Drones: The Weapon of the Future?

Jan 11, 2012 The Outside Observer

The highly publicized deaths of terrorists this past year, such as Atiyah Abd al-Rahman and Anwar Al-Awlaki, have drawn attention a new type of weapon: the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), otherwise known as the drone.  Drones are remotely piloted spy planes that transmit live video and images to US forces.  They can also be used to carry out air strikes without directly endangering US troops or operatives.  While the technology has been around for a while – the first Predator drones were used in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s - the number of drones has grown exponentially over the last 10 years, from merely 50 to around 7,000 today.   The increased reliance on drones to eliminate terrorists marks a significant change in military policy.  For the first time in history, there is a blurring of military and intelligence boundaries.  The CIA – a civilian intelligence agency – is increasingly taking the lead in operating these ‘targeted killing’ missions, instead of the military.  In addition, this is the first time that a policy selects people to kill in countries where the US is not officially at war, such as Pakistan and Yemen.    Needless to say, drone warfare raised a lot of important political and legal questions.  Is it a cheaper and safer way to combat terrorism?  Or is it weakening the US’s credibility worldwide?

Disillusioned by the huge costs brought on by interventionist policies of President George W. Bush, which resulted in the drawn-out conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Obama administration embraced drone warfare as a cheaper alternative to ground invasion.   Air Force officials have estimated that it costs $5 billion to operate its global drone surveillance network, and the Pentagon has asked for another $5 billion in 2012 to continue developing them.  However, as large as these costs seem, they are tiny compared to the price of the Afghanistan and Iraqi wars.  According to a Brown University study, the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan will cost America between $3.2 and $4 trillion, including the costs of medical care and disability for veterans, by the time they are finally over.   In addition, given the current economy, the United States can no longer accommodate the deployment of large forces overseas when the rough annual cost is of $1 million per soldier.   There is no denying that drone warfare keeps our soldiers safer.  Behind each drone, there is a team of 150 or more personnel, repairing, maintaining and piloting the aircraft, as well as those that pour over the hours of video and radio signals it collects.  However, none of these 150 people are endangered, as would be the case in traditional bomber aircraft or with ground troops.   The assassination of Anwar al-Awlaki, for example, would have invariably resulted in steep loss of life on both sides if the administration had sought to use ground troops to extract him, given the unstable climate of the country he was seeking refuge in.

Many have also sought to argue that drone strikes are a much more precise weapon and deliver a more predictable outcome, lessening the loss of collateral damage.  In fact, John O. Brennan, President Obama’s top counterterrorism advisor, went so far as to argue that for almost a year, “there hasn’t been a single collateral death because of the exceptional proficiency and precision of the capabilities we’ve been able to develop”.   While he later backed off the statement somewhat, many CIA officials have defended his position and have argued that since May 2010, drones have killed 600 militants and not a single non-combatant.  Of course, this assertion appears to be clearly overly optimistic, and a report from the British Bureau of Investigative Journalism argued that at least 45 civilians were inadvertedly killed during the last year.  However, in comparison, an estimated 4,087 civilians were killed in the Iraq War during that same time period.  There is no denying that the number of civilian casualties are staggeringly smaller following drone strikes because, as Bill Roggio, editor of The Long War Journal, said, the “people conducting the strikes work hard to reduce civilian casualties”.  Drone operators can view their targets for days beforehand, analyze the ‘pattern of life’ to better distinguish militants from non-combatants, use modeling software to accurately calculate the blast area for a proposed strike and monitor the strike as it happens.  There is less of a ‘fog of war’ where people are inadvertently killed when soldiers, under fire, make mistakes due to their high stress circumstances.

However, this distance from the conflict is not necessarily a good thing.  Even military ethicists have conceded that drones can turn war into a video game, where the operators can easily disassociate themselves from the reality of war.   They can become apathetic and careless as the war stops becoming real to them and they forget that they are responsible for killing real people.  In June 2010, the military released a report faulting military operators for “inaccurate and unprofessional” analysis from a remote location, which lead to an Afghan airstrike that killed 23 civilians, including women and children.  In addition, drones can increase the disconnect between the American public and its wars.  With no US flag-covered-coffins coming home, it is easy to forget that the country is at war, and therefore easy to passively condone US military action.  As a result, it can become easy for the USA to get drawn into conflicts around the world.

In addition, drone warfare raises a series of important legal questions.  The White House has attempted to justify its policy of using ‘targeted killings’ by drones by arguing that it remains in “armed conflict with Al Qaeda, as well as the Taliban and associated forces, in response to the horrific 9/11 attacks, and may use force consistent with its inherent right of self-defense under international law.”   In other words, the Obama Administration has asserted that these ‘targeted killings’ by drones are well within the purview of Article 51 of the UN Charter, which allows countries to use self-defense if they are attacked.  They argue therefore, that these drone attacks are not a violation of Pakistan or any other country’s sovereignty.  However, as UN Special Rapporteur Philip Alston argued, this definition of self-defense seems a little over-expansive.  Alston argues that if other states were to claim this broad definition of self-defense, the result could be chaos and warns that the drone warfare technology could spread to other nations, leaving many countries vulnerable.   Furthermore, however justified the Obama administration believes it is, there is no denying that the use of CIA-operated drones has eroded US-Pakistani relations.  In the face of fragile and strained alliance with a nuclear power, the inevitable question arises: is the drone program is doing more harm than good?

The legal questions become even more pertinent when the targets of these drone attacks are American citizens, such as was the case with Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan.  Both were killed in September 2011 by a drone missile.  Many have criticized the assassinations, arguing they were unconstitutional, depriving the American citizens of their 5th Amendment right, which specifies that no person may be “deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law”.   The American Civil Liberties Union tried to fight the decision to target al-Awlaki before he was killed, but the Federal Judge threw out the case, arguing that Awlaki had shown no interest in pursuing a claim in the justice system he despised.  Jameel Jaffer, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, condemned the decision and argued that it dangerously expands presidential power, giving the President the power to target an American who he deems to be a threat. The Judge rejects this interpretation.

More importantly, the targeting of American citizens undermines the United States’ moral authority. The United States frequently criticizes regimes, such as Syria or Iran, when they commit extrajudicial assassinations or executions of those they deem to be traitors.  Doing the same, via drones, makes the country lose its credibility internationally and its moral high ground in the ‘War on Terror’.  As a result, the United States hinders its own ability to push human rights as part of its diplomatic agenda.  It also adds fuel to the fire when we seem to contradict our own moral principles, and gives credence to Al Qaeda’s propaganda as they try to portray the United States as immoral and hypocritical.

Finally, drone ‘targeted killings’ might be futile.  With every assassination of an Al Qaeda leader, another one rises up.  It is not the long-term solution to fighting terrorists networks.  Removing one at a time will take forever and is likely to be a never-ending battle.  In addition, killing these top Al Qaeda members makes them martyrs in the eyes of their followers.  It does not kill their ideas, especially in a world of viral Internet videos. Yasir Qadhi,a doctoral candidate at Yale and American Muslim Cleric, pointed out that in Egypt, the radical Sayyid Qutb only achieved his legendary status after his execution in 1966, when he became a martyr for his cause.  His books became bestsellers after his death.   Al-Awlaki’s ideas are likely to gain a life of their own after his followers saw him silenced by the enemy he hated so much.

Drones are not the magic cure to ending the War on Terror.  It is important not to forget that there are other instruments at the disposal of the United States to pursue foreign policy goals, including diplomacy, trade policy, development aid and, of course, traditional military tactics. It is also important to remember that every action the United States takes has repercussions worldwide.   While drone warfare provides a safe and relatively accurate way to remove terrorists without endangering American lives, it is important to remember that there are other repercussions, as the recent tensions between the United States and Pakistan clearly demonstrate. That being said, it seems obvious that drone strikes seem to be the lesser of two evils when compared to ground invasion.    In a world where terrorist networks, instead of countries, continue to threaten the United States, drones seem to be the best tactic we have right now to fight them.   However, that doesn’t mean we should stop looking for other methods, or that we should compromise our moral authority internationally by breaking our own principles.

– Simone M. Scully
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