Today, drones are playing a central role in the war in Ukraine – or at least a central role in how war is changing. But this isn’t new. Former President Barack Obama’s liberal use of drone strikes during his eight-year term earned him the nickname “The Drone President.” With thousands of attacks ordered, Obama’s embrace of the drone program signaled not only a new chapter in America’s War on Terror, but a new chapter in warfare writ large – a chapter which has been accompanied by important questions regarding the ethical and legal parameters of drone warfare, and whether the gains truly outweigh the drawbacks. Former President Trump continued to expand America’s use of drones in America’s fight against terror, especially in the Middle East and Africa. Similarly, recognizing that drone strikes can prevent American military and civilian deaths, President Biden has also adopted a counterterrorism strategy that relies on armed unmanned aerial vehicles, as seen in the 2022 drone strike that killed al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Below, we’ll explore three arguments in favor of drone strikes and three arguments against them.
Drones are the future
Drones are the least of all evils
In Ukraine, drones are proving to a powerful weapon in their defense against Russia, without disruption without causing humanitarian damage. In general, drone strikes cost far less in human life than other kinds of warfare. This is owing to drone strikes’ precision. Whereas airplanes must quickly fire their weapons and depart the area, drones can hover above their targets for several hours, providing real-time surveillance that allows operators to detect non-combatants and wait for them to evacuate before firing. Additionally, drone weaponry is significantly smaller than those used in airstrikes. Their small blast radius safeguards against collateral damage, and they even have features that allow a misfire to be quickly corrected. A Slate report found that traditional forms of warfare, including airstrikes, missiles and ground operations kill around three times as many civilians as drone strikes.
Drone strikes work
The US’s drone campaign has been essential in the War on Terror. Drones proved adept in reaching the remote areas of Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Libya, Yemen, Somalia and Syria, among other countries, where the Taliban, Al-Qaeda and ISIS, among others, conducted (and still do) their terrorist activities. Daniel Blyman, a researcher with the Center for Middle East Policy, points out that drone strikes not only “defanged” al-Qaeda by neutralizing high-ranking combatants (and even the highest-ranking leaders, as was the case with Biden’s 2022 drone strike against Osama bin Laden’s predecessor, Ayman al-Zawahiri), but also made it nearly impossible for them to train new combatants, convene, or use telecommunications of any kind.
More than accomplishing American counterterrorism objectives, drone strikes are often the only defense local communities in tribal regions of countries like Pakistan and Afghanistan have against terrorist groups that tyrannize them. For those who are regularly subjected to suicide bombings or whose children risk being abducted and taken to terrorist training camps, drone strikes provide a much-welcomed reprieve from terrorists’ violence. Not to mention, drone technology keeps advancing to make them even more efficient and effective: Take for instance just one development that allows operators to coordinate multiple drones simultaneously and overwhelm aggressors’ defensive capabilities.
Drones are economical
For those frustrated by the country’s military spending, drones are the answer. With a price tag in the hundreds of thousands to train one US Navy Seal, the US armed forces have a clear economic incentive (in addition to the moral one) to risk as few soldiers – not to mention civilians – as possible to accomplish the nation’s security goals. Remotely operated drone strikes preserve soldiers’ lives by removing them from the site of conflict, full stop. The Pentagon’s 2024 fiscal-year budget of $842 billion, the largest, nominal-dollar peacetime budget ever, includes spending requests for the procurement of 1000 drone wingmen to accompany combat aircraft. That’s already thousands of lives saved. Moreover, depending upon the type of drone, they can cost more than $18.5K per flight per hour, drones are still cheaper to build than bombers and far easier to maintain (and protect) than a standing army. Their lower costs and higher efficiency make them one of the most valuable tools in the military’s arsenal, and their use should be encouraged.
Drones are dangerous
Extrajudicial killings damage the integrity of the United States
Due process, or the right to a fair trial for the accused, is a cornerstone of the US Constitution and the bedrock of the American justice system. Any accused person on American territory, whether they are American or not, is protected by these laws. While drone strikes are conducted far away, location hardly negates the American imperative that all men are innocent until proven guilty. (The CIA counts any military-aged men in a strike zone as combatants). The American public would be outraged were any other government to kill an American on the mere presumption that he is a terrorist, without offering any proof. America should apply its own standards for justice abroad as it does at home, even if it’s impractical.
Drone strikes set a dangerous precedent
As the world’s only superpower, the US has a special role to play in setting the dos and don’ts of counterterrorism. When Americans use drones for targeting killings, other countries are likely to follow her lead. For example, China has weighed using drone strikes in Myanmar to deter illegal drug trade. With the definition of terrorist groups highly dependent on the goals of each individual government, it’s easy to imagine how drone warfare could devolve into a free-for-all. Another example: the use and availability of drones are increasing casualties and intensities of regional clashes in areas like Armenia and Azerbaijan that, until now, have been limited by such countries’ inability to wage air campaigns. On a larger scale, a 2022 deadly drone attack in the middle of Abu Dhabi by Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels may mean an escalation of violence in an already volatile region. And let’s not forget about Syria, where the US and Russia are supporting opposing sides. US drone strikes (unintentionally?) hit a Russian-made tank as well as Russian military bases during previous defensive strikes against pro-Syrian forces. Who’s to say such drone strikes won’t lead to a tit-for-tat?
Drones foment discord between nations
Drone attacks executed without the knowledge or permission of the country in which they are conducted violate that country’s sovereignty. One Afghani journalist decried the unilateral nature of drone attacks in Afghanistan, saying they undermined and destabilized the unity government, which the US itself had fought hard to help the Afghanis create. Similarly, in 2013, Pakistan’s prime minister repeatedly called upon Barak Obama to cease drone strikes there, citing the need for collaboration on security matters. Just as the United States would not tolerate any country operating on its soil without permission, the US should not expect such actions will be tolerated by other nations. Plus, the 2018 assassination attempt of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro involving drones carrying explosives goes to show how drones, in unrestrained hands, can increase instead of decrease geopolitical instability. While some say that drones are aiding the Ukrainians against the Russians, others argue that they are actually enabling the war to carry on.
The Bottom Line: Drones are highly effective and precise weapons that help to limit casualties and structural damage. However, to remain a tool for security rather than fear, the United States and nations with comparable drone programs must work quickly to define clear, universal standards governing their use, especially when almost any nation can get their hands on more affordable drones today. How do you feel about drone strikes?