Technology, not policy, will make it easier to conduct the ‘forever war’

Micah Zenko, “The True Forever War,” 24 January 2014, Foreign Policy

Technology, not policy, will make it easier for U.S. leaders to kill people, blow things up, and disrupt computer networks around the world.

… Many correctly highlight that the AUMF does not reflect the scope of the conflict that the United States is now engaged in, and that its elasticity assures that America will remain on a war footing in perpetuity. However, those concerned with the prospects of a “forever war” should be concerned less about the irrelevant post-9/11 legislative mandate, and more about the revolutionary expansion of military assets that have been made available to the president since then. These technologies and processes that have reduced the costs and risks of using force have permanently changed how Americans conceive of military operations. As killing people, blowing things up, and disrupting computer networks will only get easier, it is worthwhile to take stock of where we are today.

Take for example aerial drones. On 9/11, the United States had 167 drones in its arsenal, only a handful of which were capable of dropping bombs. As of December 2013, the Pentagon and CIA have an estimated 11,000 drones, roughly 350 to 400 of which are armed-capable. Beyond the mere volume of unmanned aerial systems, they are becoming larger and capable of loitering longer, containing vastly improved sensor packages, and carrying a greater variety and number of bombs. Unlike in 2001, America’s armed drones can now be controlled by pilots in the United States via dedicated satellite bandwidth, and within three or four years, they will be flown from naval assets, making the need for host nations basing many missions unnecessary.

Subsequently, the inherent advantages that drones provide over all other weapons platforms have made them a first option. And what was developed between 1999 and 2001 to go after one individual, Osama bin Laden, has now been used an estimated 462 times to kill an estimated 3,600 suspected terrorists, militants, and civilians in countries with which the United States is not formally at war. Killing 3,600 people without losing one U.S. service member was unimaginable on 9/11. Now lethal missions by such unmanned systems are entirely routine — and since President Barack Obama announced that he had “reformed” drone strikes in May 2013, they’ve gone largely unquestioned in Washington. …

To be sure, the repeal of the AUMF — however unlikely — must be pursued as it at least brings a rhetorical end to the post-9/11 counterterrorism framework. Yet it is far more important and consequential that policymakers, officials, and citizens be fully aware of the unprecedented lethal and destructive capabilities that have arisen since 9/11. These technologies greatly change the calculus for civilian officials, and they have lowered the threshold for when presidents authorize the use of force. As these capabilities inevitably improve — making it even easier and less costly to drop bombs or send damaging packets of data around the world — future presidents will likely continue to use force against a growing range of perceived national security threats.

Read the full article here.