Last week, Northrop Grumman stole the show at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International’s conference and exhibition in Washington D.C., the largest event of its kind. The company’s scope of offerings in unmanned vehicles is so great that E.J. “Gene” Fraser, a VP in the company’s strike and surveillance systems division, gave an overview of the company’s unmanned systems offerings by air, land, and sea, and the U.S. Navy announced at the conference that it has committed $6 billion over the next five years for unmanned vehicles.
But some defense analysts are questioning the effectiveness of unmanned aircraft in the fight against insurgents in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Micah Zenko, a fellow for Conflict Prevention at the Council on Foreign Relations, said in an interview “As a counterinsurgency tool, [the drone attacks are] generally ineffective.” He elaborates, “[The airstrikes are] only one component of what should be a comprehensive national strategy, and we’ve never had a comprehensive national strategy in Pakistan or elsewhere…[US policy has] essentially turned the CIA into a counterinsurgency air force for the government of Pakistan…”
Dr. Loren B. Thompson of the Lexington Institute echoes his concerns about the increasing dominance of unmanned missile strikes in US military policy: “Despite their endurance and versatility, unmanned aircraft are fragile systems that will seldom survive contact with a real enemy. So spending scads of money on them just because the Taliban can’t shoot them down probably doesn’t help us to prepare for more serious challenges.”
Ghahith Abdul-Ahad, a reporter for the British Guardian newspaper, details tactics the Taliban uses to defeat American UAVs from a remote Taliban stronghold in the Afghan mountains: “If you are on a motorcycle and the drone fires a missile, jump off and the missile will follow the motorcycle. If you are with a large group, stop, like musical statues, and the drone will confuse you with the trees…Because of the threat from planes, the fighters didn’t move around in big groups any more: they travelled to the attack areas in twos and threes.”
So even if the Taliban can’t shoot down drones, they are certainly aware of their limitations. Experts disagree on the effectiveness of drones, but in the face of a turning tide, the impact of UAVs is hard to ignore, and perhaps there is a drone 2.0 strategy to address these limitations.