Heart of Empire — March 18, 2015, 1:51 pm

War by Remote

How armchair generals pretend they’re on the front lines.

To hear our government talk, all is going well with Operation Inherent Resolve, the war against the Islamic State. “Today, we have heard from the secretary that the strategy is sound, the strategy is working,” said a senior military official following Defense Secretary Carter’s recent conclave of three- and four-star generals in Kuwait. Meanwhile, Secretary of State John Kerry recently announced the elimination of “fifty percent” of the enemy’s top command and the recapture of 270 square miles from the Islamic State. Finally, it might seem, years of bloody experience are paying off, and we have learned how to fight a flexible, loosely organized enemy and win. 

Unfortunately, news from the front line suggests otherwise. “The level of centralized execution, bureaucracy, and politics is staggering,” reported an embittered A-10 combat pilot in an email that has gone viral in the defense community. “In most cases, unless a general officer can look at a video picture from a [drone] over a satellite link, I cannot get authority to engage. . . . The institutional fear of making a mistake, that has crept into the central mindset of the military leadership, is endemic.” As a result, he recounts recently spending hours watching “a couple hundred small tanker trucks lined up at an oilfield in ISIS-held northeast Syria”—which he could easily have destroyed in minutes—“go unfettered.”


From an A-10 combat pilot’s email discussing his frustrations with the fact that top-level approval is required to strike Islamic State targets. UAVs, or unmanned air vehicles, are drones.

I‘ve never been more frustrated in my career. After thirteen years of the mind-numbing low intensity conflict in Afghanistan, I’ve never seen the knife more dull. All the hard lessons learned in Vietnam, and fixed during the first Gulf War, have been unlearned again. The level of centralized execution, bureaucracy, and politics is staggering. I basically do not have any decision-making authority in my cockpit. It sucks. In most cases, unless a general officer can look at a video picture from a UAV, over a satellite link, I cannot get authority to engage. I’ve spent many hours staring through a targeting pod screen in my own cockpit, watching ISIS shitheads perpetrate their acts until my eyes bleed, without being able to do anything about it. The institutional fear of making a mistake that has crept into the central mindset of the military leadership is endemic. We have not taken the fight to these guys. We haven’t targeted their centers of gravity in Raqqa. All the roads between Syria and Iraq are still intact with trucks flowing freely. The other night I watched a couple hundred small tanker trucks lined up at an oilfield in ISIS-held northeast Syria, presumably filling up with with oil traded on the black market, go unfettered. It’s not uncommon to wait several hours overhead a suspected target for someone to make a decision to engage or not. It feels like we are simply using the constructs build up in Afghanistan, which was a very limited fight, in the same way here against ISIS, which is a much more sophisticated and numerically greater foe. It’s embarrassing.

As I describe in my book Kill Chain, the urge for top-down control is not new. In Vietnam, American infantry fighting in the jungle were routinely overseen by ascending tiers of command helicopters. The lowest might bear the battalion commander, then the brigade commander, and above him higher ranks still, all, as one pilot later recalled, trying to “fight vicariously through that frightened twenty-five-year-old down there beneath the tree canopy.” Stories circulated of entire units hiding from such interfering supervision.

The advent of drones relaying live video around the world changed things, for the worse. Now, four-star generals and even more exalted officials can play platoon leader, thanks to live, if blurry, video streaming in from unmanned vehicles half a world away. On the first night of the War in Afghanistan, for example, the two-star general commanding air operations, the four-star general in command of the entire war, the secretary of defense, and the president of the United States were all focused on a drone video of a Toyota Corolla driving in Kandahar that might or might not have contained Taliban leader Mullah Omar. By the time someone was permitted to strike the vehicle with a Hellfire missile it was parked and empty. 

Earlier, during the 1999 Kosovo War, NATO commander Wesley Clark would spend hours engrossed in the drone-video feed streaming on a monitor in his office. His close-up view of the battlefield could impel him to make tactical interventions. “Hey Mike,” he reportedly said in a call to General Michael Short, commander of the allied air fleets, “when are you going to do something about those two Serb tanks sitting at the end of that bridge?”

By the time the Afghan war was properly underway, commanders felt free to direct entire battles, overriding officers on the spot, as was the case with Operation Anaconda in March 2002, during which special-forces commanders based in the Persian Gulf, a thousand miles away, insisted on directing a desperate mountaintop battle, relying on blurry pictures from a Predator drone. Seven Americans died. 

Soon, no command headquarters was complete without “Kill TV,” big plasma screens relaying shots of lethal drone strikes and other actions. The defining image of the Obama Administration may well be that shot of the commander in chief and his national-security staff taking the afternoon off to watch drone-fed video of the raid to kill Osama bin Laden.

While encouraging the illusion of control at the top, Kill TV prevents actual combatants who are fighting for their lives from reacting to shifts in the battle. That necessarily anonymous pilot further complains in his email, “I basically do not have any decision making authority in my cockpit.” In 2012, two A-10 pilots ordered to bomb a supposedly Taliban-infested farmhouse in eastern Afghanistan reported they could see with their own eyes that the house held only a peaceful family. The screens falsely reported a different story to higher commanders, who were eager to strike, and so a family of seven, including five children, were obliterated by several tons of high explosives from a B-1 bomber. (The A-10 Pilots, as I reported in the February 2014 issue of Harper’s, refused to bomb.) 

Senior leaders should by definition be taking a wider view of battle rather than being caught up in some fast-moving but comparatively local firefight. Bush and Rumsfeld should have been thinking about what kind morass they were getting into instead of watching Toyotas on a dusty road. Obama and his people should have been pondering the fact that years of “high-value targeting” had never seemed to solve anyone’s problem.

War is too important to be left to generals watching TV.

Andrew Cockburn, Washington editor of Harper’s Magazine, is the author of Kill Chain, The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins (Henry Holt).

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