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 the 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. President Trump has since expanded America’s use of drones in America’s fight against terror, especially in the Middle East and Africa.
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.
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 have proven adept in reaching the remote areas of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Yemen and Syria, among other countries, where the Taliban, Al-Qaeda and ISIS conduct their 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, 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 have against terrorist groups that tyrannize the tribal regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan. For those who are regularly subjected to suicide bombings or whose children risk being abducted and taken to terrorist training camps, drone strikes provide much welcomed reprieve from terrorists’ violence.
Drones are economical.
For those frustrated by the country’s military spending, drones are the answer. With a price tag of over $350,000 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 nations’ security goals. Remotely operated drone strikes preserve soldiers’ lives by removing them from site of conflict, full stop. While the Pentagon’s 2016 fiscal-year budget included $2.9 billion for drone research, development and procurement, and, depending upon the type of drone, they can cost anywhere between $2,500-$30,000 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 super power, 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. Look at Syria, where the US and Russia are supporting opposing sides. US drone strikes have (unintentionally?) hit a Russian-made tank as well as Russian military bases during its 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 undermine and destabilize the unity government, a government which the US itself had fought hard to help the Afghanis create. Similarly, 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 recent assassination attempt of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro involving drones carrying explosives shows goes to show how drones, in unrestrained hands, can increase instead of decrease geopolitical instability.
Bottom Lines: Drones are a highly effective, precise weapon 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. How do you feel about drone strikes?