriminate slaughter perpetrated both by suicide bombers and by armies of old, they'd argue. Every alternative to airpower and drones—from ground combat to in-your-face counterinsurgency strategies that involve gaining and holding neighborhoods, villages, areas, provinces, countries—increases death, damage, and the level of harm to civilians. The absence of an alternative becomes the justification.

But it is still just targeting that is going on. This thing called targeting is not intelligence collection in any classic sense or with any purpose toward warning or greater understanding or even keeping (or creating) the peace. The so-called intelligence that is being collected and analyzed is just data, raw data that turns into reports, and geographic information that turns into data sets and ginormous multidimensional Libraries of Congress' worth of databases. Information is sought to make the battlefield maps more precise, to map the windows, corners, streets, houses, families, tribes, and social networks. It is a process intended to separate the combatants from the noncombatants, to be sure, to minimize harm to civilians in the crossfire, to let those who are innocent pass, but it is also an approach without a strategy, a patient precision that so much develops its own rhythm and automatic decision-making that it has become antiprecision.

Just as "intelligence" has been turned into little more than targeting data, so too has the human element of intelligence been devalued. "Human intelligence" is most often described as an antidote to technical collection, as a post-9/11 boots-on-the-ground rejection of relying too much on technology and remoteness. But soldiers who do HUMINT, as it is called, are mostly checking identifications and inquiring as to relationships to collect more data. The subspecialty called counterintelligence ends up being little more than local screening of the backgrounds of potential insider threats, natives needed in the fight to better infiltrate cultural and familial black spots. "Identity" intelligence has emerged as a new discipline, the automation of knowing someone without knowing anything else. The field of forensics flourishes on this new battlefield as well, with literal police work now being undertaken by men and women in uniform who are valued neither for their guns nor for their brains; they are just the live robocops closest to the fray. The data that the so-called analysts inspect is disconnected from any particular country or culture or even security outcome. Analysis is reduced to the work of marketing specialists mining transactional data to find their next customers. Country and regional expertise is leadership profiling, countercorruption, counterthreat finance, a bigger set of brains and a bigger set of tools to handle all the incoming nonbattlefield data, as vague and unmeasurable as the war on drugs or the fight against organized crime in ridding civilized society of drugs or crime. As we will see, in this world of loitering, any effort to produce insight and reflections—call it soft power, the battle for hearts and minds, nation building, getting at the root causes, it doesn't matter—has not just been a huge bust; it has been completely lost in the shuffle.

Hundreds of thousands of maintainers and scientists and analysts and technicians (unlaborers, I'll call them) are involved in the process, which isn't unmanned at all. And we have made it global: we have extended the battlefield to every corner and expanded the target lists beyond just terrorists. In this domain wholly given over to targeting, waiting for (or creating) an opportunity to find and to kill has become the preferred and seemingly the only option, whether at the American border or in the remotest corner of Syria or Pakistan. Loitering facilitates and even encourages a perpetual effort. Though humans operate the Data Machine, with collection and analysis and collaboration occurring at all levels, the only real intervention of decision-making occurs when production falters. On a typical day, there is high anxiety, and there are real dangers for many, but if everything goes right, if a prospective operation doesn't portend too much danger, if a prospective strike doesn't equal x-number of calculated potential civilian deaths, if no public controversies arise and there are no leaks, then no real decisions are made.

No one would dispute that warfare has become more information-centric. This data-centric, keyboard-oriented style of warfare also happens to suit the cadre of digital natives who have supplanted the bricks-and-mortar warriors of the previous era: young people who joined the military after 9/11 now make up well over 90 percent of everyone in uniform.17 Military studies point out that 80 percent of these natives, sometimes called millennials—people born between 1980 and 2000—live in households with 24/7 computer and online access, and that 92 percent play video games. By college graduation, the typical digital native has logged 10,000 hours with a joystick of some sort. The military labels these digital natives "information hounds" with "lofty expectations."18

When you talk to military elders about their cadre of digital natives, they describe them as those who "want to do, not to be told." With connectivity as their hallmark, they expect to jump right into a new piece of equipment, a new website, or a new game, learning the controls through trial and error. And not only that—digital natives value team learning, and they achieve and improve naturally through social media. When you visit a military unit or a command post these days, it's quite noticeable to a grease-pencil-trained analyst like me that the ubiquitous accoutrement of modern-day war-making is social media, from the common operating picture to the multiple open chat sessions connecting highly dispersed information workers. And yet this instant messaging, which has all of the immediacy, abbreviation, and fleetingness of teenage texting, goes on in a secure and hidden world and concerns matters of life and death.

These digital natives are supported by hundreds of thousands of devices—handhelds, tablets, laptops, smart thises and thats—and are in constant contact with each other through gigantic communications networks. Every soldier everywhere is called a sensor and a contributor. Each of them sits at his or her console, and collectively they drive a transformation of the world's premier hierarchical institution into one of open information and egalitarian involvement, with civilian leaders at the top and generals commanding the information machine, automated and increasingly autonomous, tended to by a cadre of war-surfers. In fact, for the modern military, almost every aspect of recruitment and training, and increasingly the way operations themselves are carried out, caters to the expectations of these digitally addicted multitaskers.19

In the decade following 2001, almost any contraption or method that might help the US military combat terrorism with less human exposure was also accepted into this fight. Predators and their brethren were acquired to penetrate denied physical space. The mini-and microdrones and the robots and the myriad associated appliances operated at all other altitudes and in all other conditions to put "intelligence" everywhere: the hidden, buried, flying, crawling, and riding sensors peering over the next hill, sniffing and warning of dangers, pulling guard duty, scouting the roads to provide warning for convoys, approaching improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and unexploded bombs.

In Afghanistan and Iraq, and then in new battlefields in Yemen and Pakistan, everyone was told that this was going to be a new kind of war. The United States wasn't going to win the fight against terrorism through defeating an army on the battlefield or attacking some set of traditional targets with bombers. The new mission was going out and hunting. Special operations forces and secret agents—that is, the small-scale and elite fighters like the Navy SEALs of the individual commando variety—would lead the fight, and more activity would take place in the shadows than in the light. Information would be as valuable as any bullet. Humans are engaged in this effort, and there are those individuals who actually go out there and risk their lives. But the irony is that this very human-centric design of hunter-killer special operations, these particular types of boots on the ground, require far more exhaustive preparation and microscopic-level intelligence information than industrial armies ever needed. Thus the technological effort and the human effort demand the same data, a circular requirement that has become the dominant activity.

Arguments are put forward in policy circles around Washington and by the drone manufacturers that unmanned systems merely offer gigantic cost savings or protect the lives of soldiers. Unbelievable advances in information technology, nanotechnology, and even genetics, together with the continued miniaturization of nearly everything, propel unprecedented and constant acceleration. The future already promises personal drones of amazing sophistication weighing just a gram.20

Some might say that these advances merely repeat the historical cycles of technological innovation that every war produces. But that is dangerous thinking. Every element of what has emerged in this increasingly unmanned world is dependent on civilian technology and, in fact, civilian infrastructure. Nothing happens in this world without the Internet, even if private pipelines and superencryption are the way that the military facilitates its own secure enclave within the network. As a result, private and public communications have become one. Developments in the processing and handling of big data, the use of the cloud, and information analysis move forward in parallel military and civilian worlds and at breakneck speed; the best of what is civilian is readily adapted for the military, whereas the robustness of what is military is desperately needed to protect networks that are no longer just civilian.

As civilian melds into military, naturally the number of civilians in the fight also increases. (Some technologies are just too new or too complex for a cadre of eighteen-year-old military gamers to master.) Civilian expertise, though, even when it's from dragooned academic and civilian specialties like anthropology or sociology, hasn't resulted in a better understanding of any country, nor of radical Islam or terrorism. But there has definitely been a mastering of the task of hunting as more and more of the old human tasks—finding and tracking, translation, navigation, even killing—are done more competently, even if in the service of an ultimately automatic Machine.

Though there is a pretense of flattening and greater collaboration through networking, in reality a two-tiered system has emerged. Centrally controlled information and networks akin to public transportation grids deliver big data and the big picture while every digital native gets their own equivalent private vehicle, not only constantly connected but also in control of their own little dashboard, with their own headphones, and their own high-powered flashlights to surf into the unknown. Everyone serves to defeat al Qaeda and other terrorists and enemies, but the actual effort is multitiered, the elite (and truly the few) doing the hunting and killing while the rest busy themselves in social net-warring: guard the bases, secure the supply lines for the convoys that deliver the water and fuel, thwart the IED networks that exist to thwart them, reduce human exposure. Warfare hasn't completely transformed into an endeavor where everyone on the battlefield is merely there to sustain being on the battlefield, but the ratio of those actually doing the fighting to those processing the information and operating the Machine is at historical extremes. It is hard to quantify, but during the Afghanistan war, only 1.6 percent of the supplies shipped to the battlefield comprised ammunition, and less than 1 percent was repair parts. Fuel, on the other hand, constituted almost 39 percent; water, food, clothing, and personal items made up another 55.4 percent.21


  • Praise for AMERICAN COUP:

    "Bill Arkin has a knack for stirring our national pot on uncomfortable issues that must be addressed. Today's world demands unconventional views on unconventional security challenges facing the United States. Bill asks tough questions of our security institutions, and the right answers demand a delicate balance between national-security preparedness and constitutional protections afforded to our citizens."—General Victor E. Renuart, Jr., USAF (Ret), commander of US Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defense Command. 2007-2010
  • "If anybody else had written this book, I would urge caution. But Bill Arkin has explored every nook and cranny of American national-security policy for decades, from nuclear-weapons targeting to war plans for the invasion of Iraq, and his reputation for sober accuracy is rock solid."—Thomas Powers, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and author of Intelligence Wars: American Secret History from Hitler to Al-Qaeda
  • "If Bill Arkin doesn't know it, it isn't worth knowing."—Thomas E. Ricks, author of The Generals

On Sale
Jul 28, 2015
Page Count
400 pages

William M. Arkin

About the Author

William M. Arkin is an American political commentator, best-selling author, journalist, activist, blogger, and former United States Army soldier. He has previously served as a military affairs analyst for the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, and The New York Times. He is the author of several works of non-fiction including  Code Names: Deciphering U.S. Military Plans, Programs and Operations in the 9/11 World and American Coup: How a Terrified Government Is Destroying the Constitution.

Learn more about this author