What is the future of drones in counter-terrorism operations and the war in Ukraine?
Nicholas Grossman, a political science professor at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, is the author of “Drones and Terrorism: Asymmetric Warfare and the Threat to Global Security” and specializes in international relations. Grossman spoke to News Bureau business and legal editor Phil Ciciora about the implications of the US drone killing of former Al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri in Afghanistan.
According to US military officials, Ayman al-Zawahri’s assassination was carried out with a drone with minimal collateral damage. If the US military has these so-called “over the horizon” capabilities with deadly drones, does this argue against “eternal wars” and occupying foreign lands?
Al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri was at a Taliban hiding place in Kabul when the US killed him with a drone strike. This shows that Afghanistan has become friendlier to al-Qaeda since US troops left last year, as critics of the withdrawal had warned. But it also shows that the US retains the ability to track and kill targets there. The aim of the occupation of Afghanistan was to oust al-Qaeda and establish a local partner that would not allow them to return, which ultimately failed. But US “over the horizon” attack capabilities have since improved, giving the US more options.
But now that the government of Afghanistan is helping al-Qaeda rather than fighting it, the US will have less intelligence about its operations and the group will likely be more dangerous. However, that does not automatically mean that spending resources on occupying Afghanistan is a worthwhile consideration.
How important will unmanned aerial vehicles be to the future of aerial combat?
Humans still have better situational awareness than computers and can morally reason and improvise when something unexpected happens. So humans will continue to be responsible for the highest-level aerial tasks – air-to-air combat, top-line stealth aircraft, aircraft-based nuclear strikes. But barring a hot war with China, which both China and America will try hard to avoid, the US can probably establish air superiority against any adversary.
With control over the air, slower, less maneuverable drones can patrol and fire at targets. However, drones do not endanger a human pilot and should eventually be able to perform maneuvers at angles and speeds that cause a pilot to pass out. The Ministry of Defense aims to be able to carry out all air missions by 2040.
What role have Western-supplied drones played in leveling the playing field for the Ukrainians in their defense of their homeland against the invading Russian army?
The most impactful weapons the US and other NATO countries have given to Ukraine are human-portable anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles, and especially the recent deliveries of mobile missile artillery systems known as HIMARS.
But drones have certainly helped. Earlier in the conflict, the Turkish-supplied Bayraktar TB2, a model similar to the US-made Predator drone, allowed Ukraine to fire at overloaded Russian soil columns.
When Russia was forced to scale back its ambitions and the war turned into a drawn-out territorial struggle in southern and eastern Ukraine, the Ukrainians have been using small US-supplied kamikaze drones called the Switchblade and the Phoenix Ghost. These ‘non-line-of-sight’ weapons allow an operator to fly the drone from miles away, use the camera to locate a target, then crash into it with an explosive. They are especially useful for Ukraine’s counter-offensive to recapture Russian-occupied towns and villages, as the Ukrainians will not repeat the Russian tactic of storming populated areas with indiscriminate artillery fire before advancing.
How concerned should we be about our adversaries making drones that could affect US interests?
Not very. The US has extensive electronic warfare and anti-aircraft capabilities to counter enemy drones if necessary. Terrorists could sneak in some small ones to launch attacks, with judges rigging up cheap, commercially available models to function as kamikaze drones, like the Switchblade. Iran has a fairly sophisticated drone industry, which adds to Hezbollah’s arsenal targeting Israel, and would help in the event of a future US invasion. However, China may be able to develop drone swarms and other unmanned technology that the US would find challenging. But America’s capabilities remain more advanced and likely will be for a while.
Does the assassination of al-Zawahri and last summer’s withdrawal from Afghanistan mark the end of an era in US foreign policy in the Middle East?
The US withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 and Afghanistan in 2021 marked the end of the “forever wars” after 9/11. Al-Zawahri was the last major 9/11 plotter still at large. The US and Pakistan captured the main architect of the attack, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, in 2003 and he remains in US custody. US troops killed Osama bin Laden in 2011, so al-Zawahri’s death provides a bookend on 9/11. But the US still has some troops in Syria and Iraq, as well as counter-terrorism forces across Africa. Al-Qaida, ISIS and other groups remain a threat. The US may drop the “War on Terror” framing, but the fight against terrorists will continue indefinitely.
As for broader foreign policy questions, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Israel, nuclear proliferation, global energy markets and other concerns will keep the US engaged in the Middle East for the foreseeable future, albeit slightly differently. But the US focus has shifted more towards geopolitical competition with Russia and China, especially since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and China’s increased pressure on Taiwan.
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