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Who should be in charge of America's drone program?

Dec 8, 2015

Langley Air Force Base in Virginia is home to the US Air Combat Command. The sound of F-22 fighter jets, called Raptors, seems to constantly fill the air. The mission here is to maintain superiority in the air using manned and unmanned aircraft, as well as space, and even cyber warfare, all working together.

The commander is four-star General Hawk Carlisle.

“If we observe and orient faster than our adversaries, we can make decisions that preclude them from being able to do things. It's that ability to do that faster than anybody else [that] gives us the ability to operate so that our adversaries never know where it’s coming from, or where we’re getting our information,” he says.

The military sees unmanned aircraft as an effective and important part of this, but as only one tool in a large toolbox. Drones aren’t new here, or a one-size-fits-all solution to the war on terror. They also don’t call them drones.

“We really do not like to call them drones because that’s really not what they are. They’re remotely piloted aircraft and, as a matter of fact, it’s a lot of people,” says Carlisle.

He says it takes as least as many people, if not more, to manage that unmanned vehicle. In other words, it’s not flying itself, like the term "drone" suggests. The Pentagon says the belief that they won’t need pilots in the future is also a myth. In fact, Carlisle points to pilot fatigue as one of the biggest issues the military faces right now. He says the demand for these missions has already been so high for so long; they’ve been operating at surge capacity for 15 years. That’s taken a toll on his people and resources.

“I’m trying to supply the war fight with what is needed and keep my force ready. At the same time, I’m trying to modernize for future threats and be able to buy and fix and make and develop technology for what’s next, and the threats that are going to exist out there as they evolve,” he says. “And right now there’s not enough resources to do all those.”

At the end of the day, the military does whatever the president asks it to do, but Carlisle says decisions about how it all gets done, have to be made. “I think it’s a national level discussion of what the United States of America wants their military to be able to do in the future.”

In Washington, that discussion also includes who should be in charge of drone programs — intelligence or defense. Arizona Senator John McCain believes drone strikes should be under the Pentagon. “That’s why they’re called the Intelligence Agency, and why we call the armed forces the people who are supposed to carry out military operations,” he told CNN.

But there’s no consensus on Capitol Hill. McCain chairs the Senate Committee on Armed Services and argues that moving drones under the defense department umbrella would lead to better oversight and transparency. On the other side of the debate is California Democrat Dianne Feinstein, vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. When President Obama called for moving drones out from under the CIA, it’s believed she’s the one who blocked it.

Meanwhile, the CIA is banned from releasing any information about its drone operations, and strikes by either agency are generally not acknowledged by the US government.

The recent terror attacks in France and elsewhere have further complicated this debate. Both France and Britain have stepped up bombing in Syria as a result, but in an open letter to President Obama, four former Air Force service members who carried out drone strikes for the US government are calling the program a “recruitment tool for ISIS.” Others argue the more drones we use, the more likely they are to get into the wrong hands.

Konstantin Kakaes is a fellow at New America, a nonpartisan think-tank in Washington, DC. He says, in the case of these latest attacks, where the perpetrators were local citizens, drones or no drones wouldn’t really have made a difference.

“I think there’s a fear, particularly in the wake of attacks like those in Paris, that terrorists might use drones for nefarious ends. If we actually think soberly about the Paris attacks, they show that terrorists don’t need drones,” he says. “Our vulnerability to simply guns and makeshift bombs far outweighs what somebody might do with a drone, potentially.”

But the broader questions about whether drone strikes are effective is a question that requires more information to answer.

“I think, as with any other technology, it’s difficult to isolate the drone and say, ‘is this effective or ineffective’ without a broader question of what US foreign policy ought to be,” he says.