Op-ed pick: Limits of war by joystick

Two former officers write in the New York Times that the military is relying too much on drones, and that “we will soon face the reality that future conflicts cannot be won by joystick alone.”

Former Navy pilot Ken Harbaugh and former Marine sniper team leader Jacob Wood acknowledge that drones serve important functions. But they argue that the Pentagon has unadvisedly begun to treat drone operators as similar to battlefield soldiers.

“It is increasingly clear that our military leadership has become so enamored of the technological mystique of drones that they have lost touch with the realities of the modern battlefield,” they write.

Perhaps the most glaring example, especially for former snipers and pilots like us, is the Pentagon’s recent decision to scrap the A-10, a heavily armed close-air support plane officially nicknamed the Warthog but known to troops as the Flying Gun. This battlefield workhorse flies slow and low, giving pilots a close-up of what troops on the ground need. Those pilots are an aerial extension of the units below them, working in a closer relationship than a drone and its operator ever could. But the A-10 is not sleek and sexy, and it doesn’t feed the brass’s appetite for battlefield footage delivered to screens thousands of miles away, the way a swarm of drones can.

The writers take special exception to a short-lived Pentagon initiative to create a special medal for drone operators.

As much as we both came to appreciate the work of drone teams, we never once prayed that they be brave. Those on the front lines require real courage because they face real danger. But if a drone overhead gets hit, a monitor somewhere might go fuzzy, and its operator might curse his poor luck for losing an expensive piece of equipment. … If the secretaries and flag officers responsible for the Distinguished Warfare Medal spent as much time (or any time) in a sniper hide or an A-10 cockpit as they did monitoring drone feeds, they would not consider elevating a “Nintendo” medal above those awarded for true heroism and sacrifice.

Read their op-ed here.

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