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

Ground the Drones?

The Real Problem With Unmanned Aircraft

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, drones can operate in environments and against adversaries that are too dangerous for manned missions. Note, for example, the recent operation in the Horn of Africa, in which Navy SEALs attempted and then aborted a pre-dawn raid of a suspected al Shabab terrorist compound because of gunfire. Contrast this with a strike later in October that targeted two suspected al Shabab leaders in southern Somalia, after which one nearby resident reported that he “heard a big crash and saw a drone disappearing far into the sky. At least two militants died.” This is not to say that drones are hardy in contested territory (they are not), but the Pentagon is generally more willing to send them into threatening situations than soldiers.

Third, although some countries, including Pakistan, have decried the American use of drones on their territory, they have not stopped it. According to a number of sources, for example, Pakistan has signed off on the strikes; indeed, the sheer frequency of strikes suggests at least tacit approval. Drones allow both countries to maintain the convenient fiction that the United States has not encroached on Pakistani sovereignty, which would be impossible with ground troops. This is even more relevant if something goes wrong with an operation, where the prospect of an American pilot shot down or soldier injured in a country with whom the United States is not at war would produce grave diplomatic fallout. 

Drones’ domestic, operational, and diplomatic advantages over manned missions makes them an attractive option for carrying out the policy of targeted killings. So they have been used that way. In the last ten years, the United States has conducted hundreds of drone strikes outside areas of active armed conflict: almost 400 in Pakistan, 60 in Yemen, and a handful in Somalia. It stretches the imagination to think that the United State would have been able to carry out that many strikes with either fighter aircraft or Navy SEALs. Inevitably, some Americans would have died and the target countries’ opposition would have gone beyond the point of political theater, triggering domestic blowback and energizing the otherwise complicit Congress.

The low-risk nature of drones -- at least to those using them -- is certainly one of their virtues. They can carry out important missions that would otherwise be too difficult or dangerous. But herein lies their vice too. By not shouldering risk, the United States has fewer incentives to exercise restraint. This is not to dismiss Washington’s efforts to minimize collateral damage with a systematic targeting process. To some extent, the most significant problem is not that the United States hits the target it intends to strike but that the target itself is misguided. That 50 percent of targets between 2008 and 2010 were Taliban members, who are not nearly as interested in striking American targets as they are in creating domestic turmoil within Pakistan, and that only eight percent of targets were “top-tier militant targets” or “mid-to-high-level organizers,” points to this potential legal slippage.

The answer is not to ban drones altogether. In circumstances in which the use of force is permitted and legal, drones are more discriminating than any alternative. Nor is the answer to ban the targeting of high-level individuals who are in a position to strike American targets.

The answer is to fix the legal slippage that has resulted in the United States using drones mostly to take out low-level militants. This may mean ending the signature strikes that are based on patterns of behavior rather than on known identities  and reevaluating whether members of the Taliban should populate the “kill list.” In general, it would also mean operating based on a higher legal standard -- focusing energies on the eight percent -- while retaining the same attention to avoiding collateral damage. All this would entail banning neither drones nor targeted killings; it would just mean using the two more judiciously.

A more discriminating drone program would not cost the United States much in terms of security. Few of those killed by drones have been high-level military targets planning terrorist attacks against the United States. Instead, a policy of greater restraint would improve U.S. security in the long term, as countries acquiring drones will be looking to the United States as a precedent for their own policies. 

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