Vox Fails at Explaining the Drone Arsenal Race
As we’ve heard many times before, the news website Vox isn’t just trying to report the news, it also, revolutionarily some might say, wants to explain the news. “Understand the News” is one of the site’s unofficial slogans, as well as a category of its posts, all of which seek to break large topics up into middle schooler, index card-sized chunks.
Melissa Bell, a co-founder of the site, told The Guardian, “We [the media industry] present the news in a way that puts forward the newest information, not the most important information.” In an effort to be different, Vox seeks to emphasize context, and help readers figure out what matters.
Based on that, it’s hard to decide whether this post on America’s drone arsenal is Vox‘s idea of contextualizing the news, or simply a vestige of the “old news media” that prioritizes individual quotes and expert consensus over more holistic reporting.
In it, Zack Beauchamp begins by citing a report by Defense One that claims, “every country will have armed drones within ten years.” Any yet, of the 196 or so countries which currently exist in the world, something tells me that not quite all of them will have workable drone programs by 2024. The median GPD being somewhere around $30bn, a drone program costing around a sixth of that probably isn’t too feasible for most nations, though perhaps they could gather together the $200-300mm that a single Global Hawk costs, or at least “virtually” all of them could, as Defense One hedged in its report.
Subsequent remarks in the same report undermine its titular claim, with Mary Cummings, “Duke University professor and former Navy fighter pilot,” calling it “premature” in a comment which Defense One nevertheless decided to label as “cautious agreement.” In addition, since “armed drone” could be anything from a Hellfire Missile toting MQ-9 Reaper to a DIY drone with a stick of dynamite strapped to it, the “expert consensus” as Beauchamp calls it, sounds extremely opaque and vacuous.
Vox likes narratives though, so Beauchamp sets one up in the first paragraph. There’s a problem, a solution, and an obstacle: America *could* lose its advantage in drone technology, though it could spend more and create a new office to prevent this, but military bureaucracy and a fumbling Congress stand in the way.
For example, the U.S. currently has an unmanned arsenal of approximately 23,000 vehicles according to Beauchamp, an estimated 679 of which are drones, while China has only 280 or so, though the exact structure of the latter’s fleet is unknown. However, Beauchamp doesn’t get into specifics, merely asserting instead that “everyone else is starting to catch up.”
From there, Beauchamp simply quotes or paraphrases a bunch of things “expert” Michael Horowitz says about the evolving nature of robotics warfare and the possibility that America isn’t adapting effectively enough. The “enough for what,” though only implied, is never explained.
The two biggest barriers to growing and adapting America’s drone arsenal “enough,” are apparently the mixed use and oversight of the drone program by the Air Force and Navy, and the lack of a five to ten year development plan for the joint program.
The solution to this, as told to Beauchamp by Sam Brannen, “an expert on drones at the Center for Strategic and International Studies,” is to simply create a new Pentagon office called the Defense Unmanned Systems Office. Such a measure has already been taken up by Congressman J. Randy Forbes, and incorporated into the bipartisan Asia-Pacific Region Security Act he co-authored with Rep. Colleen Hanabusa.
Though Brannen is not optimistic about the bills chances, he is glad that it will have “touched off a debate inside DOD about how best to allocate resources.” All of which leads Beauchamp to breathe a sigh of relief, writing that “maybe,” just maybe(!), “the United States military won’t end up holding an empty bag in the Great Drone Wars of 2048.”
Beauchamp’s article is titled, “Inside Washington’s attempt to save America’s drone advantage.” Oddly enough, in it he doesn’t actually interview anyone in Congress or the military about this attempt. Neither does he lay out exactly where America’s drone advantage currently stands or why readers should care if its being diminished, even slightly. Nor does Beauchamp interview anyone who doesn’t think America’s drone advantage is dwindling, or doesn’t think that it matters all that much if it does.
Indeed, the fact that Beauchamp’s story is so poorly sourced makes me wish he had been upfront about why he talked specifically, and only, to Horowitz and Brennan, especially when there are no shortage of “experts” in matters of national security and futuristic warfare who are willing to weigh in on such matters.
And while I certainly wouldn’t accuse Beauchamp of not being an independent writer and reporter, the fact that “sponsored by GE” is splattered all over the Vox website only makes the shoddy framing of the article that much more problematic, heavily invested as that company is in sub-contracting work on military equipment, including drones.
What’s disappointing isn’t that the article is editorially framed in a way I disagree with politically, but that Beauchamp isn’t more upfront about this framing, or more thorough with it. In the spirit of Vox‘s “explainer” philosophy on news and reporting, he could have at the very least made the case thoroughly and unabashedly for why America’s drone advantage is both important and under threat, as well as provide an overview of all the players and dynamics concerning questions of procurement and organization in the military and Congress regarding the nation’s drone program.
Instead, the piece pre-supposes both its own value and its own correctness on the question it raises, without being fully open about, or fully reporting on, either one.