America plays the Apollo Option: killing from the sky

Summary:   In this post by Chet Richards he looks at the long-term consequences of a grand strategy relying so strongly on assassination — esp by drone aircraft.  It’s an innovation likely to have powerful and unforeseen side-effects.

The Greeks called Apollo “He who strikes from afar.”  He could, being a god, smite you from across vast distances, while you, being a mortal, could do precious little in reply. Propitiation was your only reasonable option.

How times have changed. Now technology had provided us the capability to smite whomever we wish from across vast distances, while our targets, being mortals, can do precious little in reply. Propitiation is their only reasonable option. Our new Olympian status, though, still has a few details to be worked out.

Who is a legitimate target? We are now using missile-firing drones in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, and Yemen, according to published reports. It’s safe to assume they are also used, or would be if targets were available, in any place without an effective government, such as Sudan and Somalia. It is certainly conceivable that we might use them, with government approval, in Colombia against the FARC. Is Mexico next?

Would we have used a drone strike to assassinate Hitler and end WWII? Certainly.  Would we take out Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in order to prevent war with Israel — a good cause, surely? What if we had high confidence that we had located Osama bin Laden in, say, Astana, Kazakhstan? In Istanbul? In Hamburg — perhaps we couldn’t tell the Germans because it would reveal sources & methods, or take too long, or maybe they just didn’t believe us and are refusing to act (and precious seconds are slipping away).  And if the answer is “yes” to ObL, then how about Kim Jong Il?  Ratko Mladić?  “Enemy combatants,” even if they are US citizens, in the United States?

Under what circumstances? In other words, we have a capability that we can use to save American lives. When do we choose NOT to use it? And if we so choose and something bad happens, who takes the bureaucratic fall? Who wants to be the next SECDEF to let Osama bin Laden slip through our fingers, perhaps with a close election coming up? Do we care about what people think, if they can’t vote in or contribute to US elections?

“It’s much easier to apologize than it is to get permission.”
— Grace M. Hopper  (Rear Admiral, USN, 1906 – 1992), noted computer scientist.  See her Wikipedia entry and this interview.

What are some of the implications? For instance, how do we choose, and enforce, where to draw the line? At some time in the future, would we be willing to use drone / missile strikes against someone like Julian Assange, head of WikiLeaks, in order to protect American service personnel and their confidential sources?

As Fabius Maximus asked in his previous post, are we creating and motivating a whole new generation of jihadis and their sympathizers and their supporters? In any individual case, it may make good military, judicial, and political sense to strike from afar. But every time we use the Apollo Option, we are advertising to the world that we are afraid to die for our cause, and our opponents are showing the world that they are not. Many people will regard their recalcitrance as heroic.

Finally, a deeper question. Although drones and other low-risk methods of killing people make for good domestic politics, it is worth remembering Israeli historian Martin van Creveld’s warning about warfare against non-state enemies:

“Compared with the willingness, or lack of it, in men (and women) to die for their cause, virtually all other questions of policy, organization, doctrine, training, and equipment pale into insignificance.”
The Changing Face of War, page 228

I have no idea where all this is going to lead, but somehow I just don’t see our opponents sitting there and taking it. Propitiation will not be their choice, as unreasonable as this may seem from our lofty vantage.

Lone Ranger:  Quiet tonight, Tonto.
Tonto:  Too quiet, kemo sahbe.

Before you start feeling immortal, you should remind yourself that we are not secure on Mt. Olympus. We never have been: Did Castro take revenge on JFK for a series of botched assassination attempts? Like Fidel, if it were he, jihadis and other cartels don’t need high tech devices. They do not even need to strike from afar because as has been noted many times, there is no weapon too short for a brave, and one might add dedicated and clever, man or woman. I do not have a good feeling about this.

About the author

Ph.D. Mathematics.  Colonel, USAF, retired.  Long-time editor of the original Defense and the National Interest website (archived here) and blogs at Fast Transients.  He is Adjunct Professor of Strategy and Quantitative Methods at Kennesaw St. University in Atlanta.

His books:

Other posts about drones, remote killing, and assassination

  1. “Filling the skies with Assassins” by Tom Engelhardt, 12 April 2009
  2. James Bond is not just our hero, but the model for our geopolitical strategy, 18 May 2009
  3. America’s dominance of the sky slowly erodes – inevitable or avoidable?, 22 September 2009
  4. The march of technology brings “The Forty-Year Drone War”, 26 January 2010
  5. Stratfor looks at “The Utility of Assassination”, 26 February 2010
  6. The biggest re-branding exercise in the history of the world, 21 August 2010 — A new image for America.

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2 thoughts on “America plays the Apollo Option: killing from the sky”

  1. Watching the drones rain down over Somalia

    Drone Wars: Somalia becomes the latest front“, Global Post, 10 October 2011 — “With rise of Al Qaeda-linked Al Shabaab, Somalia becomes sixth and newest theater in US drone war.” — Opening:

    A popular pastime among journalists visiting Mogadishu is to stare up into the inky, star-pricked sky at night to try to spot the surveillance drones that buzz overhead. Usually, they are pretty hard to see. That is, until August, when the drones began to rain down from above — literally.

    Eyewitnesses in the capital described at least one and maybe two observation drones crashing into the city in mid-August. The debris was swept up and whisked away by soldiers from the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), and no official comment was ever made.

    It is unclear who was operating the aircraft. But four small, hand-launched Raven drones were part of a recent $45 million package of U.S. military equipment earmarked for AMISOM, a delivery that also included body armor and night-vision equipment.

    Larger observation drones launched from the U.S. base at Camp Lemonier in Djibouti have been flying sorties over Somalia for years and, for a while, unarmed long-range Reaper surveillance drones were launched from the Seychelles to keep an eye on Somali pirates. Then, this summer, the armed drones arrived.

    Somalia, the most troubled country in the horn of Africa, has now become the sixth and newest theater in U.S. President Barack Obama’s expanding drone war, which will be serviced by new U.S. bases in Ethiopia, which neighbors Somalia, and in the Seychelles. Leaked diplomatic cables and anonymous officials speaking to the Washington Post suggest the bases will be used to target Al Qaeda affiliates in both Yemen and Somalia.

  2. The reason that we have a trial is because society wants to examine the evidence and hear the arguments as to why a person is considered a menace. Thus, if we have someone who represents a real, clear, danger we can try them in absentia and – if the evidence and arguments are good – secure a conviction or a warrant to act against that person.

    When the US government ceases to justify or explain its killings, it is no longer meting out justice or even participating in a political dialogue – it is simply exerting main force. That’s “OK” because the powerful seem to always make the rules convenient to them, but the downside is that, when you’re no longer “the powerful” then you have no basis to complain when shit rains down on you.

    The US is, basically, assassinating people and saying “he needed killing” (along with everyone standing near him) and leaving it at that. What counter-argument does that leave us if some other power says of one of our leaders “he needed killing” and takes them out with a drone, a Stuxnet, or a well-placed bullet? What leg have we left to stand on, then?

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