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Game of Drones: An Introduction to President Obama’s Air War

By Zander Farrow.

“Battlefields have changed and technology has evolved”*. Speaking at the National Defense University in May 2013, President Obama emphasized the need to employ advanced military technology in order to effectively engage terrorism on a global scale. Enemy combatants hide in caves and caverns and swim in a sea of civilians. Therefore, conventional methods of warfare are often not effective for rooting out belligerence; the United States must wage an unconventional war against terrorism.

Furthermore, the Bush administration first declared a “Doctrine of Preemption” when engaging the terrorist threat back in 2002**. Evolving away from failed 20th century containment ideology, the United States realized that a more effective way to engage insurgency is to bring the fight to the enemy before they can bring it to you – the best defense is a good offense. Jeh Johnson, the General Counsel for the Department of Defense in 2012, reestablished preemptive priorities in the Obama administration when he stated that “we must disrupt al-Qaeda’s terrorist attack planning before it gets anywhere near our homeland or our citizens”^.

Unconventionalism and preemption. These two principles of modern warfare, therefore, govern the way the United States engages insurgency in the Middle East. During the Bush years, the strategy for juggling these two counterinsurgency tactics was to win over the ‘hearts and minds’ of those living in the regions affected by al-Qaeda – kill ‘em with kindness^^. “Economic reconstruction” and cooperative security, therefore, were critical for undermining the legitimacy of enemy groups. President Obama, however, has chosen a new weapon to suppress insurgency: drones. Aerial strikes from Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPAs), commonly referred to as drones, have increased significantly under the Obama administration. New America, a nonpartisan public policy think-tank, calculates that President Bush authorized 48 aerial drone strikes in his eight years. President Obama, on the other hand, has authorized 368 strikes as of June 18th, 2014 – over seven times more than his predecessor*^. Furthermore, the White House’s aerial war has spilled over the borders of Iraq and Afghanistan. Drones have conducted missions in Iran, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and many countries in North Africa^*.


Prowling high in the sky, armed with surgical missiles, and fixed with high-tech visual equipment, drones constantly monitor the battlefield. Ready to strike at a moment’s notice, drones provide constant intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capability to combatant commanders. From convoy escorts, search and rescue missions, and explosive ordnance recognition, this technology truly has changed the battlefield by giving troops eyes in the sky. This article series will analyze the evolution of drone warfare by considering the following ideas:

1) The various types and missions of drones
2) The new USAF training pipeline for RPA pilots and sensor operators
3) Foreign acquisition of UAVs
4) The various legal issues regarding the targeted strikes
5) Potential vulnerabilities
6) Future warfare

By authoring this series on drone warfare, my hope is that information and questions surrounding this revolutionary breakthrough in military technology will be brought to light. After all, drone warfare is here to stay. As evidence, documents found in the home of Osama bin Laden during the Navy SEAL raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan in 2011 uncovered the fear that aerial drone strikes engender in the ranks of al-Qaeda. Bin Laden wrote, “…we could lose the reserves to the enemy’s airstrikes. We cannot fight airstrikes with explosives”^**.


Zander Farrow is a junior at Harvard College studying Government and Economics with a focus on American foreign policy.


This article does not reflect the opinions of the United States government. It was written from a purely academic perspective and represents an apolitical inquiry into the changing nature of military affairs.




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One comment

  1. Interesting piece. While analyzing the evolution of drone warfare, will you go as far back as their use during WWII?