Getting the Most Out of Drones Requires Coherent Policy

Graffiti in Yemen. Photo Credit: CNN

By: Kathryn Long, Columnist

During the Obama administration, drone strikes, or the use of unmanned aerial vehicles to attack ground targets, became a crucial tool in US counterterrorism strategy.[i] Unmanned aerial vehicles have been in use since the 1980s, but it was not until shortly after the September 11 attacks that they were weaponized with Hellfire missiles.[ii] The Bush administration carried out 57 drone strikes in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen; during the Obama administration, this figure increased over tenfold.[iii] Under the Obama-era Presidential Policy Guidance, an increased reliance on strikes was paired with increased restrictiveness on targeting, requiring “near certainty” that the intended target was present and that civilians would not be injured or killed.[iv] However, the Trump administration has replaced these guidelines, lowering the level of threat a person must present before they can be considered a target of a lethal action, likely expanding the use of drone strikes as a result.[v] Drone strikes offer significant advantages over more conventional military operations because they present little risk to operating personnel and can replace more expensive or more dangerous operations. Yet the use of drone strikes may bear hidden costs: by fueling resentment among local populations and therefore increasing recruitment among extremist groups, strikes may have an inverse effect on numbers of enemy combatants, effectively undermining regional strategy and security. Employing drone technology successfully requires a coherent doctrine aimed at addressing and reducing these risks.

Drone strikes are an appealing tactic from a policy perspective, as they are economical, require little risk on the part of US forces, and are more accurate than conventional air bombing, leading to fewer civilian casualties.[vi] In principle, a well-targeted drone strike can minimize or even eliminate civilian casualties but in practice, this is highly dependent on the quality of intelligence used to target the strike. In 2014, then CIA director John Brennan came under criticism for stating that the threshold used for carrying out a strike was a “near-certainty of no collateral damage.”[vii] This statement is misleading because the US policy classifies all military-age males killed in a strike as combatants unless they are posthumously exonerated by intelligence, creating the possibility for bystanders to be counted as militants.[viii] The low priority placed on gathering this post-mortem intelligence explains how the government’s estimates of civilian casualties remains significantly lower than those of independent evaluators.[ix] The risk of civilian deaths is further heightened through the use of “signature strikes,” which target suspects with the characteristics of leaders of terrorist groups rather than an identified individual.[x] In effect, the lower the burden of proof required to employ lethal force against a suspect, the greater the risk of civilian casualties.

Generally, drone strikes are more accurate and less risky than traditional airstrikes or ground operations, making them a more discriminate choice of weapon. However, this quality makes it harder to justify collateral deaths of civilians, who are considered impermissible targets according to jus in bello.[xi] In addition to the ethical quandaries raised by these practices, civilian deaths in drone strikes may also threaten regional security. Extensive civilian casualties and property damage can cause resentment in local populations, spurring recruitment for insurgent or terrorist groups.[xii] As a result, excessive use of drones can become counterproductive for the United States’ long-term objectives. Although the existence of a ‘blowback’ effect to US drone policy remains under debate, policy makers should remain aware of the risk.[xiii] Civilian casualties run counter to the ‘hearts and minds’ approach espoused by counterinsurgency doctrine. Consequently, the cost-saving and reduction in risks for American service members – that make drones an appealing tool – can be effectively mitigated if strikes result in a net increase of enemy combatants overall.

As of 2014, US procurement and research and development of drones represented over fifty percent of the global total.[xiv] This indicates that the U.S. will likely continue to enjoy relative superiority in this technology in the near future. Both to capitalize on this relative strength and to set a strong precedent for the future, the U.S. requires coherent doctrine governing the use and the strategic goals of drone strikes so as to minimize risk to American personnel. Effective policy must remain cognizant to avoid increasing enemy combatant strength, instituting guidelines for setting targets that honestly aim to minimize civilian casualties. Because the lower expected costs of employing a drone strike relative to a ‘boots on the ground’ operations can make decision-makers more likely to enter a conflict or be faster to resort to force in order to resolve an issue, the use of drone strikes bears a threat of moral hazard. To minimize the risk that instability increases in other regions or that US service-members are endangered in strategically unwise conflict, policy guidance should seek to lower this threat. With policy that ensures drone strikes are used wisely and judiciously, drone strikes can be a discriminating use of force that protects US personnel and civilians.














[i] Daniel L. Byman, “Why Drones Work: The Case for Washington’s Weapon of Choice”, Brookings, June 17, 2013.

[ii] Mark Bowden, “How the Predator Drone Changed the Character of War”, Smithsonian Magazine, November 2013.

[iii] Jessica Purkiss and Jack Serle, “Obama’s covert drone war in numbers: ten times more strikes than Bush”, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, January 17, 2017.

[iv] “Procedures For Approving Direct Action Against Terrorist Targets Located Outside The United States And Areas Of Active Hostilities”, May 22, 2013. Accessed November 16, 2018.

[v] Luke Hartig, “Trump’s New Drone Strike Policy: What’s Any Different? Why It Matters”, Just Security, September 22, 2017. Accessed November 14, 2018.

[vi] Byman.

[vii] Conor Friedersdorf, “The Obama Administration’s Drone-Strike Dissembling”, The Atlantic, March 14, 2016.

[viii] Byman.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Micah Zenko, “Reforming U.S. Drone Strike Policies”, Council on Foreign Relations, January 2013. Accessed November 14, 2018.

[xi] Jon, Dorbolo, “Just War Theory”, 2001. Accessed November 18, 2019.

[xii] Peter Matulich, “Why COIN Principles Don’t Fly with Drones”, Small Wars Journal, Accessed November 14, 2018.

[xiii] Aquil Shah, “Drone blowback in Pakistan is a myth. Here’s why.”, The Washington Post, May 17, 2016. and Mark Mazzetti and Scott Shane, “As New Drone Policy Is Weighed, Few Practical Effects Are Seen”, The New York Times, March 21, 2013.

[xiv] Lynn E. Davis, Michael J. McNerney, James S. Chow, Thomas Hamilton, Sarah Harting, and Daniel Byman, Armed and Dangerous? UAVs and U.S. Security. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2014.


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