I think we do know that terrorist organizations have an interest in using drones…We’ve seen that overseas already with growing frequency. I think the expectation is that it’s coming here imminently. I think they are relatively easy to acquire, relatively easy to operate, and quite difficult to disrupt and monitor. ~ FBI Director Christopher Wray
One need not delve into the finer philosophical points about any moral equivalence when considering that what FBI Director Christopher Wray told Congress yesterday is obvious. Namely, that terrorists, adversaries – call them what you will – are likely to employ weaponized drones against U.S. targets at home and abroad. Getting huffy or outraged about it won’t change anything. We use weaponized drones because we can. And so will others.
In several ways, the unparalleled technological and logistical primacy that the US has enjoyed from the 1940s through the 1990s is over. Our domestic industrial base, economic power, university system, and managerial techniques remain barriers to entry for many sophisticated intelligence, weapons, and cargo-moving systems. But some nations are still interested in the traditional military equipment and are, in a number of militarily-relevant realms, either our peers or are near-peers. Many nations buy or even build advanced surface ships, submarines, aircraft, and intelligence gathering systems and some of this equipment and the professionalism with which they are employed, is impressive.
When insurgent forces are able to gain access to modern military equipment, they can inflict damage on more sophisticated powers. But in this they attempt to compete against us where we are strong. For example, we no longer see the ostentatious parading of captured, U.S.-provided equipment in daylight by the Islamic State because this type of obviousness is tactically unsound and we can readily target and destroy these embarrassing "own goals."
However, it is in the nexus and culmination of several advancing technologies that the barriers to entry for effective, lethal capability have vanished. The world is filled with tens of millions of savvy technologists and home-brew hobbyists and today they can readily access and combine imagery, identification, timing, guidance and control, and delivery vehicle technologies into cheap, lethal packages. These are potentially much more accurate, ranging, and destructive than the types of aging rockets, mortars, and direct-fire weapons such as rocket propelled grenades (RPGs) available throughout the world.
Someday, perhaps "imminently" as the FBI Director suggests, our public officials will only be seen in weaponized drone-proof "Popemobiles." Or, perhaps like al-Qaeda, ISIS, etc. leaders, ours will go to ground and will only be "seen" via video shot from the safety of obscure and protected locations.
Questions of moral equivalence are beside the point by now. The threat to us is here and we have set the bar, established the pace, and have led the way with our own weaponized drone use against those whom we deem it necessary to eliminate this way. Terrorism is just a tactic. As is counterterrorism. The questions of morality go both ways and in fact are irrelevant now. Our leaders kill those whom they deem deserving of killing per our calculations and supporters of our counterterrorism drone program can assert that our means and motives are on the right side of the moral question. Others can and do disagree.
Critically, others have or will soon have a sophisticated ability to kill the Americans whom they deem deserving of killing per their calculations. And this will be tragic when it does happen. But our leaders and the supporters of our counterterrorism drone program cannot credibly turn away from their creation. While Dr. Frankenstein did turn away in disgust from his monster, he was a moral coward who failed to own and acknowledge his creation. Drone program supporters will try to turn away in disgust from the sights of Americans killed by drones on American soil and bellow in outrage about the inequity and the immorality. Please ignore this hypocrisy – for they paved the way.
Dave Foster is a currently US Navy civilian analyst. Dave was a Marine Corps officer and has degrees in engineering, management, and history. The views expressed in this post are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the US Government. Please send comments and questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.