Don’t Depend on Drones in Intelligence

Don’t Depend on Drones in Intelligence

Drones have advanced warfare and counterinsurgency operations carried out in the War on Terror, their positive effect on intelligence is less significant however. Whilst drone technology has facilitated better observational intelligence, lethal capacity, and new forms of counterinsurgency strategy, they are limited in their application and not as infallible as policy-makers often believe. It also remains uncertain if drones will remain as applicable to future intelligence operations as they are today.

by Keir Watt

Drones are commonly considered to be revolutionising warfare. According to P.W. Singer, expert on 21st Century warfare, their impact can even be compared to ‘the introduction of gunpowder, the printing press or the airplane.’[1] Yet, as revolutionary as drones seem, their impact on intelligence is not as dramatic.

Weaponising drones has certainly advanced counterinsurgency operations. When the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) located al-Qaeda founder Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan in 1998 they had to predict where he would be four to six hours later, accounting for the flight time for cruise missiles.[2] Now drones can observe for days and launch strikes instantly, speeding up the ‘find-fix-finish’ loop so much that counterinsurgency strategy has become shaped around their use. [3]

Drones have not made intelligence gatherers as all-knowing as some officials would like to believe, however. Whilst drones can provide excellent surveillance, this does not remove the need for other sources of corroborating intelligence. Strikes like the “Roboski Massacre” in 2011 emphasise this necessity, as thirty-eight adult smugglers and their children were killed merely for looking suspicious, the drone could not even tell whether or not they were armed.[4]

Signature strikes are, controversially, almost entirely reliant on drones and have become a cornerstone of U.S. strategy against al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and similar enemies. These target individuals solely on patterns of their behaviour, if they ‘bear the characteristics of al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders on the run.’[5] As a senior U.S. military official described, ‘using the all-seeing eye, you will find out who is important in a network, where they live, where they get their support from, where their friends are . . . wait till these people have gone down a lonely stretch of road and take them out with a Hell-fire missile.’[6]

These operations are a significant development in counterinsurgency strategy. Yet what distinguishes them most is not so much drone technology, but their reliance on behavioural analysis. One of its biggest weaknesses is not using a big enough quantity and variety of information to form conclusions. Current operations which use primarily or exclusively drone footage remain crude in their analysis. Developing big data processes which use huge quantities of information could transform these operations into a more accurate and complete model.[7] However, this advancement has not come to fruition and signature strikes remain a flawed strategy.

There also remains a lot more to intelligence than drone missions and behavioural analysis. The main function of agencies like the CIA is developing human intelligence and keeping policy makers informed. Drones may offer an “antiseptic solution” for terrorism in places where we don’t want to send troops, however, seeking a technological “fix” to all problems distracts from investing in less flashy but more important areas. In the United States of America, the transfer of control of drone programmes from the CIA to the Pentagon is a positive sign that things are getting back on track.  

More generally, it’s not clear drones will remain relevant for future conflicts. Drone technology evolved to meet the challenges of the War on Terror War and has been very effective, but  may struggle to address different challenges. Conflict with major powers such as China or Russia, for example, would require different capabilities than counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan. As the threat environment changes, intelligence will have to develop new responses and drones may not be a part of that.

Drones were first used to provide surveillance during the Vietnam War. They were so successful that the Chief of Staff, General William C. Westermoreland was convinced they were leading a ‘quiet revolution’ in warfare.[8] Once the war was over, however, the drone programmes were scrapped as budgets faced new priorities. Like Vietnam, U.S. commander’s demand for ‘situational awareness 24/7/365’ in Afghanistan made them an integral part of the War on Terror.[9] As new threats emerge, however, it’s possible current drone programmes may be relegated like those of the 1970s. 

This is not to say that drones will become redundant altogether; contemporary drones are increasingly advanced and have more applications than those of the past. But assuming that what makes drones useful for today’s conflicts can be applied to those of the future would ignore the basic lesson of both Vietnam and Afghanistan: that changing contexts and challenges require new responses.

[1] Spiegel Online, 2010. Interview with Defence Expert P.W. Singer: ‘The Soldiers Call It War Porn.’ SPIEGEL ONLINE.  Available at: [Accessed 10 July 2019]. [2] Logan, L., 2012. Hank Crumpton: Life as a spy. CBS News. Available at: : [Accessed 10 July 2019].
[3] CIA Director Leon Panetta quoted in CNN editor, 2009., Airstrikes in Pakistan called ‘very effective.’CNN. Available at: [Accessed 10 July 2019].
[4] Eralp, D.U., 2015. The Role of U.S. Drones in the Roboski Massacre. Peace Review, 27(4), pp. 448-452.
[5] Zenko, M., 2013. Reforming US Drone Strike Policies. Council on Foreign Relations, Special Report 65, p. 14. 
[6] Quoted in Barnes, J.E., 2009. Military Refines ‘A Constant Stare Against Our Enemy.’ Los Angeles Times, November 2nd, 2009.
[7] Atwood, C.P., 2015. Activity-based intelligence: revolutionizing military intelligence analysis. Joint Force Quarterly 77, 2nd Quarterly, p. 29.
[8] William C. Westermoreland quoted in Dickson, P., 1996. The Electronic Battlefield. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, pp. 220-221.
[9] Air Force Secretary Michael Donley quoted in Lubold, G., 2010. As drones multiply in Iraq and Afghanistan, so do their uses.The Christian Science Monitor. Available at: [Accessed 10 July 2019].
[10] Photo: Sergeant Ross Tilly (RAF)/MOD:  

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