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How Effective Is the Use of Strike-capable Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems in Counter-insurgency Operations?

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How effective is the use of strike-capable Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems in counter-insurgency operations?
The use of strike-capable Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS) in counter-insurgency operations is a topic that is heavily debated not only amongst military planners and strategists but academics, politicians and the general public. The effectiveness of RPAS as a tool in counter-insurgency is one that divides opinion, yet the use of strikes from RPAS against targets in the counter-insurgency environment has seen a sharp increase post 9/11. The effectiveness of strike-capable RPAS in counter-insurgency operations is, to an extent, subjective and as such must be analysed in a systematic way using the following levels of war: tactical, operational and strategic/political. The end goals of counter-insurgency operations will ultimately decide how effective strike-capable RPAS are as tool in such operations. Accordingly, this essay will establish what exactly the measurement is for effective counter-insurgency, using the levels of war as an analytical framework. Furthermore, this essay will assess the strengths of strike-capable RPAS on the tactical level including its flexibility and precision. It will further assess its inherent strategic and political failures such as its risk of collateral damage, its part in increasing insurgent recruitment and its inability to gain intelligence vital to counter-insurgency operations. Ultimately this essay will conclude that, whilst effective on the tactical level, with NATO counter-insurgency doctrine stating that effective counter-insurgency is ‘ultimately a political struggle’[1] it should be said that strike-capable RPAS is not effective on the strategic/political level and as such is ineffective in counter-insurgency operations.

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In order to evaluate the effectiveness of strike-capable RPAS in counter-insurgency operations we must first understand exactly what counter-insurgency operations are. Knowing the ways in which counter-insurgency operations differ to other conflicts, will allow a more accurate evaluation of the effect of strike-capable RPAS in the counter-insurgency environment. Rineheart defines counter-insurgency as ‘those military, paramilitary, political, economic, psychological and civic actions taken by a government to defeat an insurgency’[2]. He further states that, ‘counterinsurgency is an all-encompassing approach to countering irregular insurgent warfare – an approach which recognizes that a military solution to a conflict is not feasible; only a combined military, political, and civilian solution is possible’[3]. This highlights that counter-insurgency is a complex operation that involves more than military intervention. Furthermore, Rineheart also states that ‘at the heart of any counterinsurgency strategy is a “hearts and minds” approach of promoting good governance and gaining legitimacy in the eyes of the local population’[4]. Rineheart’s arguments give important context to the debate surrounding strike-capable RPAS’ effectiveness in counter-insurgency operations, as they highlight that ultimately counter-insurgency is a socio-political struggle as well as a military struggle. Many governments, most notably the Obama administration, have turned to drones and strike-capable RPAS as a major tool in their counter-insurgency efforts. However, as Walsh argues, ‘drones are a politically and militarily attractive way to counter insurgents and terrorists, but, paradoxically, this may lead to their use in situations where they are less likely to be effective’[5], highlighting that the use of strike-capable RPAS in counter-insurgency operations must be scrutinised to see if it really is effective.
It can be said that there are many advantages to using strike-capable RPAS in counter-insurgency operations, however it should be noted that the majority of these advantages are only effective on the tactical level. Despite this constraint, many academics and military strategists still maintain that strike-capable RPAS can be effective in counter-insurgency operations for a variety of reasons. It can often eliminate the necessity for deploying troops on the ground and putting them in harms way. As Hazelton argues, strike-capable RPAS can ‘give the United States the ability to mount tactical assaults without necessarily putting US personnel directly in harm’s way, potentially evoking domestic opposition’[6]. Further to this, not only does strike-capable RPAS reduce the physical number of troops on the ground it can also act as a ‘force multiplier’[7] enabling the military to increase its scope in a counter-insurgency whilst still using ‘arms-length weapons systems’[8]. Strike-capable RPAS can offer precision attacks and selective violence which should be seen as tactical advantages, as Walsh suggests ‘the more selective the application of violence is, the more effective it will be in punishing and deterring insurgent and terrorist organizations’[9]. The advantages of strike-capable RPAS are evident in the case of the conflict in Yemen. Terrill writes that ‘drones are not popular with the local population, but they do appear to have been stunningly successful in achieving goals that support the United States and Yemeni national interests by helping to defeat the radical group al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)’[10]. In addition, specific examples such as the ‘September 2011 death of terrorist leader Anwar al Awlaki’[11] and ‘the use of drones to support Yemen’s May-June 2012 offensive against AQAP insurgents’[12] both highlight the fact that strike-capable RPAS can be very effective on the tactical level in counter-insurgency operations and give some context as to why they are a popular option among politicians and commanders.
Despite strike-capable RPAS being relatively effective on the tactical level it should be said that, when considering the end goals of counter-insurgency mentioned earlier, it does not employ the same effectiveness on the strategic and political level. Strike-capable RPAS has been linked heavily with collateral damage in counter-insurgency operations with these claims becoming a recurring theme. As Mahadevan states, ‘the use of lethal and non-lethal force should be tailored to the situation, with particular attention paid to preventing collateral damage’[13] however this is often not the case, with RPAS strikes being blamed for a multitude of collateral damage incidents particularly in Pakistan. This of course hugely hinders strike-capable RPAS’ effectiveness in counter-insurgency in Pakistan and in general with Bennet going so far as to say, ‘measured against the level of collateral damage or the state of US-Pakistan relations, the campaign can be judged a failure’[14]. In addition, collateral damage and what can be seen as indiscriminate strikes by RPAS can have an extremely negative influence on the local population, all but ruining the vital ‘hearts and minds’ campaign that is so pivotal to effective counter-insurgency. Killcullen argues that ‘drones’ operational effectiveness was outweighed by their negative effects on Pakistani public opinion and resulting help to terrorist’s recruitment efforts’[15]. It can be argued that strike-capable RPAS are actually contributing to the number of insurgents through their portrayal in insurgent propaganda and their effect on public opinion.  Becker and Shane state that ‘drones have replaced Guantanamo as the recruiting tool of choice for militants’[16]. Walsh further confirms that ‘civilian deaths from drone strikes create powerful grievances against the United States and the Pakistani authorities, and insurgents magnify these grievances through their propaganda—leading individuals and groups to lend direct or indirect support to insurgent organizations’[17]. When viewed in this light it is clear that if effective counter-insurgency rests on securing the local population, legitimising the authorities and winning the battle for hearts and minds, then strike-capable RPAS is ineffective on the strategic and political level, thus ineffective in counter-insurgency operations.
It can be further argued that strike-capable RPAS has yet more traits that make it ineffective in counter-insurgency operations. As previously discussed, counter-insurgency is a complex operation in which intervening forces must ‘create a secure environment…to enable promotion of legitimate governance and rule of law’[18]. Legitimising the government and powers of authority are vital in effective counter-insurgency and it can be said that strike-capable RPAS does not help to achieve this aim. Strike-capable RPAS is viewed by many academics and strategist as an ineffective replacement of traditional counter-insurgency methods. Walsh argues that RPAS strikes ‘may punish and deter a militant movement, but they cannot directly contribute to the protection of civilians and the strengthening of the authority and legitimacy of the government’[19]. Taking Pakistan as an example this theory becomes apparent with Bennett writing that ‘there is the possibility that CIA-directed RPV operations over sovereign territory will de-legitimise and de-stabilise the elected government of Pakistan that it is less able to withstand the threat posed by home-grown terrorist movements like the 35,000-strong Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP)’[20]. This is a huge strategic and political issue that the use of strike-capable RPAS can not address effectively. Furthermore, the use of strike-capable RPAS, despite its many advancements in intelligence gathering capability, isn’t an effective way of gathering the necessary intelligence for counter-insurgency operations. McCrisken argues that ‘while the targeted-killing programme may be operationally effective, it remains a deeply problematic approach to counter-terrorism in that it prevents intelligence-gathering through the capture and interrogation of targets’[21]. The human intelligence gathered from the interrogation of insurgents is key to achieving success in counter-insurgency operations. As former CIA analyst Bruce Reidel states, ‘the use of targeted killing undermines ‘the real homerun [of] taking a senior leader prisoner who, in the course of debriefing, leads you to other senior people and opens the door to a greater insight into the enemy you’re facing’[22]. It is clear that some of the most important intelligence needed in a counter-insurgency operation can not be gathered by RPAS and in fact strike-capable RPAS can often hinder or eliminate this intelligence. Olney confirms this theory arguing that strikes made by RPAS ‘may produce second-order effects that lessen or negate long-term strategic effectiveness’[23] making strike-capable RPAS an ineffective tool in counter-insurgency.
In conclusion, whilst it can be argued that strike-capable RPAS is effective on the tactical level, it is ultimately ineffective on the strategic and political level and as such is ineffective in counter-insurgency operations. Given the emphasis of NATO counter-insurgency doctrine, counter-insurgency is ultimately a strategic and political struggle. It incorporates winning the ‘hearts and minds’ of the local population whist aiming to stabilise and legitimise government and authority, all of which occur at the strategic and political level. Strike-capable RPAS’ traits such as precision strikes and its effect as a force multiplier make it a useful asset on the tactical level. However, these traits do translate in to effectiveness at higher levels. The risk of collateral damage posed by strike-capable RPAS as well as insurgents’ ability to use RPAS strikes as recruitment propaganda for other insurgents add to its relative strategic and political inneffectivness.  Furthermore, strike-capable RPAS is tainted with a poor public opinion among local populations, meaning its use in counter-insurgency operations actually helps de-legitimise local governments. In addition, strike-capable RPAS further fails to gain vital human intelligence and in reality hinders the gathering of this intelligence with a policy of decapitation. With counter-insurgency operations resting on key strategic and political victories, strike-capable RPAS is not an effective tool in these operations.

  • Anderson, K (2013) ‘The Case for Drones’ Commentary Vol 135, No 6, pp.14-23.
  • Bennett, Simon (2014) ‘The Central Intelligence Agency’s Armed Remotely Piloted Vehicle-Supported Counter-Insurgency Campaign in Pakistan – A Mission Undermined By Unintended Consequences?’ Date Accessed: 20 Jun 2019
  • Etzioni, Amitai and Etzioni, Oren, (2017) ‘Pros and Cons of Autonomous Weapons Systems’ Military Review, May-June 2017 pp. 72-80.
  • Hazelton, J.L. (2012) ‘Drones: what are they good for?’ Parameters, 42, (4/1), p.29.
  • Walsh, James (2013) ‘The Effectiveness of Drone Strikes in Counterinsurgency and Counterterrorism Campaigns’ Date Accessed: 19 Jun 2019
  • Terrill, Andrew (2013) ‘Drones over Yemen: Weighing Military Benefits and Political Costs’ Date Accessed: 19 Jun 2019
  • Kreps, S.E. and Wallace, G.P (2016) ‘International law, military effectiveness, and public support for drone strikes’ Journal of Peace Research, Vol, 53, No 6, pp.830-844.
  • Mahadevan, P (2010) ‘The military utility of drones’ Date Accessed: 20 Jun 2019
  • McCrisken, T (2013) ‘Obama’s Drone War’, Survival: Global Politics and Strategy, Vol 55, No 2, pp. 97-122
  • NATO (2016) ‘Allied Joint Doctrine for Counter-insurgency (COIN) (AJP-3.4.4 Edition A)’ , Date Accessed: 20 Jun 2019
  • Olney, L.A (2011) ‘Lethal targeting abroad: exploring long-term effectiveness of armed drone strikes in overseas contingency operations’ Date Accessed 20 Jun 2019
  • Pantucci, R (2009) ‘Deep Impact: The Effect of Drone Attacks on British Counter-Terrorism’ RUSI Journal Vol 154, No 5, pp.72-76.
  • Ranjan, Amit (2014) ‘Drone Attacks in Afghanistan and the AF-PAK Region: Is There Any Other Option?’ Asian Affairs, 45.3, pp.456-66
  • Rineheart, J (2010) ‘Counterterrorism and counterinsurgency’. Perspectives on Terrorism, Vol 4, No 5, pp. 31-47
  • Rogers, A & Hill, J (2014) Unmanned: Drone Warfare and Global Security (London: Pluto Press)
  • Williams, B (2010) ‘The CIA’s Covert Predator Drone War in Pakistan, 2004-2010: The History of an Assassination Campaign’ Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, Vol 33, pp. 871-892
  • Wing Commander D Killeen RAF (2013) RPAS: Future Force or Force Multiplier? An analysis of manned/unmanned platforms and force balancing for Future Force 2020 and beyond (Crown Copyright)
  • Woods, C (2015) Sudden Justice: America’s Secret Drone Wars (London: C. Hurst & Co.)

[1] Allied Joint Doctrine for Counter-insurgency (COIN) (2006) para. 0130
[2] Rineheart (2010), p.40
[3] Rineheart (2010), p.40
[4] Rineheart (2010), p.45
[5] Walsh (2013), p.Xi
[6] Hazelton (2012), p.30
[7] Simon Bennett (2014)
[8] Simon Bennett (2014)
[9] Walsh (2013), P.2
[10] Terrill (2013), p.17
[11] Terrill (2013), p.18
[12] Terrill (2013), p.18
[13] Mahadevan (2010), p.1-6
[14] Simon Bennett (2014)
[15] McCrisken (2013), p.109
[16] McCrisken (2013), p. 110
[17] Walsh (2013), p.18
[18] Mahadevan (2010), p. 1-1
[19] Walsh (2013), p.4
[20] Simon Bennett (2014)
[21] McCrisken (2013), p.111
[22] McCrisken (2013), p.111
[23] Olney (2011), p.37

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