A man walks past a graffiti, denouncing strikes by U.S. drones in Yemen, painted on a wall in Sanaa November 13, 2014.
Khaled Abdullah / Reuters

The revelation in April that the United States had inadvertently killed U.S. and Italian aid workers during a drone strike on an al Qaeda facility in Pakistan has renewed questions about the legality and effectiveness of using drones for counterterrorism. U.S. President Barack Obama acknowledged and apologized for the error, but he continued to defend drones as an effective tool against al Qaeda. Though many applauded Obama for his candor, he revealed little about the nature of the strike—whether it was known that there were civilians within the compound, whether the military had anticipated collateral damage, and whether the United States pursued a signature strike based on behavioral patterns rather than on hard intelligence on the intended targets. 

The topic of drone strikes is as divisive as it was when the policy was first introduced in 2012. Defenders, who note that drones have killed more than 3,000 insurgents in the last decade, claim that drone strikes offer an efficient means of attack against dangerous militants. CIA official Michael Morell’s recent book points to a series of nine strikes in Yemen between July and August 2013 as being responsible for the deaths of 38 militants who had planned attacks against “multiple targets of significance.” The drone strikes, Morrell says, complied with international law. Further, during a major 2013 policy speech at National Defense University, Obama doubled down on the legality of drone strikes, with the caveat that “there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured” prior to striking.

Critics of the U.S. drone policy, however, point to high-profile cases in which civilians were killed, such as the 2013 drone strike against a wedding party in Yemen that left 12 dead—many or all of whom were thought to be civilians. If, as in this case, there were no apparent militants in sight, it seemed fairly impossible that the administration could uphold its commitment to near certainty of zero civilian casualties in more complicated cases. The U.S. government provided little help in this instance, since it was opaque about the reasons it had conducted the strike. In the May 2013 speech at the National Defense University, Obama stated that he wanted to “facilitate transparency and debate on this issue and to dismiss some of the more outlandish claims that have been made” about the policy. But silence on strikes similar to the Yemeni wedding incident made his words ring hollow.

U.S. drone policy 2
An X-47B pilot-less drone combat aircraft is launched for the first time off an aircraft carrier, the USS George H. W. Bush, in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Virginia, May 14, 2013.
Jason Reed / Reuters
There is yet another question about the level of intelligence required to pursue drone strikes, given the frequency of misdirected attacks that lead to the deaths of civilians. Drones themselves may be precise, but inadequate intelligence means killing the wrong person with precision. Domestic support for drone strikes hinges upon their ability to prevent casualties on the battlefield.

No amount of technology can eliminate the fog of war, and there is no replacement for good intelligence in battle—whether combat is hand-to-hand or death from above.
Defending drone strikes as a way to reduce “collateral damage” implies that intelligence-gathering can lead to proper identification of the individuals being targeted. For all the disagreements about drones, there are at least two factors on which both defenders and critics might agree: the accuracy of strikes is only as good as the intelligence that goes into them, and whatever precedent the United States sets with their use will be used as a template for other states that adopt the technology in the future. 

In the case of the accidental strike on American and Italian aid workers, the heat sensors used to identify the number of individuals in the suspected al Qaeda facility could monitor only the individuals who were above ground. As the intended targets were reportedly underground, the quality of intelligence that predicated the strike was insufficient. Obama himself acknowledged that drone intelligence can be inconclusive or faulty, but the execution of drone strikes has at other times demonstrated a misplaced trust in the technology.

U.S. drone policy 4
Nabila Rehman, 9, holds up a picture she drew depicting the U.S. drone strike on her Pakistan village which killed her grandmother Mammana Bibi, at a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington October 29, 2013.
Jason Reed / Reuters
Other countries interested in developing or acquiring armed drones will model their behavior on how the United States uses the technology. As Central Intelligence Agency Director John Brennan said in 2012, “we are establishing precedents that other nations may follow, and not all of them will be nations that share our interests or the premium we put on protecting human life, including innocent civilians.” Israel, the United Kingdom, and the United States are the only countries that have used drones in combat, but China and Iran are thought to possess advanced armed drones, and many other nations are intrigued by the technology. Like the United States, many countries want to be able to wage war without losing troops. If drone technology becomes a staple of modern combat, it behooves the United States to act with more caution, prudence, and transparency. Implementing the Drone Accountability Regime proposed by Princeton professor Robert Keohane and Duke professor Allen Buchanan would create an international standard for regulating drones in a more formal manner. Currently, drones are regulated by the Missile Technology Control Regime, a non-binding agency established in 1987 that excludes many of the key states interested in producing or acquiring drones, such as China, India, Iran, and Pakistan. Adopting the Drone Accountability Regime would strengthen the United States’ legitimacy, and would grant Washington the ability to hold other states accountable for drones in the future.

No amount of technology can eliminate the fog of war, and there is no replacement for good intelligence in battle—whether combat is hand-to-hand or death from above. The United States enjoys a relative monopoly over this technology for now, but over the long term other states will catch up. If Washington wants to influence how other nations use drones in the future, it will have to carefully consider how it uses this technology today.

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  • SARAH KREPS is Associate Professor of Government and Adjunct Professor of Law at Cornell University.
  • More By Sarah Kreps