About this Issue

Technology is to politics as the weather is to sports: We can’t really control it, but we certainly have to live with it. In recent years the technology of unarmed aerial vehicles has made tremendous strides, allowing modern warfare to be conducted in many respects by remote control.

This may seem like a boon to technologically savvy countries like the United States, and in a sense it clearly is. But the moral calculus of war is rarely that simple: While drones can and do shield front-line troops from danger, and can often substitute for them entirely, they also have other effects. Drones can make it more likely that we will enter into wars, for example, and if so, then it’s no longer clear that they help the ordinary soldier. Drones may increase casualties among noncombatants; their pinpoint accuracy is only as good as the human intelligence behind them, which now may be more subject to manipulation, not less. And drones are certainly being used by hostile states and nonstate actors, including terrorist groups like Hezbollah.

To discuss these issues, we have assembled a panel of experts on drones and ethics of war. Our lead essay is by David Cortright of the University of Notre Dame; he is joined by Benjamin Wittes of the Brookings Institution, Daniel Goure of the Lexington Institute, and Tom Barry of the Center for International Policy.


Lead Essay

License to Kill

The accelerating use of drone weapons has opened a new chapter in the history of warfare. Since 2009 the CIA has launched 239 drone strikes into Pakistan,[1] while the Pentagon and its Special Operations commands have fired an unknown number of drone missiles into Afghanistan, Yemen, and other countries. The U.S. military launched 145 drone strikes during the recent NATO operation in Libya,[2] but the primary mission and role of these weapons is the targeted killing of alleged terrorist suspects. The Pentagon and the CIA have created an extensive drone infrastructure that includes several operational hubs in the United States and clandestine bases in at least six countries on two continents.[3] Drone strikes in Pakistan were suspended in November 2011 because of deteriorating relations between Washington and Islamabad,[4] but U.S. leaders remain committed to increased use of these weapons.

More War?

The rise of drone warfare has stirred strong passions and sparked a vigorous debate about the morality of unmanned weapons systems. The first and most important question is whether drone technology makes war more likely. Are decisionmakers more prone to employ military force if they have accurate weapons that are easier to use and do not risk the lives of their service members? The use of these weapons creates the false impression that war can be fought cheaply and at lower risk. They transform the very meaning of war from an act of national sacrifice and mobilization to a distant, almost unnoticeable process of robotic strikes against a secretive “kill list.” Do these factors lower the political threshold for going to war?

On the surface the question seems naïve. Political scientists argue that decisions about going to war are made on the basis of strategic necessity and perceived threats to security. The act of war is not determined by the type of weapon available. As the eminent political theorist Hans Morgenthau famously said, referring to nuclear weapons, people “do not fight because they have arms. They have arms because they deem it necessary to fight.”[5]

On the other hand, the availability of a particular class of weaponry can influence judgments on the likely costs and viability of military action. U.S. political leaders are able to imagine intervening militarily in other countries because they have advanced weapons systems designed for that purpose.[6] The possession of drone technology increases the temptation to intervene because it removes the risks associated with putting boots on the ground or bombing indiscriminately from the air. Drone systems are “seductive,” writes law professor Mary Ellen O’Connell, because they lower the political and psychological barriers to killing.[7] They induce a false faith in the efficacy and morality of armed attack that could create a greater readiness to use force.

A March 2011 report from the Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre of the U.K. Ministry of Defence concluded that the availability of drone weapons was indeed a factor in the decision of British leaders to participate in military operations in Pakistan and Yemen. In its study the Center found that manned aircraft and commando raids could have been used for the selected missions but were rejected as too risky. The decision to use force was “totally a function of the existence of an unmanned capability—it is unlikely that a similar scale of force would be used if this capability were not available.” The report urged “removing some of the horror” of these weapons so that “we do not risk losing our controlling humanity and make war more likely.”[8]

A greater readiness to use force may also result from the physical and psychological distance that separates the launching of a strike from its bloody impact. Robotic technology removes the person from the emotional equation of war, reducing human targets to images on a computer screen. This has stretched to the maximum what writer P.W. Singer describes as the disconnection between war and society.[9] Scholar Mary Dudziak agrees, “Drones are a technological step that further isolates the American people from military action, undermining political checks.”[10] U.N. Special Rapporteur Philip Alston warns against “a ‘PlayStation’ mentality to killing” that may induce public callousness and susceptibility to claims about costless warfare.[11]

Any development that makes war appear to be easier or cheaper is deeply troubling. It reduces the political inhibitions against the use of deadly violence. It threatens to weaken the moral presumption against the use of force that is at the heart of the just war doctrine.


Claims about civilian casualties from drone strikes have been hotly contested. Senior White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan asserted in June 2011 that for most of the previous year “there has not been a single collateral death” from drone strikes in Pakistan[12]—this despite press reports and complaints from Pakistani officials to the contrary. Precise information about civilian casualties is shrouded in secrecy, but a report from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, an independent university-based non-profit in the U.K., sheds important light on the subject. The Bureau has developed the most comprehensive available data on U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan by compiling and painstakingly cross-checking available reports from media, government, and firsthand sources. Their figures show that civilian casualties occur in approximately one fifth of U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan. Since the drone war began in Pakistan in 2004, more than 2,300 people have been killed and at least 1,150 wounded in these strikes. The Bureau estimates that the dead could include as many as 780 civilians, including as many as 175 children.[13]

U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan are prone to special problems of human error. They rely on uncertain human intelligence from agents in the country’s rugged northwest territory. The local informants the U.S. depends upon in the region are “notoriously unreliable,” a former CIA officer told writer Jane Mayer.[14] They may have their own agendas for settling scores in local tribal vendettas.[15] In Afghanistan intelligence gathered in areas with a minimal presence of U.S. soldiers tends to be less reliable in distinguishing between combatants and noncombatants, resulting in a higher proportion of civilian casualties.[16]

Countering Terrorism?

Ethical questions about the use of drones concern not only the nature of the weapons but the policies they are meant to serve. The use of drone aircraft perpetuates the illusion that military force is an effective means of countering terrorism. We should know better by now. After ten years of combat in Afghanistan, the threat of terrorist attack and insurgent violence in the region remains as great as ever, with civilian casualties at their highest level since the U.N. began reporting such figures.[17]

No one denies the legitimacy of preventing terrorist attacks and suppressing the global threat from al Qaeda. The problem lies in the use of military force as the primary means of achieving that purpose. Terrorism is more a political and law enforcement challenge than a threat that can be addressed by military means. The RAND Corporation’s 2008 report How Terrorist Groups End shows that the primary factors accounting for the demise of 268 terrorist organizations over a nearly 40 year period were participation in political processes (43 percent) and effective policing (40 percent). Military force accounted for the end of terrorist groups in only 7 percent of the cases examined.[18]

The White House claims that drone strikes are aimed at al Qaeda, but most of the attacks in the region have killed low-level Taliban fighters. The Wall Street Journal reported in November 2011 that most CIA drone strikes in Pakistan are so-called “signature” strikes, which are directed at groups of lower-level operatives rather than specifically identified al Qaeda leaders.[19] A study by the New America Foundation found that fewer than 13 percent of strikes in Pakistan targeted al Qaeda. Of at least 1,400 militants killed, only 38 were identified as Taliban or al Qaeda leaders.[20] A Reuters report using government data found that CIA drone strikes since the summer of 2008 have killed far more low-level fighters than mid- to higher-level leaders.[21]

These findings alter the moral calculus of current policy and cast doubt on the claim that the drone war in the region is a just cause of strategic necessity. The Taliban insurgency differs significantly from al Qaeda. The Taliban is a locally grown, diverse network of Pashtun nationalists and dispossessed tribes seeking to remove foreign troops from their soil and control the Pashtun-majority parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Al Qaeda is an Arab-based extremist movement with a global agenda of attacking western targets. Unlike the militants of al Qaeda, the Pashtun fighters of the Taliban do not have a transnational agenda and have not engaged in attacks beyond South Asia. There is no recorded incident of an Afghan Talib participating in a terrorist attack outside tribal regions.[22] However repugnant Taliban ideology may be, the Pashtun insurgency does not pose a threat to the security of the United States sufficient to justify large-scale military action and drone warfare.[23]

The White House claims its policies are reducing the chances of another terrorist strike in the United States, but drone strikes are fomenting greater anti-American hatred and creating support for the very militant movements their proponents claim to be suppressing. Former Australian military officer and Pentagon adviser David Kilcullen testified before Congress in March 2009 that drone strikes arouse “a feeling of anger that coalesces the population around the extremists” who vow to fight against such attacks.[24] Drone attacks also may be motivating so-called “lone wolf” extremists who have attempted terrorist strikes in the United States. Faisal Shahzad, the Pakistani immigrant who failed in his attempt to bomb Times Square in 2010, testified that, “…until the hour the U.S. pulls it [sic] forces from Iraq and Afghanistan and stops the drone strikes in Somalia and Yemen and in Pakistan … we will be attacking [sic] U.S., and I plead guilty to that.”[25]


The moral basis of drone warfare is clouded further by the program’s secrecy and minimal public accountability. The Bush and Obama administrations have given authority for counterterrorism drone strikes to the CIA and the Pentagon’s Joint Special Operations Command, JSOC. The CIA has a horrific history of criminality and incompetence, as recounted in Tim Weiner’s magisterial A Legacy of Ashes. Human rights lawyer Scott Horton expresses concern that this “marks the first time in U.S. history that a state-of-the-art, cutting-edge weapons system has been placed in the hands of the CIA.”[26] JSOC and CIA drone programs operate largely without public review or restraint. The only form of legislative “oversight” is notification of strikes after the fact to a few members of congressional Armed Services and Intelligence committees.

In an interview with Newsweek’s Tara Mckelvey, the CIA’s former acting general counsel referred to his work with drone attacks as “murder.”[27] The UN Special Rapporteur has criticized the lack of international legal justification for the drone warfare program as “a vaguely defined license to kill.”[28] Administration officials vehemently reject such claims, asserting that drone attacks comply with applicable laws of war, but the government refuses to address some of the most important legal issues involved.[29] It has not defined the scope of the war we claim to be fighting, the criteria for selecting individuals to be killed, or the safeguards and accountability mechanisms for preventing abuse.

The Obama administration may be taking a more aggressive stance toward killing alleged terrorists because of the political and legal difficulties of detaining and trying such suspects in the United States. According to American University’s Kenneth Anderson, “there is less reason to seek to capture rather than kill. And if one intends to kill, the incentive is to do so from a standoff position because it removes potentially messy questions of surrender.”[30]


The United States is increasing its commitment to drone warfare without regard for the risks these weapons pose to our security and moral standing in the world. Drone technology is spreading rapidly, with dozens of countries and even nonstate actors such as Hezbollah now developing or purchasing these systems. Military planners are developing autonomous drones that could make their own decisions on when to unleash lethal force.[31] If other nations follow our example as they often do, we will soon face the prospect of a world in which terror can rain down from the sky at any moment without warning. There is no long-term benefit to the United States in the unchecked proliferation of drone weapons or in the absence of agreed standards for limiting their use.

Drone strikes and targeted military operations stand in the way of a political solution to the conflicts in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The government of Afghanistan demands an end to U.S. military raids that violate Afghan homes. Pakistani officials want strict limits on drone strikes as a condition of their cooperation. Insurgent groups are using popular resentment at drone strikes to fan the flames of militancy. To overcome these obstacles and create a climate for reconciliation will require confidence-building measures and gestures of restraint. The United States could help by extending the current suspension of drone operations in Pakistan and halting targeted military operations in both countries.

The United States should work through the United Nations to convene an international conference for developing legal standards on the use of unmanned weapons. The goal should be to ensure that any military use of these systems complies fully with the laws of war, including international humanitarian law and human rights law. This would enhance our moral standing and strengthen U.S. and international security.


[1]Greg Miller, “Under Obama an emerging global apparatus for targeted killing,” Washington Post, December 28, 2011, (accessed December 29, 2011).

[2]Spencer Ackerman, “Libya: The Real U.S. Drone War,” Wired, October 20, 2011, (accessed December 29, 2011).

[3]Greg Miller, “Under Obama an emerging global apparatus for targeted killing,” Washington Post, December 28, 2011, l (accessed December 29, 2011).

[4]Eric Schmitt, “U.S. Preparing for Pakistanis to Curtail Ties,” New York Times, December 26, 2011, A1, A8.

[5]Hans J. Morgenthau, “Does Disarmament Mean Peace?” in Arms and Foreign Policy in the Nuclear Age, ed. Milton L. Rakove (New York: Oxford University Press, 1972), 422.

[6]“Numerous studies show that states with greater power capabilities are more likely than states with lesser capabilities to participate in and initiate wars.” Greg Cashman, Leonard C. Robinson. An introduction to the Causes of War: Patterns of Interstate Conflict from WWI to Iraq (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2007), 10.

[7]Mary Ellen O’Connell, “Seductive Drones: Learning from a Decade of Lethal Operations,” Journal of Law, Information & Science, August 2011 (accessed December 28, 2011).

[8]United Kingdom Ministry of Defence, “The UK Approach to Unmanned Aircraft Systems,” Joint Doctrine Note 2/11 (March 2011): 5-9.

[9]P.W. Singer, Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century (New York: Penguin Books, 2009), 316-321.

[10]Mary L. Dudziak, “To Whom is a Drone Loyal?Balkinization, posted September 29, 2009, cited in Megan Braun and Daniel Brunstetter, “The implications of drones on the just war tradition,” Ethics and International Affairs 25, no. 3 (September 2011): 354.

[11]UN Human Rights Council: Report of the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Philip Alston, 28 May 2010, A/HRC/14/24/Add.6 (accessed December 26, 2011) (pdf).

[12]Ken Dilanian, “U.S. counter-terrorism strategy to rely on surgical strikes, unmanned drones,” Los Angeles Times, June 29, 2011 (accessed December 26, 2011).

[13]Chris Woods, “Drone War Exposed – the complete picture of CIA strikes in Pakistan,” The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (August 10, 2011), (accessed December 26, 2011).

[14]Jane Mayer, “The Predator War: What are the risks of the C.I.A.’s covert drone program?,” New Yorker, October 26, 2009.

[15]Lane Hartill, “Sifting intelligence tips from vendettas in Afghanistan,” Christian Science Monitor, January 26, 2006, (accessed December 26, 2011).

[16]Alex Bellamy, “Is the War on Terror Just?” International Relations 19, no. 3 (2005): 28; Natalino Ronzitti, The Law of Air Warfare: Contemporary Issues (Utrecht: Eleven International Publishing, 2006) 311-312.

[17]U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan. Afghanistan Midyear Report 2011: Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict. Kabul, Afghanistan, July 2011.

[18]Seth G. Jones and Martin C. Libicki, How Terrorist Groups End: Lessons for Countering Al Qa’ida, 2nd ed. (Rand Publishing, 2008).

[19]Adam Entous, Siobhan Gorman, and Julian E. Barnes, “U.S. Tightens Drone Rules,” Wall Street Journal, November 4, 2011, A 16.

[20]New America Foundation, “2010: The Year of the Drone: An Analysis of U.S. Drone Strikes in Pakistan, 2004-2011,” Counterterrorism Strategy Initiative, (accessed December 21, 2011).

[21]Thomas J. Billitteri, “Drone Warfare: The Issues,” CQ Researcher 20, no. 28 (August 2010): 655; Adam Entous, “Special Report: How the White House Learned to Love the Drone,” Reuters, May 18, 2010, (accessed December 26, 2011).

[22]Jeffrey Thomas, “Transnational Terrorist Networks: The Afghanistan-Pakistan Connection,” Center for the Study of the Presidency and the Congress (August 18, 2011), (accessed December 26, 2011); see also Jason Burke, “Misreading the Taliban,” Prospect Magazine no. 152 (November 2008), cited in Thomas Ruttig, “How Tribal Are the Taleban? Afghanistan’s Largest Insurgent Movement between its Tribal Roots and Islamist Ideology,” Afghanistan Analysts Network, Thematic Report (June 2010): 16-17.

[23]Selig S. Harrison, Pakistan: The State of the Union (Washington, DC: Center for International Policy, 2009), 33.

[24]Congress, Committee on Armed Services, Effective Counterinsurgency: The Future of the U.S. Pakistan Military Partnership, 111th Cong., 1st sess., 23 April 2009, 21.

[25]Andrea Elliot, “Militant’s Path from Pakistan to Times Square,” New York Times, June 22, 2010, (accessed December 26, 2011); Preet Bharara, “Prosecution of Faisal Shahzad,” Offices of the United States Attorneys, United States Department of Justice, (accessed December 26, 2011).

[26]Scott Horton, “The Trouble with Drones,” Harper’s Magazine, May 3, 2010, (accessed December 26, 2011).

[27]Tara Mckelvey, “Inside the Killing Machine,” Newsweek, February 13, 2011.

[28]UN Human Rights Council: Report of the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Philip Alston, 28 May 2010, A/HRC/14/24/Add.6, (accessed December 26, 2011) (pdf) par. 3.


[30]Anderson, Kenneth, “Targeted Killing in U.S. Counterterrorism Strategy and Law,” Counterterrorism and American Statutory Law no. 9 (May 11, 2009), (accessed December 26, 2011).

[31]Peter Finn, “A future for drones: Automated killing,” Washington Post, September 19, 2011, (accessed December 30, 2011); A recent article in the Journal of Military Ethics argued that battlefield atrocities can be eliminated through the “ethical autonomy of unmanned systems,” giving machines the power to kill people. See R.C. Arkin, “The Case for Ethical Autonomy in Unmanned Systems,” Journal of Military Ethics 9 no. 4 (2010): 338-39.

Response Essays

Drones Are a Challenge — and an Opportunity

David Cortright crafts his essay as a series of cautionary warnings about the rise of drone warfare, but his core argument goes far deeper than drones: Cortright objects to drones, which promise unprecedented levels of humanitarian protection of civilians, chiefly because they facilitate the effective use of military force, including in situations in which the United States has not previously used military force. “Any development that makes war appear to be easier or cheaper is deeply troubling. It reduces the political inhibitions against the use of deadly violence. It threatens to weaken the moral presumption against the use of force that is at the heart of the just war doctrine,” he writes. As a result, he contends, “The first and most important question is whether drone technology makes war more likely.” And lest anyone miss the point, he also complains that drones “perpetuate[] the illusion that military force is an effective means of countering terrorism… .We should know better by now.”

To lay the matter bare, Cortright objects to military robotics because the field offers effective weaponry that keeps our forces safer while enhancing their lethality and targeting precision with respect to the enemy—the combination of which invites use. In other words, he objects to precisely what any operational commander would find attractive about drones.

Drones are a weapon like any other weapon. Their evolution is the latest step in a very long chain of the development of lethal technologies—virtually all of which involve the attempt to augment one’s offensive capability while at the same time minimizing one’s exposure to risk during attack. Indeed, the entire history of weaponry is really a history of decreasing the value of distance as a defense and of creating ever more remote opportunities to attack. The first Australopithecus who picked up a rock to strike one of his fellows learned that he didn’t have to use his hand. The spear gave one of his descendants the ability to impale at whatever distance he could throw. The arrow extended that distance still further—and thereby increased the attacker’s accuracy and his safety even more. The gun, the artillery shell, the air strike, and the Predator drone all follow this basic pattern.

As drones become smaller, more lethal, and more autonomous, they do present unique challenges. But it is very wrong to think about their novelty, as Cortright seems to, as all or mostly bad. Indeed, the field of robotics offers huge advantages both from the point of view of the effectiveness of military operations and from the point of view of human rights. On the military effectiveness side of the ledger, the logic of developments in weaponry that increase one’s own lethality—allowing targeting at the highly individualized level—while protecting one’s forces, may not persuade Cortright, a professor of peace studies, but it will tend to move commanders who have missions to accomplish and who have a fundamental obligation to their own troops not to expose them to undue risk.

The same features that make drones attractive to commanders also make at least some uses of them attractive on human rights grounds. As Kenneth Anderson, who helped lead the international NGO campaign against land mines, has written:

Advancing technology allows for more discrete surveillance and, therefore, more precise targeting, which is better able to minimize collateral civilian damage—a good thing for those who do not want to kill innocent civilians. Indeed, humanitarians have long called on advanced militaries to shift from designing more destructive weapons systems to designing more discriminating ones, and weapons designers have been seeking to comply over decades. There is something perverse about now criticizing their evolving efforts as making war so much less destructive and so discriminating as to be too easy to undertake.

Indeed, Cortright may argue that “terrorism is more a political and law enforcement challenge than a threat that can be addressed by military means,” but it is worth remembering that the opposite of targeted killing is not usually law enforcement. It is often less-targeted—that is, more indiscriminate—killing. The important flip side to Cortright’s anxiety that drones will lower our inhibition to go to war is that drones can also limit the scope and scale of military action. The United States is not going to take a hands-off approach to states like Pakistan and Yemen, where law enforcement is not a feasible option. Drone warfare permits a highly calibrated military response to situations in which the alternative may involve not lesser but far greater uses of military violence. This is a good trade. Conversely, drones also allow militaries to contemplate certain humanitarian interventions where they might never contemplate risking actual forces; consider whether the recent NATO Libyan intervention—which probably saved a considerable number of lives—would have been politically possible had U.S. forces been seriously at risk.

In other words, while the rise of drone warfare has changed the face of American counterterrorism efforts and promises far greater change in years to come, this does not present the simple and terrible moral equation that Cortright describes. What began as a surveillance tool that could, on occasion, deliver lethal force, has evolved in a short space of time into a principal means of following enemy forces onto territory in which the United States is reluctant to put large numbers of boots on the ground—and striking at them there in a limited fashion that protects innocent civilians to an unprecedented level.

The logic of these weapons is so overpowering, both as a means of conducting surveillance and as a means of striking at enemy targets, that their growth as an element of U.S. force will resist moral hand-wringing of a sort that, if taken at face value, would lead to greater uses of force, civilian death, and risk to U.S. forces.

Yes, as Cortright says, a great many other countries are getting into the drone game too—but this is less because the United States is paving the way than because this logic is obvious to those countries too. And this same logic, combined with the reality that robotic technologies are getting cheaper and easier to acquire even as their power increases, means that proliferation will happen irrespective of what the United States does. Indeed, the question is not whether we will live in a world of highly proliferated technologies of robotic attack. It is whether the United States is going to be ahead of this curve or behind it.

Drones and the Changing Nature of Warfare: Hold the Presses!

Has the accelerated use of drones opened a new chapter in the history of warfare, as David Cortright asserts? If so, what is the title of that chapter? It certainly is not “Drones Make War More Likely, Indiscriminate or Bloodier.” As recent landmark studies by Goldstein and Pinker clearly document, societal violence in general and armed conflict in particular are on the decline.[1] The fact that we live in the historical shadow of the air raids on Dresden and Tokyo but are focused on a few hundred strikes by unmanned aerial systems in Pakistan underscores this dramatic change in the way air power is employed today.

Drones are not new. The V-1 was a drone, but lacked a man-in-the-loop and precision guidance capabilities. Modern drones emerged from the overall revolution in precision navigation and networked communications which began more than two decades ago. This revolution centered on improvements in technologies for position location, remote sensing, automated flight controls, computer-based target designation, high bandwidth communications, high capacity computing and smart fusing. These technologies were combined to provide a capability for long-range precision strikes, as demonstrated in the first Gulf War. Most often this capability required both a platform/launcher and a “smart” weapon such as a laser-guided bomb or Joint Direct Attack Munition that would be flown to a release point, then fly to a specific target based either on laser illumination or pre-programmed GPS coordinates. Cruise missiles, which have been widely proliferated, are essentially drones.

Modern drones provide many of the best features of both cruise missiles and manned aircraft. Most significantly, they provide the tactical and operational flexibility of manned platforms with the reduced risk to personnel associated with cruise missiles. Unlike the former, they allow for man-in-the-loop control and vehicle recovery. Unlike the latter, they can operate at altitudes and in environments unsuited to manned systems and, in some cases, for extended periods of time.

Despite the proliferation of drones, particularly by the United States, at best it can be argued that the proliferation of unmanned aerial systems (UASs) is changing tactics, particularly with respect to operations on land. The predominant mission of drones today is to collect information, primarily electro-optical data in the form of pictures and full motion video. The overwhelming majority of drone flying hours are conducted by systems such as Aerovironment’s Wasp, Puma, and Raven; Insitu’s ScanEagle; and Textron’s Shadow for the purpose of providing overwatch for maneuvering Army and Marine Corps units. Even the vaunted Predator, a variant of which, the MQ-9 Reaper, is the platform employed for armed strikes, is predominantly employed for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions. The larger systems such as Northrop Grumman’s Global Hawk and Lockheed Martin’s stealthy RQ-170 Sentinel are intended solely to gather intelligence.

Armed drones serve a niche function. They are useful in situations where real-time tactical intelligence is required in order to launch a weapon and the operating environment is extremely benign. Because they can loiter in the area of a suspected target, waiting for positive identification and the proper time to strike with the least possibility of inflicting collateral damage, they are far less lethal than any other aerial weapons system.

Attempts to connect an increased tendency to use force are supported neither by the evidence nor by logic. The frequency and intensity of conflicts has declined even as the ability to conduct remote combat has increased exponentially. There were only a handful of drones available to the U.S. military when Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom began. The lack of unmanned systems appears to have posed no obstacle to the decision to initiate either operation.

It is difficult to accord any serious influence over the conduct of air operations in past or current conflicts to the presence of armed drones. In the era before drones, the U.S. imposed ten year long no-fly zones over northern and southern Iraq. In addition, the number of drone sorties in total is but a tiny fraction of all aerial sorties. Armed drone sorties constitute only a small fraction of total drone missions. Cortright notes that since 2009 there have been 239 drone strikes into Pakistan. However, for the month of January 2011, Coalition forces in Afghanistan flew 387 sorties in which guns were fired or munitions expended.[2] These statistics suggest a clear preference on the part of the military for manned aerial systems and not drones in the conduct of tactical air operations.

Cortright also reports that 145 drone strikes were conducted during Operation Odyssey Dawn—the liberation of Libya. Actually this is an incorrect statement. While drones were used over Libya, these were not armed flights, hence they were sorties and not strikes. But this is good example of the breathless quality of much of the analysis today of the implications of drones for warfare. Look at the numbers. The U.S. alone conducted some 3,500 sorties during Operation Odyssey Dawn. So drones amounted to 4% of the total. By the way, the United States and United Kingdom also launched 228 Tomahawk cruise missiles during this operation, 112 on the first night of the conflict. If we are to accord to weapon systems influence over the decision to use force, then in the case of Libya, precedence must be given based simply on the number of sorties conducted to cruise missiles, aerial refueling tankers, tactical fighters, and even cargo planes before we come to the little-used drone.

The availability of unmanned aerial systems in no way makes conflict more likely or more brutal. Quite the opposite, in fact, seems to be the case. The presumption that were it not for the availability of drones, the U.S. would refrain from conducting military operations against terrorists based in Pakistan is highly dubious. We have an example of an alternative military option: Operation Enduring Freedom. As Joshua Goldstein pointed out in a recent article, the use of armed drones in Pakistan may have prevented the use of far bloodier means. “Armed drones now attack targets that in the past would have required an invasion with thousands of heavily armed troops, displacing huge numbers of civilians and destroying valuable property along the way.”[3] According to Robert Woodward’s reporting on President Obama’s decision to deploy additional forces to Afghanistan in 2009, a number of senior advisors proposed a lower-cost, smaller deployment based on increased use of special operations forces and unmanned aerial vehicles.

I might go even farther than Goldstein and argue that Cortright should advocate the greater use of drones, armed and otherwise, precisely due to his interest in reducing the frequency, intensity, and costs of conflicts. Just as dash cameras in police cars and cell phone cameras have led to a decrease in police brutality and the ability to bring those who violate procedures to account, the electro-optical sensors on drones can be used to increase oversight over military forces in the field. In fact, cameras can reduce what Cortright calls “the psychological distance that separates the launching of a strike from its bloody impact.” It can also help reduce the alleged isolation of the American people from the use of force in their name.

Unfortunately in view of its title, the primary focus of Cortright’s article is not on drones and warfare. Rather, it centers on the subset of the role of drones in current counterterrorism operations. A number of the issues he raises are frankly much more relevant to the rather murky legal and operational circumstances surrounding the global campaign against al Qaeda. Cortright is closer to the mark when, as the title of his article suggests, he connects the nature of drones, notably the lack of a person in the cockpit, to the sense that both the George W. Bush and, most particularly, the Obama Administration saw such systems as supporting if not promoting a “license to kill.” Critics of the use of drones against unlawful combatants in Pakistan and elsewhere would be on firmer ground by connecting the disembodied features of “Nintendo warfare” to our seeming tolerance for the weakening of legal safeguards for criminal terrorists.

In conclusion, I would suggest that there is nothing in the current employment of drones or in plans for future unmanned aerial systems that poses the kinds of dangers suggested by Mr. Cortright. They will not make war easier or cheaper. There is no evidence that armed drones have reduced the political inhibitions against the use of deadly force. The use of drones in no way threatens to weaken the moral presumption against the inappropriate or excessive use of force that is at the heart of the just war doctrine—the emphasis is mine, but the qualifiers have always belonged to just war theory. Mr. Cortright’s problem is not with drones but the policies of those who employ them. I almost hate to say it, but we should remember that drones don’t kill terrorists, governments do.


[1] Joshua Goldstein, Winning the War on War: The Decline of Armed Conflict Worldwide, Penguin Group, New York, 2011; Steve Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined, Viking, New York, 2011.

[2] Marc Schanz, “Afghanistan and After,” Air Force Magazine, April 2011.

[3] Joshua Goldstein, “Think Again: War,” Foreign Policy, September/October 2011.

Drone Proliferation: Other Chapters and Other Challenges

There is no doubt that the “accelerating use of drone weapons has opened a new chapter in the history of warfare,” as David Cortright contends in “License to Kill.”

The proliferation of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and other unmanned systems has, however, opened more than one new chapter in the evolution of international security. Paralleling the surge in authorizations of UAV military strikes, the Pentagon, the Department of Justice, and the Department of Homeland Security are successfully opening other drone fronts and obtaining other types of drone licenses—not just the “license to kill”—to facilitate drone deployment and drone sales.

UAVs are proliferating throughout the security spectrum—drug wars, border security, domestic and foreign surveillance, and law enforcement.

Cortright makes a strong case that drones make military action more likely since U.S. lives are not put directly at risk. But he likely overstates the role that drones play in transforming the “meaning of war.” Other factors—including the volunteer army, increased dependence on high-altitude and precisely targeted manned air strikes, and irresponsible fiscal policies—have played key roles in changing the nature of war for America, making the Iraq and Afghanistan wars less than acts of “national sacrifice and mobilization.”

Cortright regards drone strikes as emblematic of our wrongheaded and counterproductive response to terrorism. “Ethical questions about the use of drones concern not only the nature of the weapons but the policies they are meant to serve,” he writes. He observes too that “terrorism is more a political and law enforcement challenge than a threat that can be addressed by military means.”

Regarding counterterrorism as primarily an international law enforcement challenge rather than a military one would be a welcome change. Yet shifting the counterterrorism framework from war to criminal justice doesn’t necessarily imply discarding the options of UAV surveillance and strikes, whether directed by military or civilian entities.

It is not at all clear that drone strikes in Pakistan, despite the ample evidence of many untargeted victims, have served the interests of the Pakistani militants by significantly broadening their base of support and thereby increasing their reach and operations.[1] Nor can recent U.S.–Pakistan tensions be solely attributed to CIA drone strikes. Boots on the ground (January 2011 shootings by CIA agent Raymond Davis in Lahore) and manned aerial strikes (NATO gunship attacks on Pakistani troops in November 2011) precipitated the latest breakdown in relations.

All the problems and risks associated with drone warfare that Cortright underscores deserve close consideration—but within the broader context of why we wage war, how we effectively counter terrorism, and how we as a nation engage abroad.

Discussions of morality—the central theme of Cortright’s essay—shouldn’t ignore the fundamental role of money. The so-called “license to kill” is becoming increasingly accessible as industry attacks on export controls and the Missile Technology Control Regime mount.

Northrop Grumman CEO Wes Bush says that the U.S. economy and U.S. industry—which have benefited from the surge in military drone contracts, rising from $550 million in 2002 to $5 billion in 2011—will soon see the “golden age” of U.S. dominance in drone production end if U.S. export controls and the restrictions of MTCR on drone sales are not eased or reformed.[2]

The Obama administration’s Export Control Reform Initiative and recent end-runs by the drone industry (including slightly modified Predators for export) around MTCR restrictions may help maintain this dominance. Yet other drone-producing nations, notably Israel and China, are also seeking to meet the global demand for both unarmed and armed drones.[3] That is all the more reason to pursue the creation of the international accords and arms-control regimes for drones that Cortright recommends.

It should also be noted that the enthusiasm for drones is not often tempered by cost-benefit evaluations of the multibillion-dollar spending in UAV purchasing and deployment.

UAV proponents, including DHS and DOD, hail drones as being cost-effective. Yet the largest UAVs deployed by DOD, like the Global Hawk remotely piloted by the U.S. Northern Command from Nevada on drug war missions in Mexico, cost as much or more than high-tech manned surveillance missions.

Flush with border security funding, DHS has purchased Predators that come with a $20 million price tag including the costs of payloads and service contracts. DHS is hard pressed, however, to show that their Predators are more than high-tech toys prone to glitches and crashes. And the department has been unable to demonstrate their value in dismantling (or even disrupting) transnational criminal organizations let alone improving the security of the homeland. Marijuana seizures are their main achievement.

Certainly the rush to drone deployment should provoke “strong passions” and “vigorous debate.” But the debate that does exist is occurring largely on the margins of politics in America. It may be that vigorous debate over the morality and legality of drone deployment at home and abroad may only emerge when we see this proliferation in our own airways. The Federal Aviation Administration is facing great pressure by DOD, DHS, local law enforcement agencies, and industry to open domestic airspace to wide-ranging drone flights.

DHS already has a fleet of ten unarmed Predators and Guardians patrolling the borderlands and the southern coasts, while also providing grants to local law enforcement agencies to purchase small UAVs—all in the name of homeland security. Meanwhile, DOJ is paving the way through several criminal-justice programs for police and sheriffs’ departments to add drones to their forces.

Not just killers, drones are also powerful surveillance tools. Like all government power, as the ACLU rightly argues, UAVs need “to be subject to checks and balances.” Just as UAVs have reasonable and justifiable military uses—once the checks and balances are in place—the many potential uses by law enforcement and other government agencies (as well as by individuals and businesses) should be guided by ethnical and legal standards. It will take a vigorous and transparent policy debate to ensure that such standards are formulated and enforced. Such issues as image retention restrictions, public notice of aerial surveillance, democratic control of UAV missions, and evaluation of impact and cost that have been raised by the ACLU need the attention of local and national policymakers.[4]

Thus far, in Congress and in the executive branch, we see mostly uncritical advocacy for increased drone deployment—on vivid display at the annual drone fairs sponsored jointly by the House Unmanned Systems Caucus and the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.[5]

It is widely accepted—in Congress, in the media, and by the public—that drone warfare has been an unqualified success. This perceived success—unsullied by the type of concerns raised by Cortright such as drone blowback—is key in driving drone proliferation around the world and at home. Representative Candice Miller, the Michigan Republican who chairs the Subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security of the House Homeland Security Committee, is a self-declared “huge supporter” of UAVs and advocates deploying the “fantastic technology” that the U.S. military uses “in theater” at home.

“The UAVs are coming,” declared Miller in a recent oversight hearing, “and now you see our military sitting in a cubicle sometimes in Nevada, drinking a Starbucks, running these things in theater and being incredibly, incredibly successful.”

There’s more drone boosterism than oversight and evaluation in Congress, and Miller along with most of her Republican and Democratic colleagues have routinely given a green light to drone proliferation at home and abroad. Miller advocates a pervasive UAV presence for border control, north and south, and law enforcement.

In a political environment characterized by unconditional enthusiasm for drones and other high-tech security instruments, the case for more regulation and oversight needs to be made clearly and forcefully, which Cortright does well. If we are, however, to move toward the ethical and legal frameworks for drone deployment he recommends, we also need to evaluate the persuasive arguments for drone proliferation—holding that drone surveillance and strikes can prevent all-out warfare, lower the costs of a just war, and keep us all more safe and secure.

Cortright’s warnings about the dangers of drone proliferation, while clearly on target, would have more weight if he had presented and then attempted to debunk those positions.

[1] Eric Schmitt, “Lull in Strikes by U.S. Drones Aids Militants in Pakistan,” New York Times, Jan. 7, 2012.

[2] Carlo Munoz, “More Hill Heft Needed on UAS Exports, CRS Says,” AOL Defense, Jan. 9, 2012; Munoz, “Arms Export Controls Killing U.S. Drone Market,” AOL Defense, Aug. 17, 2011.

[3] “Proposed Rules,” Federal Register, Vol. 76, No. 215, Nov. 7, 2011.

[4] Jay Stanley and Catherine Croup, Protecting Privacy from Aerial Surveillance:

Recommendations for Government Use of Drone Aircraft, ACLU, December 2011.

[5] Tom Barry, “How Drone Warfare Took Over Congress,” Alternet, Nov. 30, 2011; Tom Barry, Fallacies of High-Tech Fixes for Border Security, CIP International Policy Report, April 2010.

The Conversation

Reply to Wittes and Singh

Wittes and Singh correctly note that drone weapons allow for more accurate discrimination between civilians and combatants. They make it possible to lower civilian casualties and reduce the unintended damage that results from war. In that narrow sense the use of these weapons could be considered more ethical than relying on indiscriminate bombing or ground-based military operations.

These are secondary arguments, however. They concern the conduct of war once it has started, the jus in bello standards. The more important question is whether military force should be used in the first place, the jus ad bellum criteria. Pacifists would argue that force should never be used, but just war teaching acknowledges that force may be necessary at times to protect the innocent, although only under strictly limited conditions. Just war doctrine is based on a presumption against the use of force. It sets rigorous standards that must be met before military action can be considered. A thorough and honest application of these standards would rule out most wars that our political leaders claim to be just.

The objection to drones is not that they “keep our forces safer.” That is a misreading of my argument. My concern is that the availability of these weapons may weaken necessary moral and political constraints against the use of force. Our enthusiasm about the technological effectiveness of these killing machines may diminish our interest in questioning the morality of the missions they are intended to serve.

Because drone weapons reduce the costs and risks of armed action, they lower the inhibitions against using military force. They allow political leaders to consider the use of force in settings where it would not be possible otherwise. This is certainly true in the mountainous regions along the Afghanistan–Pakistan border where, as Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says, drones are the “only game in town.” Aerial bombing would be indiscriminate and ineffective. Ground operations by commando units could be more discriminating in theory, but they would entail severe risks to our troops. In truth neither conventional bombing nor ground operations would be feasible politically or militarily. Drone strikes are the only option. If these weapons were not available, political leaders would have to address the problems of terrorism and insurgency through nonmilitary means.

And that’s exactly the point. Drones reinforce the illusion that military force is the solution to complex political challenges. The available evidence indicates that terrorism is usually not defeated through military means. The same is true with counterinsurgency campaigns. Political solutions are needed that isolate violent extremists from the communities that sustain them. These tasks require complex long term political processes. They cannot be solved through military means, no matter how sophisticated the technology.

The Curve and the Conjuncture

Although the United States has led the way in drone proliferation, Americans are not alone in addressing the issues and challenges associated with the new weapons, surveillance, and intelligence systems. This Cato Unbound forum is stirring “strong passions” and “vigorous debate” about the morality and strategic value of drones—passions and debate that Cortright contends are already spreading in America.

While the debate is certainly starting to simmer on this side of the Atlantic—although manifestly not in Congress or within the executive branch—the public policy discussions are fortunately more advanced in the United Kingdom. Our own discussion can benefit from the excellent European publications and forums about drone warfare and drone surveillance.

One reason for this more developed discussion in Europe, especially in the UK, is the convergence of concerns about the “surveillance society” and persisting questions about the British Army’s and NATO’s integration of drones into their overseas operations—along with Britain’s partnerships with Israel in drone manufacturing and testing.

Playing a key role in this debate is a nonprofit group called Drone Wars UK, which released in January 2012 a valuable overview of drone warfare issues in a special report titled Drone Wars Briefing. The briefing includes a helpful review of the noncombatant death reports in Pakistan, discussion of the expanding incidence of extrajudicial drone strikes by the CIA, and a summary of the UK’s program of Remotely Piloted Aerial Systems (RPAS). The report makes a strong case that “we need a serious, public – and fully informed – debate on all these issues and to ensure there is full public accountability for their use.” Aside from the UK’s military intervention in South Asia, another connection, of course, is that its own drones are also piloted from the Creech Air Force Base in Nevada.

The publication last year by Pax Christi/Netherlands of “Does Unmanned Make Unacceptable? – Exploring the Debate on Using Drones and Robots in Warfare” also points to the increasingly vibrant debate in Europe – one that can help inform the incipient public and policy debate at home.

What is striking, at least to me, about this forum is the deep divide that separates Cortright’s concerns from the near-uncritical support of drone warfare expressed by the other responders.

Cortright’s concerns both about the morality of remotely controlled warfare and about the geographical distance and emotional disconnection from killing will contribute to increased military and CIA interventions contrast sharply—shockingly in my opinion—with enthusiasm for the potential of these high-tech systems not only to reduce civilian casualties by precise targeting but also to respond to humanitarian emergencies.

Caution and Skepticism versus Confidence and Enthusiasm

Obviously, the central problem is that the discussion brings together two distinct philosophical and strategic paradigms—which mostly clash, leaving little room for a bit of consensus and concordance.

To avoid this unfortunate breach, we would have benefited if Cortright had anticipated this communication problem by evaluating more forthrightly and dispassionately the strategic and tactical benefits of increased drone deployment across the range of missions—from intelligence gathering and reconnaissance to targeted missile strikes.

But the debate is further obstructed by type of facile dismissal by Wittes and Singh, and by Goure, of the proposition that the emergence of drone warfare changes little.

“Drones are a weapon like any other weapon,” write Wittes and Singh, pointing to a purported direct evolutionary line from spear to Predator. Goure asserts, “There is no evidence that armed drones have reduced the political inhibitions against the use of deadly force.” Such categorical and simplistic conclusions close the door to the kind of public policy debate that this forum should encourage and that is urgently needed in America. If the CIA can kill targets covertly by using drone-launched missiles rather than by initiating covert actions by infiltrating agents or special operations, political inhibitions fade.

The two security paradigms that are loggerheads in this forum were underscored by the concluding sentence of the Wittes and Singh essay: “Indeed, the question is not whether we will live in a world of highly proliferated technologies of robotic attack. It is whether the United States is going to be ahead of the curve or behind it.”

That’s the paradigm of militarism—persuasive if you believe that ever-increasing U.S. military development of new high-tech weaponry ensures our national security (and yet there is recent U.S. security history to assail this traditional assumption by militarists). Then there is another paradigm in which Cortright apparently situates himself, namely that U.S. security is best served when it aims to stay ahead of the curve with respect to arms-control agreements, international frameworks for just wars and interventions, international sanctions, and protection for noncombatants. This counter-security paradigm wouldn’t necessarily dismiss the need for a strong drone and anti-drone capacity within the U.S. security apparatus, although presumably it would place greater emphasis on seeking more diplomatic, economic, and social solutions to security and political tensions.

Thus far, however, the Obama administration has not stayed ahead of this curve in visionary international leadership—the place where the U.S. has historically often been in the vanguard, though in fits and starts.

Earlier this month the president announced a shift in U.S. military strategy, including the shedding of “outdated Cold War systems” in favor of the high-tech instruments and conflicts of the future—including the aptly denominated “shadow wars.” This evolution in military strategy, including the increased reliance on drones and special operations (and presumably a continuing pattern of extra-judicial killings by drone strikes around the globe) may, as its supporters contend, be exactly the course the U.S. military needs to ensure national and global security.

Whether strategically right or not, this is a shift that clearly calls out for the kind of moral, ethical, and legal scrutiny that Cortright advocates. One can only hope that drone proponents will also recognize this need – although so far it’s not in evidence in this forum. Assertions that a weapon is a weapon is a weapon dismiss the evident truth of this new conjuncture in national and global security.

Meanwhile, we can confidently leave any “hand-wringing” about the fears of eroding U.S. military dominance to the busy hands and hearty handshakes of the still thriving military-industrial complex.

Relying on their capable lobbyists and on their congressional and Pentagon sympathizers, General Atomics, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and the other companies in the flourishing drone industry—flush with military and homeland security contracts for drones—will surely do their best, without our help, to keep from falling behind the high-tech weapons curve.

When Drone Warfare Comes Home

Tom Barry raises important points in his comments. Drones are proliferating not only as instruments of war but as tools of law enforcement and government surveillance here at home. Just as drone warfare is evading international legal standards, domestic uses of this technology are proceeding without consideration of the legal rights of citizens.

Drones are being used by dozens of police departments and federal agencies. A recent Wall Street Journal article reports increasing concerns about safety issues and privacy rights.[1] Pilots and aircraft owners are worried about drone aircraft straying into commercial flight paths. The Federal Aviation Administration is developing guidelines to regulate drone flights and integrate their use into the national air traffic control system.

The proliferation of drone systems raises concerns about government surveillance and threats to privacy. Checks and balances are certainly needed, as Barry notes, but we also need to make sure that citizens have a say in determining how these systems are used and when and where they are deployed.

Very fitting is Barry’s quote from the nonprofit group Drone Wars UK: “we need a serious, public – and fully informed – debate on all these issues to ensure there is full public accountability for their use.” That’s true here in the United States as well. Hats off to Cato Unbound for helping to spark that debate.

Among the questions that need to be addressed here are the following:

  • Should police departments and other public and private agencies be required to have permission and to provide public notice when drones are deployed over residential neighborhoods and designated communities?
  • What guarantees do we have that privacy rights will be respected and that citizens will be protected from warrantless surveillance?
  • What happens to the video images collected by drone aircraft? Should the information be deleted after a certain time? If it is retained, who has control, and what guarantees will we have that the images are not misused?

These and related questions point to the need for democratic oversight and public accountability. Before these aircraft start buzzing constantly over our heads we need to agree on ground rules for their use and make sure that they do not threaten our safety or undermine our basic rights.

[1] Ana Campoy, “The Law’s New Eye in the Sky,” Wall Street Journal, December 13, 2011, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB100014240529702043190045770888913617820…

The Droneless Counterfactual

David Cortright states that his “objection to drones is not that they ‘keep our forces safer’” as Ritika Singh and I had suggested. “That is a misreading of my argument,” he protests. But read further in his reply and he makes clear that this concern is, in fact, integral to his objection.

“My concern,” he says immediately after protesting our characterization, “is that the availability of these weapons may weaken necessary moral and political constraints against the use of force.” Why? “Because drone weapons reduce the costs and risks of armed action” and thus “lower the inhibitions against using military force [emphasis added].”

Cortright’s example, the use of drones along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, is a case in point. He notes Defense Secretary Panetta’s argument that drones are the “only game in town” and explains why this is: They are more precise than conventional air strikes, and “Ground operations by commando units … would entail severe risks to our troops” (emphasis added). The result is that the availability of drones creates a military option where none would otherwise exist.

Just to be clear, I prefer that American troops be deployed with a minimum of “severe risks.” And Cortright’s confidence that absent drones, policymakers would not perceive “severe risks to our troops” as risks worth taking to confront al Qaeda seems misplaced to me. One cannot assume that because major troop commitments are politically unthinkable given the availability of lesser uses of force that they would be similarly unthinkable in the absence of these alternative military means. Cortright assumes that absent drones, the United States would simply not be engaged militarily in Pakistan. His assumption is naive. Absent drones, American involvement in Pakistan would probably be militarily messier, greater, and bloodier on both sides. It is a mistake that colors his entire argument.

The Wrong Option

Daniel Goure is right about one thing. My major concern with drones is not with the weapons themselves but with the militarized counterterrorism policies they are intended to serve. The use of military force is not an appropriate or effective means of fighting terrorism. Violent movements such as al Qaeda resemble criminal networks more than conventional military formations. They thrive in countries that lack development, democracy, and governance, where economic and social opportunities are few. Launching missile strikes into such regions will not eliminate the underlying conditions that give rise to these extremist movements and that sustain them once they are created. The best “weapons” against terrorism are political and economic, not military.

Killing the mafia dons who control these violent networks may cause some temporary disruption, but it will not end the threats of violence and could make matters worse. U.S. military attacks—of all kinds, including ground operations, conventional bombing and drone strikes—may arouse popular resentment and hatred toward American policy and increase the terrorist recruitment rate. Donald Rumsfeld asked the right question years ago, “Are we capturing, killing, or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrasas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training, and deploying against us?” In Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Somalia the answer is clearly no. After years of war in Afghanistan and hundreds of drone strikes into Pakistan, the Taliban insurgency is stronger than ever. Why do we think more of the same will produce a different result?

I have argued, as have many others, that the availability of drone weapons may increase the temptation to use force. This assertion, Goure claims, lacks logic. He seems to be suggesting that concerns about casualties play no role in decisions about military intervention. In democratic societies, however, military casualty levels are a major issue. Some operations have been called off because of military casualties, for example after the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut and the “Black Hawk down” disaster a decade later in Somalia. Because of the political sensitivity of military casualties, government officials often try to lower or hide the human costs of war. Drones change these dynamics. The ability to launch military strikes without the risk of American casualties removes one of the principal political burdens associated with the decision to use force. How much influence this may have in shaping particular decisions is certainly debatable, but to suggest that it has no influence is, well, illogical.

Goure’s quote from Joshua Goldstein is misleading. He is correct in observing that without the use of drone strikes, the only option for precise military strikes in Pakistan would be ground invasion. As Goldstein notes, these would be much bloodier and far more dangerous operations. They would carry a high risk of failure. Goure does not take the argument to its logical conclusion. If drones did not exist, and if invasion were the only option, would the United States really launch major ground operations against Taliban and al Qaeda forces in Pakistan? Highly unlikely. Without drones there would be no campaign of military strikes against Pakistan, and probably none in Somalia either. And that’s the point. These weapons allow the use of military force in settings where otherwise it would not be an option.

Goure ignores Goldstein’s main argument. The use of force has indeed become less frequent in recent decades, but the reasons for this important historic development have nothing to do with precision weaponry. Goldstein emphasizes the importance of international peacekeeping missions as a decisive factor in creating stronger mechanisms of global governance. He and Steven Pinker also emphasize the influence of the global spread of democracy, heightened economic interdependence, the rise of international organizations, increasing levels of education, and the empowerment of women. Goldstein and Pinker also note an emerging global norm against violence and war. In many parts of the world people increasingly recognize that security depends less on high tech weaponry than on creating social and economic conditions for human flourishing, so that people can settle their differences through peaceful means rather than the use of force.

This is not about utopia or the second coming. Conflicts are inevitable, and armed violence will probably always be with us, but we can learn to settle differences in more peaceful ways. Placing our faith in weapons technology will not make us more secure or eliminate the underlying social and economic conditions that breed violent extremism in places that lack democracy, development and governance.

Beneficial Drones?

Human rights activists Andrew Stobo Sniderman and Mark Harris argue in the New York Times that surveillance drones can and should be used in defense of human rights. Drones could provide detailed real-time evidence of crimes against humanity, such as Syrian government attacks against civilians or genocidal violence in Sudan. Increased awareness of such crimes could help to save lives, the authors claim. Surveillance drones are reportedly being used by a conservation group to monitor illegal Japanese whaling. Graphic scenes of the killing of whales and dolphins could intensify the public outcry against such abuses.

Should we learn to stop worrying and love the drone? Not exactly. It is important to distinguish between drones as weapons systems and their use for surveillance. The latter purpose could be more justifiable, especially in defense of human rights, but serious questions arise. By what authority would governments or nongovernmental groups have the right to conduct surveillance over the territory of a sovereign state? Sniderman and Harris acknowledge that sending drones to spy on Syria would violate national and international laws. What limitations should be placed on such surveillance? Would those being spied upon have the right to fire upon the drones, perhaps prompting retaliation and leading to a drone-against-drone scenario of robotic war? Would images of wrongdoing provided by drones be admissible in legal proceedings? Should they be used by broadcast media?

These and many other questions about the use of drones demand urgent attention and clarification. As Tom Barry and I have argued, the role of drones should be debated nationally and internationally, and legally binding guidelines and protocols for their use need to be established and enforced.