I am the harbinger of risk-free warfare. The fact that I'm good at my job is somehow supposed to be a knock on me. Leading political thinkers such as Michael Ignatieff have argued
that since I lack an on-board human pilot (I prefer "co-pilot"), I eliminate a key reason for the political aversion to airstrikes -- the pilot's potential death or capture. I can also hang out for long periods over a target, cost less to manufacture than a manned fighter, carry a variety of weapons, and transmit high-quality surveillance data in real time. So, I am told, I'm the ultimate weapon -- and thus stand guilty of making wars more likely.
Balderdash. While I appreciate the flattery, I'm hardly the magic bullet to global conflict that I'm made out to be. First, Predator and Reaper drones like me are about as fast and stealthy as that crop duster that tried to mow down Cary Grant. So we play it safe, operating over areas where we're unlikely to be shot down. The Taliban, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or Somalia's al-Shabab lack the surface-to-air missiles to hit us. And local militaries in Afghanistan, the Philippines, Yemen, and (most notably) Pakistan have granted either their implicit or explicit permission for us to operate.
And second, I don't work alone. As exemplified in recent reporting by Marc Ambinder and D.B. Grady, it often takes people on the ground in dangerous places -- in many cases Americans -- to ensure that I do my job right. Military personnel and intelligence officers often have to infiltrate a target area for on-site surveillance and reconnaissance before I launch a missile. And manned spy planes like my spiky friend, the RC-12 Guardrail, which helped track captured American soldier Bowe Bergdahl, work right alongside me. Drones don't completely eliminate risk to human combatants, although we do relocate it somewhat. So that's a bad thing now? Yeesh.
And to whatever limited degree humans are pulled from the frontlines, as much as I'd like to toot my own horn (wait, do I have a horn?), it's not like this is without precedent. Every advancement in military hardware -- from the blunderbuss to the Maxim gun to the cruise missile -- has been decried for distancing the warrior from the war. Still, no society has ever won a conflict by setting aside useful weapons.