Signature strikes target groups of men believed to be militants associated with terrorist groups, but whose identities aren't always known. The bulk of CIA's drone strikes are signature strikes. Wall Street Journal.
Drones are changing the dynamics of warfare in very scary ways. They make oppression much easier (and cost-effective).
To recap: Drones are extremely cost effective vs. ground/air assets (particularly in that with drones, operators aren't put at risk). They also enable extremely centralized command and control (as in: operations can be micro-manged in Washington, down to the decision to kill). In sum, a small number of people in Washington DC can control/operate a vast 24×7 killing field for very few $$.
Here's how they are changing warfare:
- An Assassination List. Drones, in combination with other forms of electronic surveillance, make it easy to rapidly find and kill people (even in non-permissive areas). As a result, assassination of threats has become the easy solution to many problems. It has become so popular that the process has become bureaucratized and automated through the development of an assassination list. The US President has one, and he can put US citizens on it via a simple, non-judicial, bureaucratic process.
- Signature Strikes. The current practice of the CIA in Pakistan is to kill groups of people that “look” like terrorists or guerrillas. Exactly what a group of people needs to do, wear, or be to trigger the signature of a terrorist/guerrilla group is unknown. The Pakistani authorities are only told about strikes that kill more than 20 people. While these strikes have generated some push-back from Pakistani press/politicians, it's relatively small given the number of people killed.
- Borders melt. Nearly every country in the world, except a few key allies, can be penetrated with drones. In most cases, they don't know they've been penetrated. In others, there's nothing they can do to prevent it. The big barrier to cross border special ops or air force hits/strikes in the past was the chance that operators would be captured. That's not true anymore. So, in effect, anybody can be killed nearly anywhere at anytime by a flip of a switch.
It's a pretty slippery slope from here. The simple answer is that US practice we see at work in Pakistan will eventually become common place in Mexico, Central America, and Northern Africa. However, the more interesting answer is how it gets applied to US internal security when the US/global economy crumps into depression, the US government goes bankrupt, and the current system loses much of its remaining legitimacy. In that scenario:
- any armed group would instantly fit the signature of terrorists/guerrillas (the further you are away from an urban zone, the easier a target you will be),
- even a mildly radical post to a blog, Facebook or Twitter ( particularly if it could lead to a flashmob or an occupy style protest) would invite inclusion on the drone assassination list (in that case, the occasional flash of a car being blown up by a drone patrolling a highway and IDing a listed driver, will become common),
- drone to citizen ratios will rise to 100:1 as new micro-drones cut cost and new software allows DHS control centers to manage large region wide “drone clouds.”