Obama's Armed Drones in Iraq Reek of Mission Creep

Why the administration’s muddy logic for intervention on behalf of a deeply unpopular central government will get America engaged in a Middle Eastern civil war.

Don't worry if you missed it. I mean, what do you buy for the drone war that has everything? Yes, the 10-year anniversary of the CIA's drone strike campaign in northwest Pakistan unsurprisingly passed without mention in Washington, but it has potential lessons for the unfolding deterioration of security in Iraq, as the Islamic State (formerly ISIS or ISIL) continues to seize territory, declaring an Islamic caliphate over portions of Iraq and Syria.

The CIA armed drones program was initially deployed on behalf of one mission -- killing senior members of al Qaeda. But over time, the drones were repurposed for new missions for which they were not originally intended. As McClatchy's Jonathan Landay revealed last year, in May 2007, based upon his reporting from classified CIA documents, the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) requested a drone strike "against an insurgent training camp in the North Waziristan agency after a Pakistani army assault on the compound was repulsed. The Pakistani army sought the strike even though it had been told that drones wouldn't be used to support Pakistani troops in combat." More than one former senior official from the CIA's operations side of the house has told me that the situation presented in Landay's reporting was not the only time that the CIA conducted strikes on behalf of Pakistani security forces.

This mission creep went even further, providing "force protection" by targeting low-level militants who posed a threat to U.S. service members deployed in Afghanistan. Indeed, of the CIA's estimated 372 drone strikes in Pakistan, which killed some 2,800 people, a vast majority were not an effort to eliminate senior al Qaeda members who pose a threat to the U.S. homeland -- which was the very reason armed drones were sent there in the first place.

The Pakistan example came to mind last week, when anonymous Pentagon officials acknowledged that the United States had deployed armed drones over the Baghdad area, reportedly flying from air bases in Kuwait. The deployment of aerial surveillance and strike capabilities in a country -- at the request of the host government in this case -- can be prudent in that it may improve the situational awareness of a chaotic environment, provide intelligence support for the host nation, or protect deployed U.S. diplomats and troops in and around Baghdad.

However, rarely have so many forces and military assets been deployed into an unfolding civil war with such imprecision about the ultimate goal that they are intended to accomplish. In a quote that could haunt the Obama administration, the Pentagon spokesman termed the deployment "a discrete, measured, temporary arrangement," adding "this isn't going to be a long-term mission of the United States military." However, in addition to the 300 U.S. military and intelligence advisors that President Obama sent in June, there are roughly 1,000-1,700 additional private security contractors in Iraq, according to advisors to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Thus, U.S. armed drones could be providing force protection for up to 2,000 people over an area of hundreds of square miles.  

Sending Reaper drones to provide armed overwatch for U.S. advisors is not controversial. But it is the sustained confusion over what other missions those drones could be called upon to do that demands clarity.Without guidelines, the United States could incrementally increase its engagement in Iraq by pursuing additional missions. Consider five justifications, or lack thereof, offered in the past two weeks for America's deployment of surveillance and strike aircraft over Iraq. 

First, before the additional U.S. personnel were sent to Iraq, in keeping with tradition, congressional members from both parties demanded the use of airpower for a number of either unspecific or plausibly unachievable military and political objectives. These included to "change the battlefield equation," "so the Iraqi Army can get itself together," only "if Iraq nears collapse," and to prevent "an Iraq with large swaths of territory under militant control." Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) went further when he stated last week: "We should cut off ISIS's access to their command-and-control structure in Syria. And I think primarily that involves airpower." So, to be clear, Rubio is calling for the use of U.S. air power to do border control, route surveillance, air interdiction, and close air support in both Iraq and Syria. Given the shared 400-mile border, reported ISIS control of the three main border crossings, and the apparent -- though predictable -- unwillingness of Turkey to allow the United States to use the Incirlik Air Base for strike missions in Iraq, this is simply not achievable.

Second, President Obama has not provided any needed clarity regarding his envisioned military objectives in Iraq. At a June 19 press conference, he declared: "We're developing more information about potential targets associated with ISIL. And going forward, we will be prepared to take targeted and precise military action, if and when we determine that the situation on the ground requires it." Unfortunately, no reporters then or since have posed the simple question to him: "What exactly would require that you take military action?" 

Third, when anonymous senior administration officials briefed the press the day after Obama's initial announcement on Iraq, they further muddled under what circumstances the president would authorize the use of force. One official declared that this would only be "if we felt that there was a target on the ground that demanded our unique capabilities." Consider that logic for a second: It is the unique capabilities on hand, presumably armed drones, that make a person or thing targetable, rather than the inherent validity of the target itself.

Another anonymous official added: "The President is focused on a number of potential contingencies that may demand U.S. direct military action.... the threat from ISIL and the threat that it could pose not simply to Iraqi stability, but to U.S. personnel and to U.S. interests more broadly, certainly including our homeland." But that statement only widens a remit already as broad as the Grand Canyon -- although protecting "interests" could mean anything within that description, there appear to be three distinct missions: counterinsurgency, force protection, and counterterrorism.

Fourth, in an interview with NPR last week, Gen. Martin Dempsey presented four different potential objectives should Obama authorize the use of force: "High-value individuals who are the leadership of ISIL. That includes, potentially, the protection of, in particular, critical infrastructure ... blunting attacks by massed groups of ISIL ... support[ing] the Iraqi security forces as they confront ISIL."

But in seeking to clarify matters, Dempsey only muddied them further. Who are these high-value individuals, do they presently pose a "continuing and imminent threat" to the United States so they can be included on a kill list, and how does killing them make it more likely to achieve some desired outcome in Iraq, or elsewhere? Also, "critical infrastructure" can mean anything from computer networks to highways to water systems, as well as oil terminals or pipelines. But should the U.S. military really serve as the Department of Homeland Security for Iraq by loitering armed drones above facilities that are essential for the country's economy or government? Given the seemingly unending attacks by massed groups of ISIL, including against members of Iraq's security forces, when would close air support be provided by the United States? And how would this be coordinated with Iraq: Would there be joint targeting with Iran and Syria -- or with Russian pilots flying the just-delivered SU-25 fighter jets? And of Dempsey's four proposed objectives, which is the priority and what is the primary reason for which the forces have been deployed?

Fifth, a senior Pentagon official noted on June 27 that the armed drones had been deployed "not only to protect our own forces, but to be prepared should the President make a decision to do something more." The official later added: "They're also there looking for targets of opportunities. If the President decides they merit striking." But what are these opportunities, and what merits bombing them?

What the Obama administration has decided in the past two weeks is nothing short of intervening on behalf of a deeply unpopular central government engaged in a civil war. The United States has deployed armed drones over Baghdad apparently on behalf of a force protection mission for U.S. personnel, but they could also be used for any of the other -- more politically sensitive and challenging -- military missions that policymakers and officials have proposed. On June 19, Obama acknowledged that "we always have to guard against mission creep, so let me repeat what I've said in the past: American combat troops are not going to be fighting in Iraq again." But mission creep and incrementalism can happen with aerial weapons systems exclusively. The scope, intensity, and range of targets that CIA drones struck in Pakistan -- especially during their peak in the first three years under President Obama -- would have been unimaginable when President Bush first authorized them in 2004.

For a White House that endorses precise and discrete airpower, there is no such precision or discretion in articulating what that airpower is intended to actually accomplish. Before President Obama authorizes bombing something or someone in Iraq, he has an obligation to articulate to the American public and Congress with clarity what military missions those airstrikes are for, and what they will not be for. To date, an intelligible and unambiguous description of what those missions might be has been lacking, which is the surest path toward an unintended, gradual, and deepening U.S. military commitment in Iraq.



Building a Warship for the Video Game Generation

The Navy's latest high-tech destroyer is basically a floating Xbox. (See bad jokes below.)

Have Xbox players taken over the U.S. Navy? Will America's aircraft carriers be launching "Angry Birds" against China and Iran?

You could be forgiven for thinking so now that the U.S. Navy's most sophisticated warship is designed to be operated by video gamers.

The operations center aboard the new Zumwalt-class stealth destroyer is the ship's nerve center, into which sensor information flows, and from which the crew can control ship functions such as weapons and navigation. The Zumwalts are extremely automated, with a crew of just 130 sailors compared to more than 300 for the Navy's older and smaller Arleigh Burke-class destroyers .

That degree of automation is made possible by the extensive use of big video screens as well as touchscreen workstations. And it turns out that defense contractor Raytheon, which built the Zumwalt's computer network, first tested the controls and displays on game-playing sailors, according to a recent CNN piece.

At $3 billion a ship, that's one heck of a game room.

It's not that the Pentagon has been gripped by joystick fever. It is more that the Navy has realized that the young sailors who crew their ships have been raised with video games. Xbox is how young people, especially young males, have fun, engage in tests of skill, and meet new friends. For example, a Naval Postgraduate School survey last year of 200 enlisted Marines found that 73 percent owned a game console such as Xbox, and 40 percent used it daily.

So instead of fighting Playstation 4, the Navy embraced it.

For all the jokes about video games being mindless entertainment, there is a lot of sense to the Navy's approach. In a world of high-speed weapons and normal-speed human brains, how data is presented is vital. In fact, it's so vital that battle management has become data management. The Pentagon spends vast sums on command and communications equipment to enable commanders and their aircraft, ships, and ground troops to share targeting coordinates and surveillance imagery even when U.S. forces are thousands of miles apart. But the military is always struggling to ensure that this concoction of numbers, video, and photos is presented in a way that doesn't drown the user in a tidal wave of information. 

Video games are no different. Whether Call of Duty or Minecraft, or even a paper wargame like Twilight Struggle, playing these games boils down to information management. Players must absorb and assess data in order to make the correct decision. This isn't such an issue in Scrabble, where the only time pressure is your family yelling at you to put down a word. In the case of the first-person-shooter games like Call of Duty that are popular with 18 year-olds, time pressure is the essence of the game. Those who shoot first win. Those who don't lose.

Is this so different than a sailor who has to assess whether the blip on his sensor display is a Chinese missile incoming at supersonic speed? Of course, the stakes are not the same. But in a sense, they are also life and death for computer game publishers. A $40 million video game can flop if players complain that the game controls don't allow them to switch weapons easily, or that the graphics make it difficult to spot the monster hiding in the shadows.

Game publishers spend a lot of time and money designing the interface of their games so that players are able to quickly perceive and react to data. Why shouldn't the military take advantage of this model?

It is also important to remember that video games are not the same as video game technology. The software on our computers and cell phones now use graphics that look they stepped out of a video game. Unless Zumwalt sailors can earn virtual healing potions and magic swords by using their consoles, they are only using the trappings of video games. In this case, form triumphs over function.

Yet practical as the Navy's approach was, gamer-friendliness was not enough to save the poor Zumwalts. Resembling a cross between a Civil War monitor and a floating steak knife, their angular contours were designed to minimize their radar profiles, while their rocket-propelled projectiles could bombard targets 63 miles away. The Zumwalts were supposed to use all that high-tech to provide naval gunfire support for American troops, until the Navy realized that they lacked sufficient anti-aircraft, anti-missile, and anti-submarine capabilities to make them cost-effective.

Instead of buying 32 Zumwalts as planned, the Navy is only buying three. Game over, man.

Nonetheless, the notion of a Navy warship designed for video gamers was irresistible to Rex Brynen, a political science professor at McGill University, and editor of the PAXsims conflict simulation blog. Brynen lampooned the juxtaposition with some thoughts on how such a vessel might operate, such as "No one worries about the ship's lack of vulnerability to anti-ship missiles or its lack of a close-in weapons system because of an almost religious belief that they'll simply 'respawn' in San Diego or Norfolk, Virginia if sunk." Or, "When bored, crews entertain themselves by ganking newbie navies that haven't worked out the intricacies of naval combat yet."

My personal favorite involved the Zumwalt ending up on the discount rack: "Rival navies wait a few years and then buy Zumwalt class ships at one-tenth original cost on Steam."

With a nod to Brynen's comments, I'll add a few of my own on what a ship crewed by video gamers would look like:

  • The ship's engines are fueled by a mixture of Mountain Dew and Red Bull.
  • When enemy missiles are incoming, chaff rockets automatically fire clouds of Doritos to spoof their homing radar.
  • Ship's combat displays come with a PG-13 warning.
  • The crew hires Chinese video game "gold farmers" to run the ship while they relax on deck.
  • If a Zumwalt-class destroyer springs a leak, defense contractors will create a patch -- if the Navy can wait five years for Zumwalt 2.0.
  • America's allies also buy Zumwalts -- but the Mac version. Joint operations become impossible.
  • The Navy raises money for the remaining ships on Kickstarter. Taxpayers who pledge $5,000 get a toy Zumwalt that shoots laser-guided paintballs (the paintballs must be purchased separately at $1 million apiece).

Jokes aide, and whatever the demerits of the Zumwalts, the military was correct in taking gamers into account. While most of the planned Zumwalts won't be joining the Navy, the video game generation will be, and for many years to come. If borrowing from Xbox makes for efficient sailors, bring on the joysticks.

Do you have any thoughts on how a warship or other real-life weapon would work if manned by video gamers? Feel free to share.

via U.S. Navy