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Obama’s new Department of Defense: fewer troops, more drones

MQ-9 Reaper Drone at Creech Air Force Base (Credit: Lance Cheung / USAF)

Two weeks after President Obama declared in his inaugural address that “a decade of war is now ending,” America’s military leaders are looking into some big changes — although not the kind their critics might be hoping for.

Chuck Hagel, a former Army Sergeant and Republican Senator from Nebraska, is up for nomination to replace Leon Panetta as US Secretary of Defense, and his opposition to what has been the conventional military dogma since the days of the Bush administration could mean a significant shift in US foreign policy. But would the shake-up serve to challenge the most contentious aspects of Obama’s modernized defense strategy, like pre-emptive cyber attacks and the ongoing covert drone wars in the Middle East and Asia?

In all likelihood, it would probably do the exact opposite.

That’s not to say Hagel is just another DoD warhawk. Viewed suspiciously as a maverick by his conservative peers, he floundered while being grilled ruthlessly during his confirmation hearing last week, particularly for his positions on Israel and Iran, and his criticism of President Obama’s 2009 troop surge in Iraq. It’s also no surprise that his arguments for working toward bilateral nuclear disarmament and reductions in US military spending have earned him no extra points among the extreme right-wing stewards of the Senate's Armed Services committee.

Watching the resulting interrogation, led by hardcore neo-cons like Senators John McCain, Ted Cruz, and Jim Inhofe, you could almost forget that Hagel himself is a moderate Republican. In one series of brutal exchanges, Inhofe and others used a 2009 interview clip from Al Jazeera to less-than-subtly paint Hagel, a member of their own party, as an enemy sympathizer, with Inhofe at one point provocatively asking, “Why do you think that the Iranian foreign ministry so strongly supports your nomination to be the Secretary of Defense?”

But even as he struggled to reconcile his stated positions with those of the President, it’s important to note that Hagel, a Vietnam vet, has been a critic of excessive military force for the exact reason that drone advocates push targeted killings as the lesser of two evils: keeping American troops out of harm’s way.

Hagel has said in the past that drones are a “very important” component in America’s defense strategy

Hagel wouldn't be the most important figure in the drone wars (that honor goes to top counterterrorism advisor and CIA chief hopeful John Brennan, who will have his own hearing this week). But he has said in the past that drones are a “very important” component in America’s defense strategy. That’s after considering heavily-cited data which suggests that the highly-secretive program has killed over 3,000 people in undeclared combat zones in Pakistan since 2004, including large numbers of innocent adult civilians and children. There’s also the fact that Washington’s developing “play book” for drone strikes, even when codified into law, will exempt the CIA from following its own rules of engagement within Pakistan’s federally-administered tribal areas (FATAs). Yesterday, a leaked Justice Department memo obtained by NBC News provided a glimpse at those secretive plans, revealing a working draft of the administration's legal justifications for using drones in the targeted killing of American citizens without due process.

Realistically, though, a Hagel-led Pentagon would see an increase in these kinds of clandestine operations. And with the coming budget crunch, a big part of that has to do with the conventional wisdom that drones are cheap — in terms of both resources and political capital — an attitude that’s been foreshadowed within the rapidly-changing US Air Force, where remote-controlled aircraft are now going head-to-head with manned warplanes for defense dollars.

Beyond that, Congress’ recent fiscal cliff deal is expected to trigger automatic spending cuts — or “sequestration” — at the beginning of next month. The most immediate effects of that would likely be mass-layoffs for officers and enlisted personnel, as well as the cancellation of various military contracts, which is sure to make drones seem increasingly like not only the best, but the only option available.

William Galston explains in The New Republic:

On top of the budget caps, it would reduce defense spending in 2022 to $605 billion—more than $100 billion below what would be needed to maintain the purchasing power of the military budget at 2013 levels. Just this year, military leaders would have to cut $60 billion from pre-BCA (Budget Control Act) levels, more than 10 percent of projected expenditures. And they would have to cram those cuts into the remaining six months of the fiscal year. That’s the planning horizon that Chuck Hagel would face.

The same logic presides over the United States’ intensifying (and equally secretive) efforts in cyber warfare, another area where the DoD plays a significant role. Rep. Peter King of New York made it a point to declare cyber-threats as "the war of the future" during the hearing, a point with which Hagel largely agrees, claiming that the investment has already “successfully deterred major cyber attacks.” It’s also contrasted by the recent discovery that the President has the ability to secretly make pre-emptive cyber attacks against foreign countries as long as Intelligence believes it has discovered evidence of an "imminent" threat — whatever that means.

So what kind of authority figure will be asking the hard questions about these secret policies, if not Congress or the budget-minded Hagel? On an international level, it’ll be Ben Emmerson, the United Nations' special rapporteur on human rights tasked with leading the very first international investigation into the effects of drones, including those used in the United States’ counterterrorism campaigns in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia.

"There is necessarily a correspondingly greater risk of civilian casualties."

One of the main objectives will be determining whether or not the drone strikes — which President Obama once described as “surgical” — actually are resulting in less human casualties than “boots on the ground.” In an interview with Wired’s Danger Room, Emmerson worries that drones are becoming so economical that they “can be used with a degree of frequency that other, more risk-based forms of engagement like fixed-wing manned aircraft or helicopters are not.” In the end, he says, the “perception of the frequency and intensity with which this technology is used is exponentially different, and as a result, there is necessarily a correspondingly greater risk of civilian casualties” when drones are involved.

But regardless of what Emmerson’s investigation finds, he admits the drones are “here to stay.” And there's no doubt that Hagel’s confirmation — along with the appointment of Obama's "drone czar," John Brennan, as the new head of the CIA — would only strengthen that commitment.

The Verge
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