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Drone Airlift?

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Juan Cole:

Well, I hate those US drones when used for purposes of warfare. But here is a Gandhian use for them. Let us defy the Syrian regime’s misuse of its sovereignty to murder its own citizens by using drones for supply airdrops.The US military was thinking already in 2009 of using drones to resupply troops in Afghanistan, and surely they have made progress since then. They could be launched from Incirlik Air Force base in Turkey, and I think Turkey might agree to this limited form of intervention. If the Syrian military shot down any humanitarian drones, no one would interpret that as an act of war requiring retaliation. So the tactic does not carry with it any danger of escalation into hostilities.

Readers in the military would know better how plausible this plan might be.

Opinions about using UAVs for aerial resupply differ, but the prospects of a drone driven Berlin Airlift in Syria are pretty grim.  Andrew Betson has an article forthcoming in Army Sustainment magazine (no direct link) that lays out some of the problems. The biggest is capacity; conventional extant drones have a carrying capacity that maxes out in the scores of pounds, which makes them essentially useless for any large scale resupply effort.  The KMAX remotely piloted helicopter can do a bit better (~2 tons), but they’re in very short supply. That the Syrians would presumably have no compunctions about shooting down a supply UAV exacerbates the problem.  Given time, you could presumably rig a regular transport helicopter for remote piloting, but no one has any interest in flying a big, slow, expensive helicopter into a situation where it’s extremely likely to get shot down.

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  • Steve LaBonne

    When did Juan Cole go insane? I was appalled by the drivel he wrote on Libya. And apparently the highly ambiguous outcome there has not dimmed his enthusiasm for liberal interventionism. He’s come a long way from his forceful opposition to the Iraq invasion.

    • joe from Lowell

      Perhaps, Steve, he’s drawing distinctions that go beyond asking “Is this a military operation?”

      A useful exercise, if you ask me.

      • Steve LaBonne

        Understanding, based on numerous painful examples, that well-meaning attempts at intervention very often have nasty unintended consequences, is also a useful exercise.

        • joe from Lowell

          Somehow, Steve, I doubt that Juan Cole’s thinking on these issues suffers from a lack of consideration of the history of American military interventions.

          • Steve LaBonne

            I’ll buy that when he acknowledges the amount of troubling news out of Libya and admits that the jury is out on whether the intervention there was a good thing.

            • joe from Lowell

              Then that’s your problem.

              Had you ever actually read anything he’s written, you would discover that is quite obsessed with the history of American military interventions, and that he draws heavily on his extensive understanding of this history in his writing.

              This is not an arguable point. You’re merely insisting that no one who differs on you on a specific question can actually be working from a large knowledge base – and in this case, you really couldn’t have picked a worse target for your projection of ignorance.

              • Steve LaBonne

                I have been reading him for quite a while, and that’s why I’m quite surprised at the degree to which he’s gone off the rails- his own rails- recently.

                • joe from Lowell

                  Where “off the rails” means “not agreeing with me on certain questions,” he sure has.

                  But this assertion that he isn’t incorporating the history of American interventions into his analysis is the realm of fantasy.

                  If you’ve been reading him, at all, you know your charge is unfair.

                • Steve LaBonne

                  God forbid that you shouldn’t have the last word (and you’ll go on forever to get it), so I’ll just say that I stand by my comments.

            • rea

              admits that the jury is out on whether the intervention there was a good thing

              The jury is out on whether the new regime will be much better than the old one, from a human rights point of view. That’s the problem with revolutions; they tend to involve a lot of gratuitous killing, and sometimes the new boss is the same as the old boss.

              That’s not quite the same issue as whether the intervention was a good thing. Allied intervention likely made the revolution less bloody and shorter, and the aftermath of an unsuccesful revolution would not have been status quo ante bellum, but soemthing much worse.

              • joe from Lowell

                That’s the problem with revolutions; they tend to involve a lot of gratuitous killing, and sometimes the new boss is the same as the old boss.

                Even the ones that produce an unambiguously better boss tend to involve a lot of bloodshed.

  • ajay

    Yeah, this is pretty ludicrous stuff. He can’t even be bothered to do the equation

    people in Homs
    x
    weight of food, water and medical supplies required per person per day

    and compare that to
    number of drones
    x
    cargo capacity.

    You could probably do it more easily with actual cargo aircraft. Modern airliners have autopilots that can handle an entire flight from runway to runway. All you need is a robot cargo kicker.

    Or just go for “poor man’s UAV” and hire some Ukrainians.

    • Sean Peters

      Yep, the general lack of understanding of military capability in the press is pretty jaw-dropping.

      Also, another drawback to the use of the KMAX or similar drone helicopter: operating range. It seems unlikely that something like the KMAX could even GET to Syria from Incirlik, much less do any maneuvering there, or come back.

  • strannix

    If the Syrian military shot down any humanitarian drones, no one would interpret that as an act of war requiring retaliation.

    What?

    • joe from Lowell

      Well, did you see anyone calling the Iranian capture of the drone that was in their air space an act of war, or calling for military retaliation?

      • Ben

        I might be reading too much into Strannix’s syllable, but I think he might mean “in the current political climate where some sort of military intervention in Syria is more than a possibility, the Syrian’s shooting down a humanitarian UAV would almost certainly be used as a justification for further intervention. And, given how precarious the situation is, it’s likely to be one of the deciding factors which result in military intervention.”

        • Ben

          Whoops, forgot to add: “of course this is utterly distinct from the Iranian situation, where political preparations for military intervention are nowhere near as close as for Syria.”

          • joe from Lowell

            the Iranian situation, where political preparations for military intervention are nowhere near as close as for Syria

            OK, my turn: WHAT?!?

            • Ben

              Oh come on. The League of Arab Nations wants intervention in Syria. The UN has been focused on Syria for months. The situation dominates headlines all over the world. NPR and the Anne-Marie Slaughters are doing their part to push for intervention in the near term. And the situation on the ground in Syria is such that on any given day things could become so horrendous that intervention becomes politically necessary.

              None of that is true for Iran.

              • joe from Lowell

                You’re right, I skipped over the word political in your statement about political preparations for military intervention.

                I just read it as “preparations for military intervention,” and thinking about military preparations.

              • rea

                The League of Arab Nations wants intervention in Syria.

                No, it does not. It would probably support UN peacekeepers, and already has a peacekeeping force of its own ineffectively present in Syria, but it’s certainly not calling for airstrikes or a Marine landing.

                Military intervention in Syria does not seem very likely at this point, because it would probably require the full Iraq treatment to be effective. Few really want that, and it’s not clear that we have the resources left to do it if we wanted to. We’d need six months to assemble troops and equipment (like Iraq) if we were to try it.

                • Ben

                  The League has sent around 200 observers of its own, called those ineffective, and has petitioned the UN for a 3,000 member peacekeeping force.

                  Peacekeeping is messy, both doctrinally and practically. But I’m willing to call a proposal for sending 3,000 armed soldiers into an active conflict a proposal for “military intervention.”

                  And while you’re right that currently it would probably take Iraq levels of resources to properly quell violence in Syria, that’s not exactly the calculus. If the options are to either stand by and watch a civil war unfold in Syria, or to materially aide one side of that civil war, it’s pretty clear what most of the international community wants to do. And, to get back to the original comment’s point, it seems pretty clear that if Syria’s government were to bomb or destroy some humanitarian efforts, that would be used as a justification for intervention.

                • joe from Lowell

                  it’s pretty clear what most of the international community wants to do.

                  It is?

                  I don’t think it’s clear at all.

      • strannix

        Well, apples and oranges, my friend. The US insists that the aircraft malfunctioned and was not shot down, and whether that’s true or not (Iran says otherwise) US policy has responded along those lines. So for all official purposes, you’re comparing an act of deliberate aggression (Syrians shooting down drones) with a non-aggressive incident (Iran holding a drone that essentially fell from the sky).

        Besides which, IIRC Cheney said that the incident warranted an airstrike in order to destroy the drone. So even the narrow response to your question is, “yeah, sort of”.

        • joe from Lowell

          First, the aircraft was not shot down. The Iranians took over the controls and landed it.

          So, comparing this to sea power: both firing on a ship and boarding it are acts of war – but it’s tough to make the case that you have been aggressed upon when you sent your ship up someone else’s river.

    • Ian

      If the Syrian military shot down any humanitarian drones, no one would interpret that as an act of war requiring retaliation.

      I suspect the opposite might be true. Would supplying the rebels be an act of war?

      • joe from Lowell

        I think he meant, such a shootdown wouldn’t be seen as an act of war against us, by the Syrians. There wouldn’t be a great hue and cry for us to retaliate against the shootdown of a drone.

  • joe from Lowell

    God love Juan Cole, but he is far from an expert, or even particularly well-read, on military matters.

  • Joe Kopena

    On a related note in case it’s of interest, there are a number of programs either happening already or about to begin intended to work on drones-as-transports problems. E.g.:

    http://www.defensemedianetwork.com/stories/looks-like-everybody-wants-unmanned-cargo-capabilities/

    I’m not super familiar with the area of work, but a lot of it seems based around essentially retrofitting existing or similar airframes. I don’t get the impression of anybody addressing the basic problem of keeping these giant, lumbering targets from being shot down. It would be interesting to see some really different takes on airborne, large scale resupply that addressed that.

  • Trollhattan

    They might as well take a page from the Mexican narcos book of tricks and catapult supply bales over the border. (Presuming some rebels are anywhere near the border.) Fast and low-tech.

    • Hogan

      This message paid for by the Trebuchet Marketing Board.

      • joe from Lowell

        This message paid for by the Trebuchet Marketing Board.Citizens for Clean Transport.

    • herr doktor bimler

      I submit that it is also necessary to catapult inspirational leaders into Syria to help organise a revolution.
      In other words, a trebuChe.

      • Hogan

        Someone with brass ballistas.

        • herr doktor bimler

          ‘Ballistas’? What’s wrong with calling them ‘catapult operators’ like we always used to? These fancy new titles aren’t fooling anyone.

          • firefall

            lol win

      • Trollhattan

        11 points on a 10-point groaner scale. Bravo, mein herr.

  • fasteddie9318

    Wait a minute! Suppose two swallows carried it together?

    • Hogan

      African or European swallows?

      • hickes01

        The Syrians would merely fart in our general direction.

    • joe from Lowell

      They could grasp it by the husk.

      • fasteddie9318

        It’s not a question of where they grip it!

  • Andy Wilton

    Call me old fashioned, but wouldn’t cruise missiles do a better job? Okay, you’re talking something like $1 million/ton if Wikipedia’s Tomahawk stats are accurate, but they’d be a damn sight harder to shoot down, no?

  • Mojo

    For rapid, global resupply of rebels you just can’t beat the cargo version of Prompt Global Strike. Some may claim that the extremely high cost, unproven technology, insane risk of triggering a nuclear exchange, and the fact that it couldn’t possibly deliver enough cargo to matter before we ran out of ICBMs weigh against this proposal. But all I’m recommending is using some degree of spacepower on the rebel’s behalf.

    • Sean Peters

      Where’s the “like” button?

  • Mojo

    And I do loves me some Juan Cole but “Gandhian” gun-running. Really?!

  • D Takaki

    You hadn’t considered the package that would be part of a K-MAX (3.5 ton cap payload BTW). To think that the pkg wouldn’t include an EW platform offshore is somewhat of an oversight.

    You have also overlooked the fact that US drones already fly over Syria, and they don’t get shot down, painted, but not locked on, since part of the drone operators’ intent is to acquire ELINT information, and the Syrian AD know this very well.

    AD is a cat and mouse struggle where the cat isn’t always the cat. You should know that, but have decided to overlook this detail in forming your argument. Disingenuous…

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