Droning on...

There was a terrific NOVA program on the tube last night, on the subject of remotely-piloted vehicles (aka "drones") and their rapidly expanding role in the American military. The show focused mostly on the technical aspects of these weapons, but didn't omit some of the tricky ethical and political questions associated with their use. FP's Rosa Brooks argues that the advent of drones is a recipe for perpetual war; I'm inclined to agree, at least as long as the United States can continue to use them with impunity.

I took three lessons away from last night's program. First, a reminder: for all the alleged successes of our expanded drone program (i.e., degrading al Qaeda in various locales, providing battlefield intel in Afghanistan, etc.) in the end the United States failed to achieve its core objectives in either war. Iraq did not become a stable, pro-American democracy (it remains violent and if anything tilts toward Iran).  Nor did we defeat the Taliban and create a stable democracy in Afghanistan (whose fate will be determined after we leave in 2014). And this reminds us that technological wizardry does not always translate into strategic success.

Second, one of the interesting puzzles of the so-called drone wars is why so few remotely piloted vehicles (RPVs) get shot down. Most RPVs are slow and don't fly that high, which would makes them vulnerable to relatively unsophisticated anti-aircraft weapons. Even the most elusive drones would be invulnerable to fighter aircraft or advanced anti-aircraft missiles. Serbia reportedly shot down some fifteen U.S. drones in the Kosovo War, and Iran may -- repeat, may -- have forced one down over its territory last year.

There are two obvious reasons why we don't lose more drones. One is that some governments (e.g., Pakistan) that object to their use are protesting too much: they are not so angered by drone strikes that they are willing to start shooting them down. Another is the fact that the Taliban and al Qaeda don't have access to sophisticated anti-aircraft weaponry, and nobody is going to provide it to them. Even states like Russia and China aren't overly fond of non-state terrorist organizations, which makes it much harder for the groups that we are targeting with drones to acquire counter-measures that might equalize the situation. But note: this situation also means that the relatively passive environment that we've been exploitng in places like Yemen or Pakistan may not be the norm, and things might be quite different if we went up against a foe that had better anti-aircraft capabilities and was willing to use them.

Third, I couldn't help but consider what the RPV revolution tells us about the future of the manned space program. Homo sapiens has many interesting and attractive qualities, but we also have real physical limitations and keeping us alive in demanding environments like space is very hard and expensive. Sending machines to explore space makes a lot more sense than sending human beings; we will learn more at far less cost if we abandon our romantic notions of "space exploration" by humans and send sophisticated machines instead.

Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt

A warning for 'Davos Man'

Today I want to do a shout-out for the just-released report of the World Economic Forum's Global Agenda Council on Geopolitical Risk. I was privileged to participate in this council this year, and the report is the product of three days' deliberation and discussion back in November and subsequent discussion and redrafting afterwards. (Kudos to Ian Bremmer of Eurasia Group for ably chairing the group).

Our task was to assess geopolitical risks in 2013. You can read the full report for some specific forecasts, but our overarching theme was the increasing vulnerability of elites in virtually every sector. In a globalized and unequal world where information flows almost instantaneously, where economic tides can shift without warning, where masses can mobilize via new media, and where the slightest transgressions can be amplified and repeated in the blogospheric echo-chamber, elites in both the public and private sector can find the ground shifting beneath their feet suddenly and without warning.

Money quotation:

"The vulnerability of elites cuts across emerging markets and advanced economies, democracies and authoritarian states, public and private institutions, and a wide array of issues. This is the challenge: as their legitimacy gets called into question, political actors struggle to react to instability, crises and opportunities in the most effective manner. Whether it is the growing disparity of wealth or the evolving flow information, several factors are facilitating pushback against existing policies and institutions and making both governments and some private actors across the globe look increasingly fragile."

Examples? Think of Hosni Mubarak, Muammar Qaddafi, and (one hopes) Bashar al-Assad.   Look at what happened to CIA director David Petraeus or Dominique Strauss-Kahn.  Consider how Rupert Murdoch's reputation and clout were tarnished by the phone hacking scandal, and ask yourself where his former editor Rebekah Brooks is now. Similarly, the Jimmy Savile scandal brought down the head of the BBC, showing that the leaders of a powerful and sophisticated news organization cannot control the news cycle.

Given that the annual WEF meeting at Davos is a confab of global elites, I wonder if our report will make any of them feel a bit ... well ... nervous. Some of them should.