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Drones and the Epoch of One-Click Wars

July 20, 2015 in Economics

By Benjamin H. Friedman

Benjamin H. Friedman

The United States has a problem unique to history’s greatest powers. Our wars are often too cheap. Air campaigns like the 2011 campaign in Libya, the ongoing one against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, and the drone strikes that periodically target militants in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia sacrifice few if any American lives and spend the federal equivalent of loose change.

Because these wars risk so little, or seem to, we have grown too fond of them. We make war without much regard for whether it is worthwhile. Recent U.S. decisions to bomb countries bear less resemblance to the struggle between branches of government that the constitution anticipates than to one-click shopping online, where low upfront cost and ease of delivery encourages whimsical choices uninhibited by debate about value.

Drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles, as their makers prefer, did not cause this circumstance. It results from the United States’ good fortune: wealth, geography that keeps enemies distant, military superiority, and technological prowess. These advantages have long tempted Americans to use military technology, especially airstrikes, as a quick fix for distant political challenges. In recent decades, progress in surveillance and targeting capability and the weakness of U.S. rivals have enhanced the temptation. Drones, by making war seem even cheaper, just exacerbate the problem. In that sense, they are a quintessentially U.S. weapon.

Ours is a good problem to have. The ability to fight war without much risk is privilege of fortune. Other states would eagerly suffer that malady in the same way that most poor people would brave the temptation to overspend on shopping by becoming fabulously wealthy.

The United States has a problem unique to history’s greatest powers. Our wars are often too cheap.”

The trouble is that airstrikes and other quick applications of military force are rarely as cheap as they first appear. They tend to cause unanticipated trouble and begin conflicts without winning them. Escalation to more costly warfare then beckons. Drones strikes may prove to be especially misleading this way. Their benefits come fast and are straightforward. Most strikes bring reports of dead terrorists or insurgents, and their disrupted plans are easily imagined. The costs—especially blowback measured in violent anti-American sentiment and pressure toward escalation — arrive gradually and less discernibly.

The escalation danger is especially underappreciated. As has often been the case with strategic airpower, drones strikes tend to achieve some tactical success …read more

Source: OP-EDS

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