On Thursday, the Pentagon announced that President Obama, hoping to break the see-saw deadlock between rebel forces and Muammar Qaddafi’s military, had authorized the use of armed Predator drones in Libya. The Predator—technically known as the MQ-9 Reaper—is accurate and deadly; it can fly for over 40 hours and carry more than 1,000 pounds of missiles and bombs. The decision to send these drones was driven by the tactics Qaddafi’s forces have developed to circumvent NATO air strikes, namely intermingling with civilians and moving in unmarked vehicles. Because the drones can linger for long periods of time and have a video feed that allows for more accurate target assessment than conventional bombers, the hope is that they will minimize civilian casualties and prevent the Libyan military from launching quick strikes when NATO aircraft are not around. It might be something of a calculated gamble, but, of the options available, drones seem to be the best tool for the job.
Despite this, the deployment decision immediately provoked new criticism from those already opposed to U.S. involvement in the Libyan conflict. Charges were made of “mission creep,” or a first step toward more heavy engagement, including perhaps the use of ground troops. Other opponents suggested that the use of drones would increase civilian casualties, as it has in Pakistan. Neither of these arguments, however, stands up under scrutiny.
The use of drones does not enlarge or change the U.S. mission in Libya, which remains, as always, to protect civilians (although the Obama administration and the other NATO nations also seem to include rebel forces in this category). The phrase “mission creep” has emotional impact harkening back to U.S. involvement in Somalia and the Balkans, but the use of armed drones in Libya isn’t really an example of mission creep; it’s more an example of method expansion—the use of new techniques in pursuit of the same objectives.
What’s more, the drone campaign in Pakistan is not a model for the Libyan one. In Pakistan, drones are used to kill Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders. The strikes sometimes go awry because it is difficult to identify insurgents in the tribal areas, even with a high quality video feed, and because the insurgents use human shields to increase the chances of civilian casualties. In Libya, the drones are likely to be used only against identifiable military targets. It may be hard to tell whether someone in a Pakistan compound is a terrorist leader or an innocent local, but it should be possible to distinguish between an armed Libyan soldier involved in a military action and a civilian who is not. To ensure that this is the case, Libyan soldiers mixing with civilians who are not involved in attacks on the rebels will likely not be targets. But, once they begin an assault, they will be vulnerable to the drones. The hope is that Qaddafi’s forces will realize, “If you attack rebels or civilians, you will die.”
Admittedly, armed drones alone will not defeat Qaddafi. That will only happen when the rebels become an effective fighting force. But the drones may help stave off a Qaddafi victory and give the rebels time to become more effective. This is in line with broad U.S. strategy in Libya, which is based on the belief that trends favor the rebels: The longer they avoid defeat, the more they will strengthen, while Qaddafi will only weaken the longer fighting continues. If that theory is correct, then the drones will almost certainly help.
Steven Metz is the author of Iraq and the Evolution of American Strategy.