The targeted killing of suspected terrorists and enemy soldiers by drones is rapidly moving from controversial innovation to standard government practice around the world. Pakistan’s announcement that it killed three suspected terrorists in a drone strike on Monday, September 7, makes Pakistan the fourth country to use drones in combat after the US, UK and Israel. News of the Pakistani strike followed the controversy that erupted in the UK over Prime Minister David Cameron’s revelation that two British nationals had been killed in an RAF drone strike in Syria.
Some opponents of drone warfare argue that it is immoral, nothing more than the summary execution of suspects. But drone strikes typically take place in lawless areas or combat zones, making them no different from the bombardment of pirate nests or enemy outposts, except that they are less indiscriminate in the damage they cause. Ground invasions and conventional air strikes tend to cause more collateral, unintended deaths among civilians than drone strikes.
Another argument holds that drone strikes backfire by alienating populations and generating ‘blowback’ or future terrorism. This may be true in some cases but not in others. And all kinds of military action may cause blowback, so it makes no sense to single out drone strikes as uniquely illegitimate for this reason.
Whether particular drone strikes are constitutional or not depends on particular national constitutions. The question is different in a parliamentary democracy like the UK than it is in a system based on separation of powers like the US government. President Obama insists that he is authorised to carry out drone strikes in Iraq and Syria against Isis by Congressional resolutions authorising war against al-Qaeda and its allies in 2001 and 2003, on the grounds that Isis is al-Qaeda’s successor in some sense. But Obama has also sought unsuccessfully to persuade Congress to provide a new Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF), the modern version of a declaration of war, and to shift responsibility for drone strikes from the CIA to the Defense Department. The U.S. Congress, controlled by the opposition Republican party, has refused to pass Obama’s proposed AUMF because it would limit the ability of his successor to commit ‘boots on the ground’ in the Middle East—a case of a hawkish Congress thwarting a more dovish president. And some in Congress fear that the conventional military would be less cautious in its use of drones than intelligence operatives have been.
To date only the US, UK, Pakistan and Israel have used drones in combat. But according to the New America Foundation’s International Security Program, countries that either have armed drones or are developing them include China, Russia, India, Nigeria, Somalia, Turkey, France, Italy, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Greece, Taiwan and South Africa. Many other countries, including Germany, Mexico and Vietnam, are producing drone technology. The decision of the Obama administration to sell drones to U.S. allies may add a lucrative new sector to the flourishing international arms market in which most developed nations already participate.
The most troubling trend may be the diffusion of drones to non-state actors. Hezbollah and Hamas both claim to have manufactured drones domestically, in addition to having obtained them from Iran. Whether or not this is true, stateless militants—the major targets of drone war to date—may soon turn this technology against states.
The international law governing drone war remains confused. But the same domestic political considerations that have led the US and now the UK to rely increasingly on drone warfare will probably lead other countries to do the same. Unlike soldiers killed in combat operations or pilots captured by the enemy, drones have no grieving families on television. Periodic drone strikes in twilight struggles far from public consciousness do not require all-out mobilization for war and do not trigger expectations of rapid victory. The feature that is likely to endear drones to dictatorships as well as democracies in the years ahead is political, not technical: they tend to fly under the political radar.
Michael Lind is an ASU/Future of War Fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C. and the author of The American Way of Strategy.