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Kill Chain: Drones and The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins

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An essential and page-turning narrative on the history of drone warfare by the acclaimed author of Rumsfeld, exploring how this practice emerged, who made it happen, and the real consequences of targeted killing Assassination by drone is a subject of deep and enduring fascination. Yet few understand how and why this has become our principal way of waging war. Kill Chain uncovers the real and extraordinary story; its origins in long-buried secret programs, the breakthroughs that made drone operations possible, the ways in which the technology works and, despite official claims, does not work. Taking the reader inside the well-guarded world of national security, the book reveals the powerful interests - military, CIA and corporate - that have led the drive to kill individuals by remote control. Most importantly of all, the book describes what has really happened when the theories underpinning the strategy -- and the multi-billion dollar contracts they spawn -- have been put to the test. Drawing on sources deep in the military and intelligence establishments, Andrew Cockburn's Kill Chain unveils the true effects, as demonstrated by bloody experience, of assassination warfare, a revelation that readers will find surprising as well as shocking.

320 pages, Hardcover

First published March 10, 2015

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About the author

Andrew Cockburn

31 books55 followers
Andrew Cockburn is the Washington Editor of Harper's magazine and the author of many articles and books on national security, including the New York Times Editor's Choice Rumsfeld and The Threat, which destroyed the myth of Soviet military superiority underpinning the Cold War. He is a regular opinion contributor to the Los Angeles Times and has written for, among others, the New York Times, National Geographic and the London Review of Books.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 108 reviews
Profile Image for Jerome Otte.
1,764 reviews
August 19, 2016
An accessible and well-written history of drone warfare from the perspective of the policymakers, targeters, pilots, targets and unintended victims. Cockburn argues that drone warfare is not as effective, discriminate, and cheap as its proponents claim.

Cocksburn argues that, rather than completely revolutionary and unprecedented, drone warfare has roots in strategic bombing (dating from World War Two), the evolution of technology to observe and control the battlespace (dating from Vietnam) and the idea of precision targeting. Along with an examination of these, Cockburn looks at the practice of viewing the enemy as a network to be analyzed from a distance, with “targeters” of some sort or another trying to figure out ways to ways to most damage the enemy by destroying particular targets (i.e. precision bombing and the capture and killing of high-value targets)

Among the examples, he looks at the killing of Yamamoto in World War II and the lack of effect this seems to have had, and some bizarre cases like Nixon-era schemes to assassinate drug traffickers. A more interesting case study is the Gulf War and the unexpected problems surrounding “precision bombing” there: the difficulty of finding the Scuds, the effective performance of the maligned and low-tech A-10, the failure to disrupt Saddam’s command and control, the F-117’s reliance on jamming escorts despite its much-touted stealth features, and the problems with laser-guided bombs. He also describes the relatively modest effect of American air power in Kosovo. He also looks at the development of the Predator drone and shows how the pressure to retaliate for 9/11 trumped concerns about technical problems.

He disputes the idea that targeting leaders of a terrorist network is an effective tactic since new ones always emerge (of course, drones always target midlevel “managerial” types as well, something Cockburn doesn’t really touch on) Cockburn quotes one official equating these killings to “mowing the grass,” and frequently argues that targeted-killing campaigns are self-sustaining. The book ends with “The system rolled on autonomously---one big robot mowing the grass, forever.”

While interesting and relevant, there are a couple problems with the book. Cockburn uses the term “assassination” without making clear what he means, and some of his assertions seem unsupported when you flip to the notes section.He even labels drone warfare “sinful” at one point. The Phoenix program is called a “killing spree,” even though most of its targets were captured or induced to defect. When describing the CIA’s U-2 program, Cockburn writes that “it fell under effective control of the Pentagon, which assigned the targets---bomber bases, missile silos, etc.---useful for military estimates but not for the CIA’s allotted task of assessing Soviet intentions.” In reality, the Agency had primary responsibility for the program, with the military in a support role, despite DCI Dulles’ skepticism. About 49% of the program personnel were military, and the military and CIA always negotiated a consensus regarding U-2 targets. The very reason Eisenhower approved the U-2 program was due to concern over the threat of a surprise attack in an era of nuclear missiles. Yes, the CIA observed military targets, but the Pentagon was hardly the only customer. Cockburn also brings up “Team B” and its disputed conclusion of Soviet military strength. “Suitably chastened,” he writes, “the CIA did not veer significantly from the defense lobby’s self-interested assessment of Soviet strength and aggressive intentions right up until the final collapse of the Soviet system.” In reality the CIA and other agencies issued a number of reports, especially after 1985, that noted the challenges the Soviet state faced; by 1989, the CIA judged a coup attempt to be likely, for example. A simple reading of the November 1990 NIE or George Kolt’s analysis for NSC, for example, should have disabused Cockburn of this notion. Likewise, Team B did not actually provide any recommendations to improve the NIE process, and, ultimately, Team B’s analysis did not lead to any huge changes. Also, Cockburn refers to the FBI’s 1987 rendition of Fawaz Yunis as a “kidnapping.” Technically, however this was authorized by Congress (which passed a law giving FBI jurisdiction over terrorist attacks where Americans were taken hostage regardless of where they occurred), was conducted pursuant to a warrant, and occurred in international waters anyway. Cockburn also brings up Army JAG W. Hays Parks’ opinion that the assassination ban issued and reaffirmed by various US presidents did not apply to lawful self-defense----”the military lawyer’s definition left plenty of wiggle room for any president who wanted to murder someone,” he concludes. Cockburn also suggests that America’s post-Cold War military interventions were motivated by nothing more than budget justifications. He criticizes the CIA’s apparent inability to penetrate al-Qaeda with human sources in light of the fact that foreign fighters, including Americans, have joined the group with apparent ease. He ignores the fact that these fighters did not have to put themselves in risky and potentially compromising situations to report intelligence back to their American handlers---it is challenges like this that make penetrating groups like al-Qaeda, and actually avoiding detection while doing so, difficult.

Still, a readable, well-researched and well-organized volume overall.
Profile Image for Chris Chester.
572 reviews85 followers
March 1, 2015
tl;dr Starting back in WWII, Cockburn assiduously documents the origins of drone program's "targeted assassinations," diving not only into the flawed weapons systems themselves, but the misbegotten logic that underpins their use.

In Kill Chain, Andrew Cockburn looks at the historic context for and modern implications of a number of concepts central to the American drone program: that it's possible for remote sensors to offer command a God-like view of the battlefield; that enemy organizations can be decimated by targeting nodes — both in the form of important infrastructure as well as individual commanders; and that the future of combat almost necessarily involves the use of unmanned aerial systems.

While the company line at the Pentagon, Langley and elsewhere is that drones offer "precise precision," an effects-based assessment of their program shows that their use is of dubious strategic value.

Even the most high-tech drone technology has issues handling bad weather, offer limited views to operators akin to "looking at a battlefield through a straw," and offer no practical intelligence for distinguishing between combatants and innocents. Cockburn uses Operation Anaconda as an instructive example, where commanders hundreds or thousands of miles from the battlefield attempt to make strategic decisions that conflict with the observations of AC-10 pilots observing the battlefield with their own eyes.

"The ensuing battle featured almost all aspects of the remote-control high-technology approach to war, notably the abiding faith in remote sensing as a substitute for the human eye. The results were instructive, if tragic."

Even in situations where important battlefield commanders were successfully targeted, decades of military experience going back at least to Vietnam demonstrates that killing individual leaders in terrorist or paramilitary organizations does little or nothing to limit their operational effectiveness. If anything, it opens opportunities for younger, smarter, more ruthless and tenacious leadership to take charge, with all the attendant devastating effects that come with.

And that's where they actually successfully target the right people! Time and again, U.S. drone strikes wind up killing innocents — bombing tribal gatherings and wedding parties in the pursuit of individuals. And at other times they execute tribal leaders at the behest of their regional rivals, who need only to evoke the specter of "Taliban" or "al-Qaeda" to provoke the missiles to fall. And then these operations are described as successes, because anybody who is a military-aged male is automatically an enemy combatant, even with evidence to the contrary.

This has the effect of taking an indifferent or submissive population and turning them against American interests. It corroborates the story I read in No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War through Afghan Eyes. While nominally taking down terrorist organizations, our military actually sows the seeds of future enemies.

The final, and perhaps most frightening, conclusion Cockburn only briefly mentions at the end. The military is moving towards a future guided in large part by automated systems — not so much because of their operational effectiveness, but because of the ease with which they pad the bottom lines of military contractors.

It's one thing to tout the effectiveness of drones in asymmetrical warfare, but one wonders what a full-on conflict with a power like Russia or China would look like. If the Iranian's can down a drone with $30 software and the Serbians could knock out a spy plane with ancient SAM installations, how quickly will all this expensive technology be swept aside in the face of a real enemy?

The final crisis of American legitimacy as a super power years from now may not come from within, as is often predicted, but in a spectacular military defeat, the seeds of which Cockburn has assiduously documented in Kill Chain.
Profile Image for Ben.
1,005 reviews22 followers
March 8, 2016
Those with strong opinions on the US' increasingly frequent use of military drones should read this informative review of the history of unmanned warfare - it goes back farther than you'd think. The facts largely support the popular narrative that drones are highly imprecise, far-reaching in collateral damage, and used with astonishing insouciance. Amazingly, our military has no problem with a drone strike on a high level target that results in up to 29 civilian casualties. (30 or more, and you need a special permit...)
11 reviews
January 12, 2015
The author takes us on a very thorough exploration of the subject of the US drone strategy. He examines the issue from 3 perspectives - military/historical, political and technological. Going back to WW2 and in particular Vietnam, he reviews the military strategy of going after 'high value' targets which started out as infrastructure targets but are now persons; explores the gradual changes in technology that have resulted in the current drone and surveillance technology; and discusses the politics of military procurement, strategy and counter-terrorism. He is especially critical of the limitations of drone imaging technology and of the strategy of attacking key terrorist individuals and the resulting civilian casualties. Along the way he also mentions the abuses of military procurement and the failures of military strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan. While I do not always agree with his conclusions, this book was well written, well researched and quite revealing. Well worth reading if you are interested in what is currently our foremost anti-terrorist weapon.
Profile Image for Sharon Gardner.
170 reviews2 followers
May 20, 2017
I learned a lot from this book and now feel I have been hopelessly naive. I had always questioned the morality of drone warfare, someone sitting thousands of miles away deciding a person should die and also killing whoever was unfortunate enough to be anywhere near them, but I had foolishly believed these multi million dollar weapons were at least fit for purpose. I am left horrified at the countless millions spent on useless weapons that don't achieve their aims, stealth planes that are not hidden from radar, drones that have such poor surveillance cameras that the quality of pictures if replicated in a driver's vision would have them registered blind. I found the story of the pursuit of high value targets as a strategy very interesting. The fact that these strategies have shown to be ineffective but are still pursued shows how much influence the huge defence contracts have on military decision making.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
9 reviews
March 28, 2023
An awesome book that taught me a lot. I especially enjoyed the critique of Warden's centres of gravity theory and the data on the counterproductivity of the kingpin strategy examined through the lens of the economic monopoly theory.

The war on drugs example also shows how airpower can be used effectivelly to fight a non-traditional problem using statistics and other scientific reasoning. In each kind of "war" a thorough understanding of the enemy is vital to efficiently fight said enemy. While the root causes of the drug problem are socioeconomic factors the approach of Rivolo was likely a solid second best method after combatting socioeconomic problems.

The part about Afghanistan especially had some new information for me. The war on terror makes clear how analist's and commanders' tendency to fall into confirmation bias is enhanced by technologies such as drones

Having said all that the book also contains a few inaccuracies and exagurations. The blackhawk downed in Kosovo for instance was done so by ingenious use of early warning radars in radar bands that the aircraft was not optimized for. Stealth technology has its advantages and drawbacks and the enemy always still gets a vote. The way this example is used in the book is misleading. It seems as if the blackhawk's stealth does not protect it at all as the proper context is not shared in the book.

"The actual performance was not quite as advertised, stealth aircraft were not invisible to radar"

Stealth aircraft are not advertised as being invisible to radar. The developers and pilots surely knew about the differences in performance of the stealth technology for different radar-bands. While I enjoyed reading this book and learned lots of new things I wonder which other examples might have been exagurated or cherry picked to aid the author's critique of drones.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Gordon.
462 reviews9 followers
July 16, 2015
People tend to split into two groups, those who attack George W. Bush as the fascist, stupid monster who dragged an unwilling America into two foreign wars and those who attack Barrack H. Obama, as the socialist destroyer of our democracy who is coming for our guns. Unfortunately, both men's foreign policy should be castigated. Both Bush and Obama have executed American citizens without trial. Both men have waged foreign wars that are not only immoral but stupid, chief stupidity being the reliance on Star-Wars technology that doesn't work. The country's illegal assassination program, waged badly by Bush and better by Obama, is based on the faulty premise that cutting off the head of an organization or key "nodes" will lead to immediate failure of the organization. That that theory has failed in the Vietnam War, the Drug War, and the wars of Afghanistan and Iraq are beside the point, according to idiots that populate our CIA and military. As newer, more effective opponents emerge in these battles, perhaps it's time for us to question the men we elect and the fools they appoint or have appointed for them by the Military-Industrial-Complex. This small book details the idiocy of the theory and the foolishness of a nation that insists on spending billions on drones and other high-tech nonsense so they can prosecute their unnecessary wars. Well-documented and accessible, this book documents our increasing addiction to robotic warfare. Every person from 18 to 80 should read and reread it before the next election.
Profile Image for Marc.
8 reviews17 followers
March 30, 2015
Unlike dry histories, Andrew breathes life into our long path of corruption to modern assassination techniques. Through rich storytelling he creates a relationship with the actors in Washington and the corporations that pulled strings back over the past century. The light he sheds on modern policies is unapologetic and precise. Highly recommend.
Profile Image for Pete.
898 reviews55 followers
June 8, 2022
Kill Chain : Drones and The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins (2015) by Andrew Cockburn is a really interesting book that examines how the US now has unprecedented drone technology but how this technology failed to yield results in the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and later in Syria. Cockburn is the Washington Editor of Harper’s magazine and has written extensively about US military issues.

Cockburn places the drones into the context of the long search for ways to fight wars with technology and in particular airborne technology. In WWII it was promised that bombing would end the war without the stalemate and cost of trench warfare. First area bombing and city destruction and then precision bombing of high valued targets was touted as a way to bring about German surrender. While the attacks on the Romanian oil fields brought results much of the bombing of German key ‘nodes’ and cities was clearly ineffective and quite possibly counterproductive. Cockburn points out that when attacking a list of key nodes was shown to be a failure instead of giving up a larger list of key nodes was then created. This is echoed later in the book.

There is a fascinating chapter on how the US used sensors on ‘Operation Igloo White’ during the Vietnam War when the US put sensors along the Ho Chi Minh Trail in order to try and stop Laos being used to supply troops in Vietnam. The pitch of high tech equipment to solve a problem with an insurgency was tried and failed here.

Cockburn then describes how people in the US theorized that drug dealers and insurgent and terrorist groups could be dismantled if key ‘nodes’ in their networks were removed. That is to say if their leaders were assassinated. This failed in the drug war. It was found that older dealers were quickly replaced with younger dealers who were often more violent.

The book describes how the US use of drones increased year after year as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan dragged on. Despite the drones frequently crashing their use was loved by senior US leaders who get live feeds from them and also from the CIA who were changed from gathering intelligence to a more active role in killing people. US special forces, which grew dramatically also become keen on assassinating people.

The problem with this large scale assassination program was that rather than end the insurgency it probably made things worse. New leaders would appear who were younger and often more violent and who would have been aware they quite probably didn’t have long to live. Also substantial civilian casualties were caused. The combination of these factors must have played a part in the US failures in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Cockburn also makes the point that cheaper manned aircraft often have better visibility than Predators and this can help. The A-10 Warthog and the Seeker observation aircraft are described favorably. The Seeker is much cheaper at $US 500K than a $US 40M Predator system. Interesting Cockburn asserts that the big US defense contractors haven’t produced competitors for the Predator because the system cost is substantially lower than that of most front line US combat aircraft.

Kill Chain is a really interesting book that provides a bromide to much of the advocacy for unmanned systems and network centric warfare. It’s hard not to ponder that if the US had spent more money on teaching more soldiers Pashtun and Arabic and learning the culture of the places they had invaded that they might not have had more success.
Profile Image for Daniel.
181 reviews5 followers
August 21, 2018
Terrific book that details the history of our reliance on technology. The author details how the U.S. military and intelligence community slowly moved away from a reliance on humans for information and decision making and swayed to technology. Further, our reliance on technology coincided with the tactic of targeted killings of enemy leadership despite massive evidence that adversary leadership at all levels is quickly replaced, sometimes by more competent and ruthless people.
48 reviews
January 18, 2020
Very one sided and negative. Contradictory in that one minute the author states the technology doesn't work or live up to it's claims, and the next that it is too effective and being directed by unfeeling, heartless pyschopaths. From listening to the author, every strike is a mistake that is too easy to make.
258 reviews1 follower
August 8, 2021
The misuse of drones by the US to take out targets around the world is horrible. The drones can't pick out people properly and many innocent people die more than the very bad. The money the government give to the companies that make these drones is out outlandish and they never try to fix them. A very good book
114 reviews
June 7, 2016
This was a very interesting book, but it seems like the author misses his own point. His argument against high-tech weaponry (drones, etc) seems to boil down into two critiques: 1) it doesn't work or isn't a good replacement for human decisions making and 2) it is being employed in a counterproductive method.

On the first critique, many of his arguments lack forward-thinkin. Sure, the drones may have problems, like a tendency to crash or more limited resolution than a low-flying manned craft, but many of these short-comings will be addressed as drone technology progresses. But arguing that drones are not perfect, doesn't mean that they won't get better, or that research in that area isn't warranted. On a related critique, high-flying drones with long command chains are replacing human pilots who can react immediately. But the problem of far-away commanders trying to micromanage battles from afar is nothing new. It has always existed. So, don't blame technology for it, blame human nature.

Second, the author argues that drone technology is being deployed in counter-productive ways. The author then sets out a critique of the "kill the leader" method of counter-terrorism and counter-narco. But once again, this has nothing to do with the technology. You could just as easily have targeted bombing strikes with conventional planes. Or with Seal teams. The author makes a convincing argument that the methods employed to bring down the Taliban don't work, but inaccurately diagnosis the root cause. It is American policy, or hubris, that is to blame. Not technology. For example, he talks repeatedly about the collateral damage of drone strikes. But the same thing happened with Sherman's March to the Sea in the Civil War or the Bombing of Dresden in World War II. The problem, once again, is not technology, but a lack of morality. The author should have focused more on amoral American policies, like the policy that any military aged male is automatically a terrorist, rather than blame everything on the scapegoat of technology.

Oddly enough, I read this book back-to-back with Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA. In that book, the author argues that the CIA is completely incompetent and the only time they ever did anything right was when they employed technology. In this book, the author argues that our military/intelligence technology is completely worthless, and the only time we ever did anything right was because of old-fashioned human intel. The two conclusions are contradictory, and I think the truth is somewhere in the middle. Sometimes human intel works. Often, good technology can assist human intel. And often, our government fails to do what they should do. But instead of focusing on a single scape-goat, let's examine all of the information without preconceived conclusions.
Profile Image for Ernest Spoon.
480 reviews18 followers
April 27, 2015
How anyone could think the US government capable and competent enough to put together are far reaching, complex, complicated conspiracy is beyond me.

Unlike Jeremy Scahill's "Dirty Wars," Andrew Cockburn's "Kill Chain: The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins" is a straight forward history of how the US Defense Department and the CIA have pissed away untold amounts of taxpayer dollars on high-tech detection and assassination systems which never delivered as advertised.

Also, unlike Scahill's "Dirty Wars," which focused on the drone assassination of the unsympathetic Islamist stooge Anwar al-Awlaki, Cockburn relates case after case of totally innocent and, in most cases, anti-al Qaeda, anti-Taliban citizens of Afghanistan and Pakistan being literally blown away by Hellfire missiles fired from Predator drones.

From my perspective, the problem seems that the Pentagon, the CIA and the NSA are in the control of ideologues who are in love with the idea of advanced-technology over the human element. It is as if these highly place, highly respected generals and civilian officials believe, with little to no emperical evidence, that our high-dollar, high-tech spies- and killers-in-the-sky are as effective and accurate as those portrayed in such popular television crime-fantasies and motion pictures, the recent "Furious 7" for example. As Cockburn reports, drone surveillance is like looking through a drink straw.

The entire history of the Pentagon/CIA's remote, detection, viewing and bombing effort is the epitome of the Fourth Basic Law of Human Stupidity: Non-stupid people always underestimate the damaging power of stupid individuals. In particular non-stupid people constantly forget that at all times and places and under any circumstances to deal and/or associate with stupid people always turns out to be a costly mistake.
Profile Image for Ubaid Dhiyan.
71 reviews6 followers
May 1, 2016
I don't really know what to make of this book - at one level it is a history of the CIA and the U.S. Military's "targeted killing" program - at another it is a hopelessly biased rant against the entire U.S. Military and to America's political approach to war and fight against terrorism. There is some well deserved criticism of the drone program and of the "military-industrial" complex but much of the book comes across as a rant. Cockburn dismisses practically all of the technological superiority claimed by the U.S. in identifying and targeting bad actors in the theaters of war it operates in. The author also has a bone to pick with the Military's procurement process, and its tendency to spend billions on advanced weapons programs that seem to crumble, or at least not perform as expected, on the battleground. I'm inclined to believe the argument around there being significant wastage in the U.S. defense budget, but the rest of this "history" seems to me hopelessly biased and not reliable. Not recommended.
Profile Image for Craig Fiebig.
468 reviews10 followers
February 16, 2016
Great discussion of the complexity created by too much information presented to decision-makers too far removed from the conflict. Also very helpful on inadequacy of horrible defense acquisition practices. Marred by deliberate mid-use of elementary business statistics. The author so frequently wanders back and forth between growth in revenue and growth in profit that he's either ignorant or malicious. Given that 100% of his 'errors' serve to bolster his point one is forced to conclude for malice. Calls the veracity of the author's analysis entirely into question.
Profile Image for Robert Davidson.
179 reviews10 followers
July 12, 2015
Informative and very enlightening as to how Drones are unreliable,very expensive to build and maintain and how often they are used to kill innocent people. When they do manage to eliminate a high ranking terrorist, the person is replaced very quickly and so the cycle of elimination continues. The Author provides a solid argument against the increased use of these Drones but so far no one is listening.
Profile Image for Ciaran Buckley.
2 reviews1 follower
April 8, 2015
A disturbing read, analyses the myth that hi-tech war can be more humane than traditional horrible old war. Questions that assumptions that a) it's possible to accurately pinpoint the leaders of your enemies, rather than killing the wrong people and b) that the people who replace those leaders will be less cruel.
Profile Image for Molly.
13 reviews
July 8, 2015
Interesting book but honestly I couldn't finish it. The high level of anti-military, anti-UAV, anti-intelligence is so prevalent through this book that I found it highly distracting from what I was hoping to be a well-researched and at least moderately unbiased look at a shadowed side of military weaponry. Cockburn must have a pretty significant ax to grind with the U.S. military.
Profile Image for Andy.
800 reviews3 followers
May 3, 2015
Well written. Kept me engaged through the entire book. I knew some of the information in this book, but I had never heard so many of the problems with the military technology. I can't recommend this enough.
Profile Image for 한 카트 .
102 reviews26 followers
July 3, 2016
Summary: If you're hell bent on killing people, avoid using a drone - They're not as smart as they make them to be.
4 reviews
December 12, 2018
Good information overall but it required a lot of attention in order to connect all the dots that the author was dropping.
Profile Image for Jimmy.
223 reviews3 followers
June 3, 2021
This book was recommended to me by a good friend at work. Coincidently, I have a different book called Kill Chain on my to-read list as well which made it a little confusing and I had to confirm that this was the one he wanted me to read. My friend and I are both in the Army but these days I work the Army equivalent of a desk job. I am a data analyst for the Army now after nearly a decade on the bomb squad. My friend works for an organization with a dedicated assistance and training mission. He and I have been friends for about ten years and we are very different people but at the same time we are quite close. He reads a lot but nearly everything is military and/or professional development focused so when he recommends a book about work, I listen. It helped in this case that I had interest in the subject matter as well.

For the book itself, it is a pretty comprehensive look at the history of drone warfare, specifically as a part of American policy. To summarize the entire book, we are spending a lot of money and don’t have any real, positive results to show for it. In spite of the massive, and I mean MASSIVE, amounts of money being spent on the systems, most do not work, at least not as advertised. When they do, the systems in place make their use feel almost indiscriminate. We funnel billions of dollars into these programs and are led to believe that if we don’t, we will lose. Even when organizations want to cancel programs, Congress keeps them alive- Eisenhower warned us about the growing Military Industrial Complex and this is a textbook example. Then, when we do use these, we fail to follow protocols and kill civilians as often as we kill the targets. 

Everything about drone warfare is a complete and utter debacle if this book is to be believed, which I am inclined to do. Now, don’t get me wrong, I think that drones and unmanned vehicles are the future or at least a part of it. They allow us to defend America’s interests without putting troops on the ground. While I have opinions about that as well, for the sake of simplicity (that’s a big assumption, I know) I think that we can agree that not having the military deployed all over the world is a good thing. I think that the role of the executive branch is to find that balance between hard and soft power through the State and Defense Departments. You have to have enough military capability to demonstrate the ability but not so much that it becomes your only option. You also want to ensure that you can protect the country from both current and future threats. I think there is a place in that happy middle where the use of drones can amplify hard power in support of soft power. That also said, based upon this book, the capability of these platforms is not mature enough to fill that void effectively. Drones are being used exclusively, it seems, as a hard power enabler to attack and destroy terrorists. However, the capability of the drones is not sufficient to effectively do this. The best example in the book is that the imagery produced by the drones is not enough to positively confirm identification which leads to bad targeting. That leads to the murder of civilians which not only doesn’t support hard power, but actively impedes the application of soft power. You can’t negotiate with people you are killing without cause. Taking the best and most positive interpretation of that, we look completely inept and uncaring. We can’t build coalitions with partners who can’t trust us. 

This book opens up a lot of discussion that I think is necessary in my work circles. I would not be surprised to see this book on future professional reading lists. If anyone is interested in this kind of discussion, I would love to engage. I am always trying to learn more and see different perspectives.
454 reviews26 followers
July 4, 2021
The three stars is actually generous for this critique of modern intelligence gathering since the days of World War II through the Obama administration. Key targets are the costly spy technologies that seldom match their claimed efficiencies, the military-industrial-congressional complex (which is how Eisenhower originally phrased it in his draft farewell address), and collateral casualties from use of armed drones and other "screen-based" rather than "eyes-on" military assets. The book's title, "Kill Chain" refers to the complicated merger of technology and process that results in the assassination of a "High-Value Individual" human target. As the book makes clear, the high value of the target is sometimes arguable, and the likelihood of collateral (no-value?) targets is regrettable, but often likely. The use of the criterion of "military age male, MAM) is frequently used to legitimize the additional kills. His opening chapter graphically illustrates a drone attack that went terribly awry, killing men, women, and children, all of whom were fleeing the Taliban.

In a book with few heroes and many villains, Cockburn is most harsh about the military drones such as the Predator, Reaper, and Global Hawk. He finds them far less efficient than advertised, very expensive, and of shoddy construction. They suffer high failure rates on takeoffs and landings, are inoperable in poor weather, and some have fallen apart in operation. A key complaint, however, is that the images they provide the pilots, who fly them from thousands of miles away, are grainy and unclear. They lack context as they provide views equivalent to "looking through a straw." From those poor images the pilots must make the life or death decisions on firing the missiles that will complete the kill chain. Closely related are the high altitude bombers which may have to release bombs based on the same screen imagery. Related villains, to Cockburn, are the defense contractors, large and small, who schmooze Members of Congress to fund the weapons--and the Members who do so. Often associated are officials in the Defense agencies who support proposals for such equipment and stifle proposals for less expensive, better performing devices.

The heroes Cockburn identifies those officials who fight the big budget, low performance project. He identifies former fighter pilot and defense administrative maverick John Boyd and his allies in this category. He also presents the examples of other more recent analysts who show that the decapitation of terrorist cells and drug cartels) often results in an increase in the activity to be suppressed. Apart from effectiveness, there is, of course, the whole ethical question of assassination as an act of government.

With all this interesting material, why only three stars? I think the tone is unduly critical in some places. I think the research is spotty; as a journalist Cockburn seems to cite other journalists more often than historians or objective subject area experts. His criticism of the OSS, for instance, fails to note the point raised in the Senator Church intelligence committee report that military agencies failed to cooperate with OSS. Cockburn cites the "salty tongued" commander of one of those non-cooperating agencies as a basis for his evaluation.

Worth a read, despite my quibbles.
Profile Image for William Yip.
291 reviews2 followers
November 7, 2021
The author focused on the failures of US agencies' and corporations' intelligence gathering and drone warfare efforts and dismissed their successes and used biased language regarding their intentions. Most likely, the agency leaders do benefit from the technology they have and do care about protecting US citizens and soldiers and want to eliminate people who want to harm them. Also, technology only improves and better data analysis and machine learning algorithms keep coming out so it is likely a truly effective all-knowing system will be developed in the future.

That said, this book gave a good history of the intelligence gathering and drone programs that started in World War 2 against Germany and continued in the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, the Yugoslav Wars, the Iraq War, the Afghanistan War and will likely continue across the world, all with good intentions. It was incredible to read how the military-industrial complex resulted in bloated budgets, drones that failed in even slightly inconvenient weather, and drones that could not achieve the purported high resolution aerial views. It was distressing to know that the tax dollars funneled to these budgets meant less tax dollars for schools and infrastructure to the detriment of the average US citizen. I was also impressed by how groups with far less resources stymied these costly systems with simple and cheap tactics and decoys.

The behavior and actions of US presidents, military leaders, and government agencies reminded me of a big and renowned corporation. Presidents always want to be seen as protecting the country and people's interest and agency, military, defense company leaders always want to increase their budgets and influence so they'll highlight the positives and emphasize the capabilities and successes of their projects and systems while they ignore failures regardless of consequences for civilians in other countries and for US front line soldiers. The behavior and actions of the insurgents reminded me of a quickly iterating start-up with killed leaders being swiftly replaced by new leaders who saw and learned from their predecessors' failures and demise and adapted to the tactics and systems the US deployed. Tragically, all of this forms a vicious cycle. In the need to have positive results, the US will resort to killing indiscriminately anyone who associates with an insurgent or even acts somewhat similarly to an insurgent which embitters the population and results in more insurgents and violence which results in bigger budgets and more killings and so on.

Lastly, the situation with the drug cartels reminded me of "War! What Is It Good For?". Several big cartels control the drug trade and therefore enjoy huge profits. When a cartel was dismantled, small players suddenly had opportunity to sell drugs while still being capable of causing chaos. Most likely, these small players will band together to fight off competition and increase their profits until eventually another cartel is formed.
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142 reviews1 follower
March 2, 2018
While I think that this book definitely deserves 4 stars I am hesitant to say that I "liked" it. This is because it is such a depressing topic and there seems to be no way out of the mess that it describes. More than sixty years ago President Eisenhower warned against the "military-industrial" complex in his farewell speech to the nation. It would seem that he prediction was not grim enough. This book is about the U.S's half century quest to have total battlefield awareness and the ability to wage what amounts to a push button war. Like a lot of people, I imagine that I was under the impression that that was what we were already doing and that it was helping the good guys win he War on Terror or at the very least keep the enemies of the U.S. at bay. The reality is far from that simple.
What this book describes is a weapons program that has demonstrated limited success compared to the amount of money that has been put into it (not to mention the fact that there are much more cost effective alternatives) and has done more harm than good toward our ultimate objective of making the world a safer place. What the drone program seems to be more than anything else is a high tech welfare program for the arms industry that the military leadership is complicit in promoting due to the fact that many of them will turn around and work for these very same contractors when they retire. This book describes success rates that are greatly exaggerated and failures that go unmentioned. All the while innocent people are being killed often times for being too close to someone who knows someone who met a terrorist or just plain old mistaken identity. As I read this all I could think was that this seems more like a way to create the next generation of 9/11 hijackers rather than keep America safe and all the while the defense industry make billions. This is an important book to read and I think that anyone interested in politics military history or the inner workings of government. Just be warned, you may end up shaking you head when you realize what is being done in the name of this country to fight the war on terror.
4 reviews
November 6, 2018
To military planners, drone warfare makes a lot of sense and embodies the "enduringly desirable attributes of ‘speed, range, precision, and lethality'": it requires fewer troops on the ground, has the opportunity to kill only targeted individuals, and—theoretically—doesn't require a lengthy campaign. Yet as national security specialist Cockburn (Rumsfeld) shows in this history of the practice, the grim reality is often anything but. Cockburn's contacts in the military apparatus allow him to describe a program rooted in emotional button-pushing over the war on terror that was riddled with egos, overzealous commanders, dead civilians, and lucrative government contracts for a weapon whose performance was often less accurate than promised. Troublingly, Cockburn says, taking out a high-ranking target—a primary goal of drone warfare—often creates a power vacuum. As an intelligence officer noted of the situation in Iraq: "We kept decapitating the leadership of these groups, and more leaders would just appear from the ranks to take their place." The program and its effects—both intended and not—are ripe for a takedown and Cockburn admirably explains the strategies, intentions, and emotions that continue to surround the program. As he says in the book's closing chapter, whether it's working or not, "the assassination machine is here to stay.
53 reviews1 follower
July 4, 2021
This book has been sat on my shelf for several years, part of an ever-growing to-read pile. But a recent article in Delayed Gratification about the role drone warfare played in Azerbaijan/Armenia's recent conflict in Nagorna Karabakh jumped it to the front of the line.

Cockburn is clearly very knowledgeable about drone warfare, and in particular the Washington politics that has underpinned their development. He is scathing of the poorly designed testing, intense lobbying, flawed military tactics and inflated promises given over the years, for comparatively little reward. He certainly has a litany of failures to draw upon, from dead civilians, to drones that cannot fly in the wind, to AI navigation systems fooled by kit costing less than $30. But this is all he reports, and it seems implausible that there are no examples of effective drone warfare that Cockburn could have drawn upon. Equally, I would have liked to see more made of the effect abstracting the battlefield to a TV screen and a video game controller has on how "operators" make decisions. It appears that Cockburn set out with the explicit aim of using drones as a vector through which to criticise Washington beurocracy, and he achieves this at the expemse of giving the reader a full picture of events.

Overall, I emerge much more informed about drone warfare, but with the nagging feeling that I need to read another book from a favourable perspective, to ensure that what I know has been presented fairly.
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