Drone strikes against terrorists are extremely effective and will remain an "indispensable" weapon in the war against terrorists for the foreseeable future, according to the Pentagon’s senior intelligence policymaker.
Michael G. Vickers, under secretary of defense for intelligence, said unmanned missile-firing aircraft, along with intelligence collectors and targeters, are key elements in the U.S. counterterrorism strategy and operations and will remain a top priority for the next 12 years.
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"I would like to assure you that we use this instrument extremely judiciously," Vickers said in remarks at the Reagan National Defense Forum in California on Saturday.
"But it has been our most effective instrument broadly in this counterterrorism campaign that we’ve found ourselves in."
Drone attacks have been "the most precise campaign in the history of warfare," he said.
"And we do everything we can to minimize the noncombatant deaths and we do an extraordinary job," Vickers said.
The public comments were rare public disclosure by a senior official about the covert operations against terrorists that remain one of the Pentagon’s most closely guarded secrets.
Armed unmanned aerial vehicles have become cutting edge systems for the U.S. military and the CIA. They are key weapons now being sought by numerous countries, including China and Russia.
The United States operates the most advanced drone arsenal in the world. The force includes a variety of short-range, medium-range, and long-range aircraft that can conduct both unarmed intelligence and reconnaissance missions, as well as precision strikes using air-launched missiles—all without risking pilots or ground forces close to the attacks.
The best-known weapons are the Predator and Reaper drones armed with Hellfire missiles that have become a key weapon against terrorists operating in remote regions.
U.S. counterterrorism forces by 2025 will be modernized but will look similar to current forces used today. The four key elements, according to Vickers, are drone strikes, special operations forces, intelligence gathering and analysis, and cooperation with friends and allies.
Vickers said that in addition to intelligence sources and activities, "armed intelligence and surveillance aircraft, or drones as they are popularly known" are premier weapons.
"They are indispensable," Vickers said.
Vickers defended the use of drones, a weapon that has been used to kill a large number of al Qaeda’s senior leaders in Pakistan, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
Vickers’ remarks on the utility of drone strikes contrast sharply with statements last spring by the president and Obama administration officials who said drone strikes are being curtailed, and that activities surrounding them would become more transparent. Some drone operations will shift from the CIA to the Pentagon. Others will remain secretly conducted by the agency.
Sen. Carl Levin (D., Mich.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee who appeared on a panel with Vickers, also defended the use of drone strikes as needed to stop terrorists from attacking Americans.
Insurgents in Afghanistan are using Pakistan as a base to launch attacks against U.S. and allied troops and Afghans.
"We have the right to go after those people and that’s what those drone attacks are," Levin said.
Levin also said civilian casualties from drone strikes have been reduced sharply in recent years.
U.S. drone attacks have come under fire from critics who say it causes too many civilian casualties and violates state sovereignty, as in Pakistan.
President Barack Obama, under fire from liberal supporters, said in speech in May at the National Defense University that by next year "the progress we’ve made against core al Qaeda will reduce the need for unmanned strikes."
"Beyond the Afghan theater, we only target al Qaeda and its associated forces," Obama said. "And even then, the use of drones is heavily constrained."
The president insisted that drone strikes are not conducted when terrorists can be captured. And he defended the use of the covert attacks.
"America cannot take strikes wherever we choose; our actions are bound by consultations with partners, and respect for state sovereignty," Obama said.
Pete Hoekstra, former chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said he agrees on the use of drone attacks in the war on terror.
"If we're going to be serious about containing, defeating terrorism, you need to use all of the tools in your toolbox," Hoekstra said in an email. "Especially the ones that make a real difference like drones."
Vickers, in his remarks, said U.S. intelligence activities also will remain the "heart and soul" of the military and other operations against terrorists.
"Through 2025 the intelligence community and the department of defense will continue to prioritize counterterrorism as a top responsibility and a mission for our two organizations in protecting the nation," Vickers said on Saturday. "Intelligence drives operations and that’s what enables us to do what we do," Vickers said.
The intelligence activities include human spying and electronic eavesdropping that supports "targets and analysts that sift through the information and enable us to do the operations," he said.
Spies and drones, together with special operations forces that conduct direct action, and foreign security services, make up the U.S.-led global counterterrorism network, he said.
Earlier this month, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence passed legislation that would force the administration to make public numbers of terrorists and civilians killed collaterally from drones each year.
The legislation also would impose new restrictions on the use of drones to kill American terrorists, such as Anwar Awlaki, an al Qaeda operative who was killed in Yemen in 2011. Four other U.S. citizens have been killed by drones in the war on terrorism.
Current limits on drone strikes include a requirement that the person or persons being targeted pose an imminent threat to the United States, and that the attack must avoid causing civilian casualties.
The CIA has said that its efforts to limit strikes against civilians since the mid-2000s has resulted in far fewer noncombatant deaths.