Futureproofing Drones

Setting the Right Standards for Aerial Warfare

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

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