To Kill or to Capture

 “Gentlemen we can rebuild him, we have the technology” is in the opening to the fanciful 1970’s TV series The Six Million Dollar Man.  Interestingly, no one ever asks if we should rebuild him, because it is somehow assumed that if we can then of course we should.  But this question has been around for a long time.  Technology has been the seductive whore of humanity since the discovery of fire and the wheel.  Only in relatively recent history has the question ever been raised that perhaps what we can do is not necessarily what we should do.

The use of chemical weapons in World War I, the use of the atomic bomb in World War II, and the use of Agent Orange in Viet Nam are some recent examples of this.  While ultimately we have come to understand that the use of these advances are wrong, we still are easily seduced by the latest technology that human ingenuity can produce.  And that leads us into question of how should various types of technology be used.

The current crop of Unmanned Arial Vehicles (UAV), are the culmination of several generations of technological advances.  The Radioplane Company produced nearly 15,000 unmanned reconnaissance aircraft during World War 2 (Marilyn Monroe was a famous employee there), McDonnell Douglas built the ADM-20 Quail during the cold war as a decoy to help penetrate enemy airspace, and project Red Wagon would produce and deploy 3,475 Ryan 147B recon UAVs for use over Viet Nam.  Today there are dozens of different types of UAVs produced by Lockheed Martin, Grumman, Boeing, and others.  These vehicles can be used for signals intelligence (SIGINT), photographic intelligence (ELINT), real-time eyes such as border patrol, and now combat.  There are now three countries that have used UAVs in combat; the United States, Great Britain, and Israel.  There are 25 more countries that have the capability to use UAVs in combat but have not, and there are 59 countries that have UAV programs under development; so far, that’s a total of 87.

Because a UAV can be deployed thousands of miles away from its pilot, is cheap to produce, and has a zero risk to human life, the mission capabilities for these vehicles is ever-increasing.  Largely the increased capabilities have entered the political and diplomatic spectrum as much as the military space.  Modern UAVs are stealth capable and multi-mission capable as well.  So let’s jump right into the modern use of UAVs and how the White House determines the policy on their use.

During the Bush Administration we suffered the largest terror attack ever on our soil.  America was fully mobilized and funding for stealth UAV development and production was provided.  The policy at that time was to use the UAV SIGINT and ELINT features to support ground troops with their missions.  In many cases their mission was to locate and capture members of the top 100 terrorists list and the UAVs were an indispensable part of that success.  As a result, the Guantanamo Bay detention camp (GITMO) was created to hold captured terrorists under the authority of the Patriot Act.  Reports of interrogation abuses and the high cost of operation at GITMO caused a widespread call for its abolishment and one of the big issues in the 2008 Presidential election centered on this idea.

Candidate Obama pledged many times during his campaign to dismantle GITMO.  As is often the case, candidates don’t know enough about a situation before they are elected and often make promises that can’t be kept.  What President Obama wanted to do was release the prisoners at GITMO, close the facility permanently, and stop the practice of capturing terrorists.  The first thing he found was that he couldn’t release the prisoners.  The reason was that not one single country in the whole world would take any of them.  That must have been an eye-opening experience for him.  So GITMO remains open for the foreseeable future.  But he could stop the practice of capturing terrorists, and that has been very successful.

It is the official policy of the Administration to “capture if possible or kill if necessary” suspected terrorists around the world.  The reality is that in almost no case does it ever seem possible to capture a terrorist when you are using a highly armed UAV as your weapon of choice.  The policy, therefore, of killing terrorists has largely been a success and generally been lauded and supported in the US.  Interrogation of prisoners at GITMO has stopped but in reality it is because there are no more new prisoners to interrogate.  But there are some interesting side effects of this US policy that should be studied.

The first side effect is diplomatic.  Today in Pakistan over 46% of the people do not support the US.  That makes it very difficult for the Pakistani administration to help the US in their various endeavors in that region.  The Pakistani people have seen (first hand) too many suspected terrorists (and collateral killings) by UAV and they no longer support it.

The second side effect is precedent.  If the US can and does fly over any country it wishes to kill a suspected terrorist, then other countries will follow that lead.  Remember there are 25 other countries that currently have that capability but haven’t used it yet.  The operative word here is “suspected.”  These missions are highly classified and so no proof of guilt of the suspect is ever offered or granted.  Also, the definition of the word terrorist has become murky.  What if you were a financier or accountant, a truck driver of weapons, or even a grower of food consumed by terrorists?  Where does it stop?  The problem is that no one seems to know.

The third side effect is the proliferation of the technology to groups or agencies seemingly outside the laws of the US.  The CIA is heavily involved in the use of UAVs.  If it’s good to fly over a non-allied country to gather intelligence on them, is it therefore good to fly over our own country to gather intelligence on our own people?  We are currently doing it right now.  Again, where does it stop?

And the fourth, and last side effect is legal protections.  You could easily make the case that a citizen of another country that engages in a terror campaign against the US doesn’t get those protections.  But above all else, we Americans believe in those protections.  They are a part of our Bill of Rights and we tend to project them over everyone we encounter, deservedly or not.  Again, we are setting the precedence for these actions in the world.  If we can decide that a person is a terrorist without the presence of evidence, without the benefit of a trial, or without the benefit of presumed innocence then we have set a terrible precedent that will reappear against us.

Imagine if China or Russia were to begin executing people via UAV that they said were terrorists.  Now imagine if some of those people were visiting the US when they were killed, or worse, imagine if they lived and worked in the US and became US citizens and then were killed by a Chinese or Russian UAV.  What could we possibly say to the Chinese or Russians?  We have set the rules with this technology.  We fly over any country we choose and we kill via UAV anyone we believe to be a terrorist, without the benefit of proof or a trial.

So back to the original question, we have the technology and we have proven that we can use it with devastating effect.  But should we be using it at all?  And what parts of the technology should be used, if any?   And where does it stop?

© J T Weaver, 04/01/2013

About J T Weaver

The author of "Uphill Both Ways," a thought provoking series of stories about life, family, and growing up.
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