Here I was steeling myself for a big rebuttal from Benjamin Wittes to my “Drone War on Westphalia” post on the implications of our use of drones. But all I got was a difference in emphasis.
In his response, Wittes generally agrees that our use of drones has implications for sovereignty. But he goes further–arguing it has implications for governance–and focuses particularly on the way technology–rather than the increasing importance of transnational entities I focused on–can undermine the nation-state by empowering non-state actors.
I agree emphatically with Wheeler’s focus on sovereignty here–although for reasons somewhat different from the ones she offers. Indeed, I think Wheeler doesn’t go quite far enough. For it isn’t just sovereignty at issue in the long run, it is governance itself. Robotics are one of several technological platforms that we can expect to greatly enhance the power of individuals and small groups relative to states. The more advanced of these technological areas are networked computers and biotechnology, but robotics is not all that far behind–a point Ken Anderson alludes to at a post over at the Volokh Conspiracy. Right now, the United States is using robotics, as Wheeler points out, in situations that raises issues for other countries’ sovereignty and governance and has a dominant technological advantage in the field. But that’s not going to continue. Eventually, other countries–and other groups, and other individuals–will use robotics in a fashion that has implications for American sovereignty, and, more generally, for the ability of governments in general to protect security. [my emphasis]
Given DOD’s complete inability to protect our computer toys from intrusion, I’ll wager that time will come sooner rather than later. Iraqi insurgents already figured out how to compromise our drones once using off-the-shelf software.
Militants in Iraq have used $26 off-the-shelf software to intercept live video feeds from U.S. Predator drones, potentially providing them with information they need to evade or monitor U.S. military operations.Senior defense and intelligence officials said Iranian-backed insurgents intercepted the video feeds by taking advantage of an unprotected communications link in some of the remotely flown planes’ systems. Shiite fighters in Iraq used software programs such as SkyGrabber — available for as little as $25.95 on the Internet — to regularly capture drone video feeds, according to a person familiar with reports on the matter.
It may not take long, then, for a country like Iran or an entity like a Mexican drug cartel to develop and disseminate a way to hack drones. And given the way other arms proliferate, it won’t be long before drones are available on the private market. (Incidentally, remember how some of the crap intelligence used to trump up a war against Saddam involved a balsa-wood drone? Great times those were!)
So Wittes and I are in pretty close agreement here; he even agrees that the larger issue “ought to be the subject of wider and more serious public debate.”
But shouldn’t it be, then, part of the question whether facilitating this process serves national security or not?
In the interest of fostering some disagreement here–er, um, in an interest in furthering this discussion–I wanted to unpack the thought process in this passage from Wittes’ response to Spencer with what appears to be Wittes’ and my agreement in mind:
The point with merit is the idea that drones enable the waging of war without many of the attendant public costs–including the sort of public accounting that necessarily happens when you deploy large numbers of troops. I have no argument with him on this score, save that he seems to be looking at only one side of a coin that, in fact, has two sides. Ackerman sees that drones make it easy to get involved in wars. But he ignores the fact that for exactly the same reason, they make it easier to limit involvement in wars. How one feels about drones is partly conditioned by what one believes the null hypothesis to be. If one imagines that absent drones, our involvement in certain countries where we now use them would look more like law enforcement operations, one will tend to feel differently, I suspect, that if one thinks our involvement would look more like what happened in Iraq. Drones enable an ongoing, serious, military and intelligence involvement in countries without significant troop commitments.
As I read it, the logic of the passage goes like this:
- Drones minimize the costs of involvement in wars
- We will either be involved in these countries in a war or a law enforcement fashion
- Therefore, we’re better off using drones than large scale military operations
Now, before I get to the implications of this logic, let me point out a few things.
First, note how Wittes uses “what happened in Iraq” as the alternative kind of military deployment? Read more