Source: Composite image by G_marius
The US military is increasingly using military drones to strike targets abroad. Though effective, their use raises concerns about civilian collateral damage. We outline the pros and cons of drones and debate if their use against terrorism is a good idea.
What is a drone?
A drone is an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV). There is a wide variety of drones in terms of size, autonomy and functions they are meant to undertake. Civil and commercial UAVs are becoming extremely popular in areas such as agriculture, aerial photography, data collection and fire detection. Some companies are testing their use in the parcel delivery industry. Moreover, drones are now one of the favorite toys for children and adults and can be found in most department stores and electronics shops.
However, the main reason why drones occupy a central spot in public debates is their utilization for military purposes. The US military pioneered the use of Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAV) or military drones. They contribute to several different missions in the Armed Forces such as:
- Target and decoy – providing ground and aerial gunnery forces with a target that simulates an enemy aircraft or missile.
- Reconnaissance – providing battlefield intelligence.
- Logistics – delivering cargo.
- Combat – providing attack capability for high-risk missions .
These remotely-controlled aircraft allow militaties to strike targets abroad without risking the life of their pilots. During George W. Bush’s administration drones were used moderately. However, during Barack Obama’s administration there has been an increase in the reliance upon drone strikes. Obama referred to them “effective and vital to US security” and during his first term launched more than six times as many strikes as Bush did during his two terms as President of the United States. In particular drone strikes were considered very effective in the war against Al-Qaeda and, according to some journalists, US military drones have been used in covert operations in Pakistan, Somalia, Afghanistan and Yemen. Other countries such as the United Kingdom, Israel, Pakistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Iran, and Turkey have also used them in military operations. UCAV technology has been incorporated to many other Armed Forces in the world.
Despite the military success, the attacks with drones have been also severely criticized. There are issues concerning collateral damages and civilian casualties, as well as aspects concerning their legality and lack of ethics, in particular in cases when war has not been declared between countries. We discuss here the pros and cons of using unmanned aerial vehicles and their implications for international law and the war against terrorism.
Drone strikes pros and cons
We have shortlisted the main advantages and disadvantages suggested by analysts and practitioners:
Pros of military drones:
- Cheaper to produce and maintain: military drones are significantly cheaper to produce than planes. They also have lower maintenance costs, and the Armed Forces can also reduce the costs of training plane pilots and maintenance staff.
- Fewer military lives at risk: US military drones have required fewer American troops to be deployed overseas and reduced personnel involvement in high risk tactical missions.
- Fewer civilian casualties: the use of Precision Guided Munitions with drones has allowed the Armed Forces to reduce the number of civilian casualties compared to more traditional air strikes from bombers and fighter jets.
- Exercising pressure on terrorist organizations: as drones can constantly surveil from the the sky terrorists' movements, their training and operations are seriously hindered.
- Efficient in eliminating “High Value Targets:” military drones have demonstrated themselves to be very apt tools for eliminating senior leaders of terrorist organizations, as well as for hitting well-defended or well-hidden targets.
- Flexibility: it allows swift responses to terrorist attacks or newly discovered intelligence. Armed drones can be operated from very far away and many of their functions automatized. This helps reduce the possibility of a human mistake during an operation.
- Technological progress: military drones have allowed the testing of new technologies, many of which can now be used for civil and commercial purposes.
Cons of military drones
- Difficult to evaluate the effectiveness of drone strikes: death tolls are difficult to calculate. Targets are sometimes in inapproachable or remote areas. Moreover, some of the missions are covert and their information classified. Terrorists, if captured, could be interrogated and provide intellegence. Drones strikes prevent this from happening.
- High collateral damages: many targets of drone strikes have been in residential areas, increasing the chances of civilian casualties.
- Myth of Decapitation: the elimination of high value targets does not necessarily mean an end to terrorist organizations. Moreover, these attacks may be used as propaganda and turn high profile targets into martyrs.
- Problems of defining targets: decisions concerning who is the enemy and who becomes a legitimate target of a drone attack are often controversial. In the context of the war against terrorism, defining who is a militant or simply a sympathizer is not easy. Some sources claim than around 80-90% of the people killed by drone strikes were civilians. How many of them were terrorists or actively helping terrorists?
- Destibilizing security: danger of undermining the security and military operations of the country in which the strike is made.
- Breaching of international law: sometimes strikes are conducted secretively in countries that are not officially at war. The use of unmanned aerial vehicles to hit military targets when war has not been declared, as in countries such as Yemen, Pakistan or Somalia, is considered by most experts illegal. This raises ethical and political concerns regarding transparency, sovereignty and the legitimacy of hostile actions.
- Legitimacy of local governments: Lack of Transparency and secrecy of drone use undermines the legitimacy of local governments.
- Undermining the rule of law: according to democratic rules, criminals, including terrorists, should have a fair trial before being condemned. Terrorists executed by drone strikes do not enjoy any trial which goes against universal human man rights. This can create a credibility gap for the US.
Armed drones: a good idea?
There appears to be a tension between two different perspectives. On the one hand, the tactical angle, including cost-benefit analyses and operational advantages linked to the flexibility armed drones provide. On the other hand, the strategic, and more long-term dimensions which requires the assessment of the legal, political and ethical implications associated to the use of UCAVs. What is the ultimate goal of using drone to strike targets abroad? Is it to defeat terrorism and reinforce US security in the long term? What happens if the potential short-term tactical benefits of drones clash with some of the long term strategic goals? Should the US and other countries intensify their use of military drones in their war against terrorism? Join our public discussion (see below)
- Boyle, Michael J. (2013). "The costs and consequences of drone warfare." International Affairs 89(1): 1-29
- Sharkey, Noel (2011). "The Automation and Proliferation of Military Drones and the Protection of Civilians." in Law, Innovation and Technology 3(2): 229-240
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Drone strikes pros and cons: do you agree with the use of military drones?
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