Importance of Drones

As the war on terror drags on, drone strikes have become the centerpiece of U.S. counter-terrorism strategy. During the Bush administration, fewer than 50 drone operations were conducted. President Obama on the other hand has overseen more than 400 drone operations.  Drone missions have been very successful and have proven to be an effective deterrent against terrorism. By killing key leaders and denying terrorist sanctuaries in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, drones have devastated prominent terrorist networks. And they have done so with little financial cost, at no risk of US forces, and with fewer civilian causalities than any other method used to combat terrorism. According to data compiled by the New America foundation, U.S. drones have killed an estimated 3,300 al Qaeda, Taliban, and other Jihadist operatives.

The Problem

Despite the success of drone operations, the use of drones in zones of active hostilities has become a major source of concern. Recently compiled aggregate data suggests that drones have killed thousands of innocent civilians, hurt U.S. international legitimacy, and set a dangerous precedent that irresponsible governments may abuse. Drones have raised both legal and ethical questions that place US legitimacy at stake. According to international committees, the current American doctrine for use of drones appears to not only violate international law, but it appears to be severing US ties with crucial allies.

In 17 of the 20 countries polled by the Pew Global Attitudes Project, the majority of countries disapproved the current framework the U.S. uses to authorize drone strikes. Widespread opposition spans the globe, from traditional European allies such as France (63% disapproval) and Germany (59% disapproval), to key Middle East states such as Egypt (89% disapproval) and Turkey (82% disapproval). It’s apparent that if the current doctrine for US drone strikes is not amended, then the ability for the U.S. to build multilateral alliances to combat pressing global problems will be significantly constrained.


Why is the framework for drone strikes deteriorating US credibility and setting a dangerous precedent? The main issue is legality. Countries have begun to question if it’s just under international law to authorize a machine to launch hell-fire missiles into a village that may house one or two terrorist leaders. International committees are worried if a program that has killed up to 891 civilians should still be permitted. With innocent civilian deaths piling up in countries such as Pakistan due to drone strikes, many Pakistanis now view the U.S. as the enemy. Often, the attacks seem morally unjustified and domestic policy makers have said the attacks need to be judicious.  Drone strikes have fueled anti-American resentment and officials want the decision making process behind the authorization for drone strikes to be more transparent. The international community wants assurance that the targeted killings are not arbitrary.

The Solution

Although the criticism seems to indicate that the drone program should be discontinued, there is a solution that can salvage both the drone program and US legitimacy. A Federal targeted killing court should be created that has jurisdiction over the drone program. In order to comport with law and mitigate the criticism of US drone policy, congress could enact a statute providing rigorous judicial review of drone strikes and the decision making process behind authorization for drone strikes. This would comply with international law standards and provide the transparency to the international community that certain drone strikes are justified and necessary to combat terrorism. Additionally, such a court would ensure that the U.S. is held accountable for any unintended collateral damage as a result of drone strikes. Such an effort would also set a precedent internationally that no country can circumvent certain international standards for the sake of national security.


The U.S. must establish a federal court that has oversight over the drone program not only to salvage credibility, but also to prevent setting a precedent that countries can violate international sovereignty for the sake of national security. Nations are following America’s lead and developing their own drone programs. The world is watching the path the U.S. takes concerning its drone programs, and they will follow suit. Consequently, if the U.S. continues to authorize drone strikes under a flawed doctrine, than the proliferation of miscalculated drone strikes is inevitable.

[Image Attribute: The Sleuth Journal]