Air control of populations has been the holy grail of air power advocates ever since the dawn of aviation. During the Great War, Imperial Germany attempted to collapse British morale through indiscriminate bombing of civilians in London and other cities, a campaign that led to the birth of the Royal Air Force. Despite the German failure in this campaign, after World War I the RAF posited a theory of imperial control that contemplated the use of aerial bombing to keep subject populations in line. The policy would be easy, cheap, and avoid messy ground occupations among subject peoples. The theory was tested successful just once, after an Iraqi tribal rebellion in 1920 endangered British control of Mesopotamia. Since that time, air bombardment has primarily served as an adjunct to ground campaigns, with perhaps the one exception of the air war over Kosovo in 1999. Yet advocates of air control continue to advance the concept that new technology can achieve what old technology could not.
Drones, or as the U.S. Air Force prefers to call them, remotely piloted vehicles, are no different in concept than the bi-planes that targeted Iraqi tribes in Fallujah ninety-plus years ago. They can kill people (and with good intelligence perhaps even the right people), but they cannot take and hold ground. For that purpose, boots on the ground are required—perhaps not American or Western boots, but boots nevertheless. Without a ground commitment to control populations and root out the extremists in their midst, drone strikes are merely equivalent to a periodic mowing of the terrorist grass. Policy makers must understand that drones and the intelligence systems they rely on to function are tactical and operational tools—they are not a substitute for strategy. They are appealing because they appear to offer a cheap and painless (for the United States, at least) path to the strategic end of rooting out terrorism in faraway lands before U.S. shores are once again visited by jihadists bent on mass murder. However, the administration would be wise to determine whether pursuing that strategic end via drone strikes will lead to the dead end of a world of enraged populations who hold little love and even less respect for the United States.