The New Rules: Drones and the Re-symmetricized Battlefield

The New Rules: Drones and the Re-symmetricized Battlefield

The skyrocketing use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) by U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan has generated intense debate about how useful they are against insurgent/terrorist networks. Some prominent counterinsurgency experts have decried the "siege mentality" among non-combatant locals caused by collateral damage from the drone strikes. But despite the charge that drones represent a technology (i.e., a means) in search of a strategy (i.e., end goals), there's no question that: 1) drones are here to stay, and 2) they're truly re-symmetricizing the battlefield in a much-needed manner.

Over the past generation, warfare has dramatically downshifted, from the Cold War's system-level rivalry/standoff to the strong focus on regional rogues across the 1990s and then, following the attacks of 9/11, to non-state-actor networks. As an example of the change, when I got into this business nearly 20 years ago, the dominant threat scenario was a nuclear weapons launch killing millions in the process. Now, the most compelling operational standard centers around using a UAV to kill a single bad actor on the other side of the world. Both involve roughly the same scant minutes of response time.

Far from being a hammer in search of nails, the increased use of unmanned vehicles -- be they in the air, on land or at sea -- represent our military finally adjusting its force structure (the mix of platforms) to the strategic environment. As much as the Air Force and Navy dream of large-scale conflict with a "near-peer competitor" (read: our banker, China), our Leviathan force faces a vast sea of asymmetric challenges. In effect, lined up against our "few, expensive and sacred" are their "many, cheap and disposable." Aggressively pursuing unmanned vehicles thus symmetricizes our force, while allowing us to employ a familiar formula: We simply out-resource opponents.

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