In This Review

The Drone Debate: A Primer on the U.S. Use of Unmanned Aircraft Outside Conventional Battlefields
The Drone Debate: A Primer on the U.S. Use of Unmanned Aircraft Outside Conventional Battlefields
By Avery Plaw, Matthew S. Fricker, and Carlos R. Colon
348 pp, Rowman & Littlefield, 2015
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Drones: What Everyone Needs to Know
Drones: What Everyone Needs to Know
By Sarah Kreps
224 pp, Oxford University Press, 2016
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Objective Troy: A Terrorist, a President, and the Rise of the Drone
Objective Troy: A Terrorist, a President, and the Rise of the Drone
By Scott Shane
416 pp, Tim Duggan Books, 2015
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The Assassination Complex: Inside the Government’s Secret Drone Warfare Program
The Assassination Complex: Inside the Government’s Secret Drone Warfare Program
By Jeremy Scahill and the Staff of The Intercept
256 pp, Simon & Schuster, 2016
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Drone: Remote Control Warfare
Drone: Remote Control Warfare
By Hugh Gusterson
216 pp, MIT Press, 2016
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Predator: The Secret Origins of the Drone Revolution
Predator: The Secret Origins of the Drone Revolution
By Richard Whittle
368 pp, Henry Holt, 2014
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Sudden Justice: America’s Secret Drone Wars
Sudden Justice: America’s Secret Drone Wars
By Chris Woods
416 pp, Oxford University Press, 2015
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Drone Wars: Transforming Conflict, Law, and Policy
Drone Wars: Transforming Conflict, Law, and Policy
Edited by Peter L. Bergen and Daniel Rothenberg
496 pp, Cambridge University Press, 2014
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Drones and the Future of Armed Conflict: Ethical, Legal, and Strategic Implications
Drones and the Future of Armed Conflict: Ethical, Legal, and Strategic Implications
Edited by David Cortright, Rachel Fairhurst, and Kristen Wall
288 pp, Chicago University Press, 2015
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It is a measure of how much the United States’ security has improved since the more dangerous moments of the Cold War that the most troublesome issues in the military field today concern not weapons of mass destruction but targeted killing. The power that comes with access to the nuclear codes, of course, remains foremost when considering a presidential candidate’s fitness for office. Yet no American leader has authorized the use of nuclear weapons since 1945. The last two U.S. presidents have regularly authorized the elimination of alleged Islamist terrorists.

The U.S. government has assassinated jihadists through a variety of means, including Special Forces and attack helicopters. But drones have become its new weapon of choice. This has prompted a large body of literature exploring the ethical, legal, and strategic dilemmas that these weapons pose. Some of these books, such as The Drone Debate, by the political scientists Avery Plaw, Matthew Fricker, and Carlos Colon, and Drones, by Sarah Kreps, also an academic, provide admirable overviews of the debate. Objective Troy, meanwhile, by the New York Times reporter Scott Shane, presents a gripping account of the hunt for Anwar al-Awlaki, the charismatic New Mexico–born preacher and senior al Qaeda operative who, after a drone killed him in Yemen in 2011, became the first U.S. citizen to be assassinated since the American Civil War. The Assassination Complex, by the investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill and the staff of The Intercept (and which includes a foreword by the former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden), amounts to a searing indictment of the U.S. drone program. Other commentators are more gently critical, such as the anthropologist Hugh Gusterson, in Drone, his thoughtful examination of the dilemmas this new weapon poses.

Although these books differ in style and focus, they cover a similar set of issues and are drawn to the same set of sources. Underlying them all is the claim that drones represent a new era of warfare, or at least of counterterrorism. It is true that with drones, governments can eliminate political leaders and activists with relative ease. And perhaps one day, fully autonomous military systems, once programmed, may be able to decide whom to watch and then eliminate. Yet for now, at least, drones are just another weapon in the military’s arsenal. Winning a war requires controlling territory, and that will always necessitate supporting ground forces. Drones are an important innovation, but they are not revolutionary.

"ADDICTIVE AS CATNIP"

Unmanned aerial vehicles have existed since the early days of airpower. The first was developed but not used during World War I, for target practice. But it was the Israeli engineer Abraham Karem, who had been working on drones to confuse Arab air defenses in the 1970s, who realized that with new technologies, drones could provide real-time intelligence. In his enthralling history of the U.S. drone program, Predator, Richard Whittle tells Karem’s story. After immigrating to the United States, Karem failed to convince the Pentagon of his idea, and in 1990, he went bankrupt. But General Atomics, a California-based defense contractor that had been developing drones of its own, saw the potential of his designs. Together, they built the Predator.

Drones are an important innovation, but they are not revolutionary.

Initially, the military intended to use the Predator for reconnaissance alone, but after 9/11, it overcame its reluctance to arm the drone, outfitted the fleet with Hellfire air-to-ground missiles, and deployed them to Afghanistan. At the same time, the Bush administration drafted legal guidelines that gave the CIA wide powers to kill al Qaeda terrorists anywhere in the world. In November 2002, a drone killed Qaed Salim Sinan al-Harethi, a suspected al Qaeda leader, and five of his associates in Yemen. For the first time, the United States signaled that it was prepared to take out its enemies beyond a recognized combat zone. In 2007, it introduced the Reaper, which the U.S. Air Force has described as a “true hunter-killer.” Drones have played only a supporting role in Afghanistan and Iraq, but they have assumed the leading role in U.S. operations against terrorist groups in areas where the United States is not otherwise directly involved, notably Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen.

Drones bring together several technologies that have transformed modern warfare: highly efficient engines, advanced sensors, global positioning systems, instan­taneous communications, and, in the case of the larger ones, missiles. They make it possible for the operator to identify, monitor, and then strike a target thousands of miles away. To the U.S. government, drones offer two main advantages over conventional weapons: they put no American lives in danger, and, because drones can hover over their targets for much longer than manned aircraft, operators can direct attacks with greater confidence that they will hit the right targets, with civilians out of the way.

People and human rights activists examine the site of a U.S. drone strike that targeted suspected al Qaeda militants in August 2012, in the southeastern Yemeni province of Hadhramout, February 2013.
People examine the site of a U.S. drone strike that targeted suspected al Qaeda militants in August 2012, in the southeastern Yemeni province of Hadhramout, February 2013.
Reuters / Khaled Abdullah

Yet civilian casualties have proved unavoidable. Haphazard intelligence has often been to blame, as when local tipsters have provided the United States with false information in order to take out innocent rivals. So-called signature strikes, in which the United States targets people whose behavior suggests that they may be up to no good, even without definite proof, raise some of the most troubling ethical concerns and therefore play a major role in all these books. A number of things can go wrong: any convoy of vehicles can appear to be militants on the move, or else operators can take inadequate care to ensure that civilians are not in the vicinity. In a notorious case in December 2013 in Yemen, the United States, apparently hoping to take out 12 men involved in a plot to attack U.S. embassies, ended up striking a wedding party. And the decision-making behind the strikes has not always been dispassionate. After a Jordanian double agent killed seven CIA agents in a suicide bombing in Khost, Afghanistan, in December 2009, the rate of drone strikes picked up.

It’s hard to know exactly how many civilians have been killed by drones, since insurgents inevitably insist that the victims were innocent noncombatants. Plaw, Fricker, and Colon provide the most thorough analysis of the available numbers, highlighting the discrepancies between official figures and those reported by independent organizations. The most recent figures from the Obama administration, released in July, report 473 strikes outside the recognized war zones of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria between January 2009 and December 2015, killing between 2,372 and 2,581 combatants and between 64 and 116 civilians. By contrast, the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates that as of August, U.S. drone strikes had killed between 518 and 1,138 civilians in Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen.

Critics of the drone program focus primarily on “blowback,” the anger that civilian casualties provoke in targeted countries. Some counterinsurgency specialists, such as the Australian analyst David Kilcullen, argue that drone strikes have been counterproductive: they lead to the loss of local support and inspire more people to join insurgent groups, outweighing the gains from killing particular militants. But it is hard to know whether drone strikes have provoked more anger than other forms of Western power. A number of these books cite evidence from Waziristan, in northwestern Pakistan, to suggest that local civilians have preferred drones to other, less precise forms of attack on militants.

If anything, drone pilots find it harder to escape the harsh reality of war than do those launching missiles against a set of preprogrammed coordinates.

Critics also allege that the excessive secrecy of the U.S. drone program has undermined accountability; until 2012, Washington refused to acknowledge that it even existed, and many of the strikes are still carried out by the CIA—an agency not known for transparency. Scahill, for his part, draws on leaked documents to condemn the drone program for “an overreliance on signals intelligence, an apparently incalculable civilian toll, and, due to a preference for assassination rather than capture, an inability to extract potentially valuable intelligence from terror suspects.”

Lastly, critics express unease over the distance at which drone operators function. Their victims know nothing about their impending doom and can’t challenge their covert death sentences, let alone fight back. The operators, meanwhile, face no dangers themselves and can even live relatively normal lives in their free time, picking up the kids from school after killing someone on the other side of the planet.

This asymmetry of risk, critics argue, creates a moral hazard. Leaders may be tempted to use drones even when they offer little strategic benefit, especially when the alternatives—notably a ground intervention—appear to be riskier. In Sudden Justice, the investigative journalist Chris Woods quotes Kilcullen as saying that drones’ ability to provide tactical victories without requiring boots on the ground has made them “addictive as catnip” to the Obama administration. The U.S. military, according to one of Scahill’s sources, is “addicted to this machine, to this way of doing business.”

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

But fears of moral hazard are not unique to drones. In 2000, the Canadian academic Michael Ignatieff argued that the 1998–99 Kosovo war had been a “virtual” conflict, at least for citizens in the NATO countries. The allies had command of the skies, and hit whatever targets they chose, without taking casualties. This rendered the fighting too much like a “spectacle,” he wrote, which aroused “emotions in the intense but shallow way that sports do.”

If anything, drone pilots find it harder to escape the harsh reality of war than do those launching missiles against a set of preprogrammed coordinates. A drone pilot must stalk his prey closely and then, after the strike, see what is left of the victim and whoever else stepped into the frame at the last minute. Although the stress may be less than that experienced in actual combat (something of a rarity for all service personnel these days), the drone pilots are not just playing glorified computer games.

Nor is there evidence that the United States has become addicted to drones. These books were a response to a period of increasing drone use, but the use of drones has now subsided. In 2013, the Obama administration announced new guidelines for targeting and cut back on the number of drone strikes in Pakistan, which had already been falling since 2010. As the number of strikes in Pakistan and Yemen has fallen, so, too, have civilian casualties. According to the think tank New America, two civilians died in drone strikes in Pakistan from 2014 to 2016, and none has died in Yemen in the last two years.

In the end, the debate over drones, and the many books they have inspired, may be a delayed response to a particular stage in the war on terrorism, a stage that offers fewer lessons about the future of warfare than many of these authors claim.

THE AGE OF DRONES?

Drones are most useful when combined with other military capabilities, and they will always be of most value against opponents who lack effective air defenses, as is the case with many of the United States’ current targets. Drones are prone to crash, and the most advanced among them will, for the foreseeable future, remain expensive and difficult to operate without large teams of skilled people. Their slow speed, low altitude, and vulnerability to electronic countermeasures may also limit their role in less asymmetric conflicts.

As technology improves, ever-smaller drones will be able to provide increasingly specific intelligence and carry out more precise attacks. Drones will become more plentiful and will be available to the West’s enemies. Terrorists may see their potential for long-distance attacks, although to deliver large bombs, they will probably continue to rely on people, cars, or trucks. Other belligerents may be less interested in deploying drones to attack ground targets, because they do not set such great store by precision targeting. In Syria, for example, President Bashar al-Assad’s forces bomb civilians, and Russia has shown little restraint in its operations in Ukraine and the Middle East.

Drones cannot have a decisive impact on their own, even in a counterterrorism campaign.

Wars normally hinge on who can control territory, something that cannot be done from the air alone, whether with drones, helicopters, or jets. In the years between the two world wars, military planners described long-range aircraft as “strategic” (in contrast to shorter-range “tactical” aircraft), to convey the conviction that they could prove militarily decisive. This idea was discredited during World War II. Air operations weakened both sides’ ability to conduct ground operations, but they couldn’t win the war on their own.

The distinction between strategic and tactical weapons continued with the introduction of nuclear weapons, and today, the U.S. Government Accountability Office describes the longer-range, armed models of drones as “strategic.” But once again, the “strategic” designation is misleading: drones cannot have a decisive impact on their own, even in a counterterrorism campaign. In the collection Drone Wars, which is especially valuable for its number of firsthand accounts, one contributor, David Rohde, a journalist held in Waziristan by the Taliban from 2008 to 2009, confirms that drones terrified the militants and disrupted their operations. But they could not change the balance of power on the ground, and so Rohde insists that they cannot represent a long-term solution. And in her contribution to Drones and the Future of Armed Conflict, edited by David Cortright, Rachel Fairhurst, and Kristen Wall, the political scientist Audrey Kurth Cronin stresses how much more needs to be done to defeat terrorist groups than drone strikes can ever accomplish. They can hurt an enemy, in other words, but they cannot win a war.

Targeted killings have shaped the reputation of drones, and these strikes may continue in a variety of settings. But ultimately, the greatest military value of drones will lie in a more mundane feature: surveillance. They can loiter over a vital area, send back a stream of pictures, and follow individuals and vehicles of interest. Soon, miniaturization may allow a camera-equipped drone no bigger than an insect to fly within feet of an enemy.

The United States’ use of drones over the past decade and a half offers strategic lessons and raises thorny ethical and legal problems. These books explore those issues well. They open up a wider debate about the merits of targeted killing. But they tend to exaggerate the importance of drones by considering them in isolation from the many other types of military activity over this period and by dwelling on their most extreme, rather than their more common, use.

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