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Drones vs. Human Intel – Pros and Cons of Each

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Over the past decade the number of drones in use by the US military has risen drastically, including many with lethal force capabilities. As extremist groups gather in remote-inaccessible areas, drone use has become an essential part of modern warfare.

Also known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) or Remotely Piloted Aerial Systems (RPAS), drones are touted as the ultimate technical intelligence-gathering platform. From high in the sky they can collect information about terrain, buildings, vehicles, and people.

Drones flying across a mountain sky

But where does this leave human intelligence? Have we moved beyond the need for agents on the ground? Let’s examine whether there is still a place for field operatives in this high tech world.

Drone capabilities

The MQ-1B Predator and MQ-9 Reaper drones, medium-sized UAVs used frequently in Afghanistan and Pakistan, carry cameras, image intensifiers, radar, electronic intelligence warning systems, infrared imaging, and lasers. Controlled by a ground crew based either near the battlefield or back in the US, they can be armed with laser-guided missiles to give them lethal force capabilities.

Western forces have used drones in thousands of missions, particularly in the federally administered tribal areas (FATA) of northwest Pakistan and the Afghan border region, for surveillance and to strike suspected militants.

The Predator and Reaper drones provide 24-hour real-time surveillance, reconnaissance, and intelligence in places where it would be too risky or difficult to send manned flight. They are able to circle areas for up to 27 hours, soon to be increased to 40 hours of flight time.

It’s claimed that drone use has seriously disrupted groups such as ISIS and al-Qaeda whom are unable to gather in large numbers for training or meetings due to constant monitoring and precisely targeted strikes. Individuals can be tracked via aerial surveillance and targeted, for example, when traveling in a convoy away from civilian areas. All this is done without ever risking a single soldier in the field.

Human intelligence

The oldest form of intelligence gathering is the collection of information from human sources. This ‘ground truth’ has been called the single most valuable and relevant service provided by the US Army.

Field agents are highly trained in the tradecraft needed to effectively conduct espionage; they are able to extract and assess information on the ground. When agents suspect they are being fed false information, they have the opportunity to dig deeper to ascertain the truth.

This direct communication and interaction with local sources is incredibly useful to accurately assess information. It provides a 3-D perspective and an image of the bigger picture.

Intelligence operatives are also sometimes placed in foreign embassies or businesses. Over time they can form clandestine connections with foreign government employees or workers in sensitive industries like nuclear or arms. Operatives can press their informants for reliable information, and agents have the advantage that they are intimately involved in the context in which the intel is yielded.

Drones versus human intelligence – advantages and disadvantages

The use of unmanned drones means that pilots do not have to enter dangerous conflict zones. It is argued that drones are more precise and can target areas with greater precision. Their missiles are often smaller and collateral damage is therefore less than with larger bombs dropped by manned aircraft.

It can be difficult for high-value targets to be captured and extracted alive by forces on the ground, and even with successful capture, information that targets provide is sometimes unreliable.

Widespread drone use avoids the ground war that suits ISIS and al-Qaeda’s capabilities, the very war in which they want to engage. They struggle to avoid drone strikes and to hide from drone surveillance.

Despite that, intelligence gathered from drones alone does not fully depict the plans or intentions of a target. Similarly, drone intelligence alone cannot be used to understand and explain the tribal politics and loyalties of a region. While they can produce excellent aerial images of the terrain, they cannot see effectively inside buildings.

The results of a drone strike are difficult to accurately assess without intelligence on the ground. The success of a strike is not always clear regarding whether intended targets are eliminated.

Human intelligence collection has proven essential in locating and neutralizing targets and reacting swiftly to changing situations. Many successful night raids in Afghanistan have taken place based on information obtained by undercover female US service personnel from Afghani women.

It is a fact that overreliance on technology has resulted in failures. Although human intelligence can often be undependable, when reliable its results have been noteworthy, such as in the successful hunt for Osama bin Laden.

Meeting today’s challenges in warfare and intelligence gathering

While drones are here to stay and are constantly being improved, it is not possible to successfully address modern conflicts without intelligence from agents in the field. The advantages they bring cannot be overstated. Field agents are able to gain a deep understanding of local and political situations in conflict zones, and they are able to provide details that drones cannot pick up.

Humans are able to work in heavily populated civilian areas locating targets. It’s plausible that eliminating targets with the help of human intelligence reduces collateral damage.

To successfully meet the challenges of modern warfare, overreliance cannot be placed on UAVs. While America leads the way in drone technology, that technology still needs to be backed up with reliable human intelligence. If not, operations fail. If we are to stand a chance of eliminating foreign threats, collaboration between drones and those working in the field to provide human intelligence is a must.

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