Ground the Drones?

The Real Problem With Unmanned Aircraft

A small drone helicopter operated by a paparazzo flies behind the American flag. Carlo Allegri / Courtesy Reuters

Recent efforts to ban armed drones have conflated technical questions with policy ones. One prominent coalition of activist groups has emphasized that targeted killings are a violation of international law. They conclude that the United States should ban drones, which, in their argument, are vehicles for the bad policy. But arguments that exonerate drones go too far in the opposite direction. Other scholars maintain that the real problem is the policy of targeted killings and that drones, in and of themselves, are nonissues. Both of these camps sidestep how the technology informs policy.

The policy and the technology should not be confused, nor can they be separated, because drones circumvent the domestic, operational, and diplomatic constraints that are imposed on their manned counterparts and, therefore, make otherwise unviable policies viable. 

First, drones make for good domestic politics. As one Washington Post headline put it, the American public loves drones. Drones seem to offer a way to kill bad guys without producing American casualties. No body bags come home from a drone operation. It is not surprising, therefore, that members of Congress generally look fondly on drones; drones mean that they don’t hear from outraged constituents about losing loved ones in combat. In turn, they have few incentives to maintain strict oversight over the program. As a result, drones have essentially flown below the radar of legislative checks and balances. It is only now, ten years into the program, that there have finally been concerted legislative efforts to win back more control over drones.

Second, drones have operational appeal. Manned aircraft are relatively low-endurance. F-16s have what the Air Force refers to as “short legs”: they can fly for one hour unless the aircraft is carrying external fuel tanks and conducts aerial refueling (which then also requires tankers). Even when the plane can refuel, crew rest becomes an issue. In contrast, unmanned aircraft can fly as many as 14 hours at a time (carrying weapons) or even 36 hours (doing reconnaissance). Further,

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