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Drones: Forget the Moral Argument, Are They Actually Strategic?

This week’s Water Cooler question:

For this week, the editors examine the strategic implications of utilizing armed drones in conflict zones.

The use of drones in conflict has become increasingly controversial. On April 24, 2015, U.S. President Obama fielded questions about the drone attack that inadvertently killed two hostages. The use of drones under Obama has grown significantly since 2008, particularly in Pakistan. Despite the loss of civilian life from drone strikes, the Obama administration stands by its effectiveness in fighting groups like al-Qaeda in remote areas.

Former C.I.A. Director, Leon E. Panetta, recently stated to the New York Times:

“What do we bring to bear?” he asked. “B-2 bombers? I don’t think so. F-16s? Pakistan’s never going to allow that. Troops on the ground? We tried, and Pakistan was upset about that. So we were left with that single weapon to go after the targets. Yes, it is precise. Yes, it is effective. But at the same time, like any other weapon of war, you can wind up hitting targets that were not intended.”


From a cost versus benefit standpoint, are drone strikes an effective strategy in conflict zones? 


The Responses.

Trevor: Don’t Fear the Reaper. 

Program Editor, Canada’s NATO

Advocates of drone warfare argue that contrary to popular belief, drones do not cause disproportionately high civilian casualties. Drone technology in general offers greater precision targeting than most other conventional military weapons. They can spend hours, days, weeks, or even months surveilling and monitoring a potential target before striking. This enables the operator to distinguish between combatant and civilian much better than most other weapons systems, and definitely far better than a manned aircraft could. Of course targeting decisions are only as good as the intelligence on which they are based and this raises questions about the strategy and decisions behind drone warfare.

The U.S. currently claims that they have the legal right to kill anyone who it determines is a member of al-Qaida, Islamic State or an affiliate, in any state on earth, at any time, based on secret criteria, secret evidence, and a secret process. This process does not allow anyone on the outside to raise questions about the validity of the evidence or remedy mistakes or abuses. I would suggest that it would be wise to not become overconfident in the ability of new technology to solve complex problems. We must ensure that policy and strategy drive technological development and not the other way around.

Capt. Richard Koll, left, and Airman 1st Class Mike Eulo perform function checks after launching an MQ-1 Predator unmanned aerial vehicle Aug. 7 at Balad Air Base, Iraq. Captain Koll, the pilot, and Airman Eulo, the sensor operator, will handle the Predator in a radius of approximately 25 miles around the base before handing it off to personnel stationed in the United States to continue its mission. Both are assigned to the 46th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron. (U.S. Air Force/Master Sgt. Steve Horton)

Hasan: Bull in a China Shop

Program Editor, Expanding Community

A drone is a tool, the utility of which depends solely on the parameters it is utilized under. Good intelligence can result in successful operations where targets are eliminated with little or no damage to civilians, bad intelligence, on the other hand, can be devastating as it results in civilian deaths and civilian infrastructure damage. An unsuccessful drone strike can turn a once neutral village into an enemy stronghold due to the nature of the region where they operate.It is a scalpel, a precision tool, by itself. But in the hands of untrained or “timagesrigger-happy” operators they can be a bull in a china shop, only making the situation worse.

Furthermore, no matter how precise it is it cannot take out a specific target in a crowd; in order to hit the target it has to consequently hit those around the target, the opportunity cost of which is very subjective. Militants operate among civilians and so to divorce damaging one while safeguarding the other, in many cases, is unrealistic.

Although the drone is a precision tool, accurate and effective in its objective, it does not compensate for the nature of many environments in which it operates – that environment itself, when accommodates drones, perpetuates further hostilities from both militants and civilians as it blurs the lines between the two.

Stefan: Drone Warfare is Counter-Productive. 

Program Editor, Procurement 

Drone warfare, particularly in Pakistan and Yemen, is a tool. Unlike manned combat aircraft, drones can patrol one area for extended periods before launching a relatively precise missile strike (relative to other viable options). In this sense, the use of armed drones makes a great deal of sense, specifically in regions where reconnaissance is required to distinguish between militants and civilians.

However, drone warfare also comes with a number of strategic complications. Many people in the Middle East have come to associate drone warfare with the United States Government’s broader strategy against al-Qaeda and the Taliban. As a result, the tactical use of drones has inadvertently become a powerful symbol of America’s alienation of many people throughout the Middle East. The large numbers of civilian causalities, particularly in Pakistan, fuel this negative symbolism. The death of young children and obliteration of wedding parties has a lasting emotional impact.

There is a strong argument to be made that America’s use of drones are ultimately counter-productive in a broad strategic sense. The use (or more precisely, the misuse) of armed drones ultimately diminishes local public support for the United States Government’s activities. As a result, drone strikes have gradually undermined the US’s long-term objectives in the Middle East.


Colin: It’s the Means, Not the End

Program Editor, Global Horizons

There is little doubt that American drones achieved their intended purpose with Al-Qaeda. Documents from Bin Laden’s compound indicate worry, if not angst, over the repeated attrition his forces faced.

Was it the best way? Nearly impossible to say for certain. Drones certainly do cause fewer civilian casualties than jets or ground troops. However, the tendency of drones to stalk their targets for days, fully visible in the sky, counteracts this somewhat. Civilians living in villages below report feeling just as terrified, never knowing if or when the continuous buzzing overhead will strike.

What good is disrupting your enemies if your friends are not ready to seize the initiative? This problem has played out multiple times. Drones in Somalia – with Kenyan, Ethiopian, and UN support – helped weaken Al Shabaab sufficiently for Mogadishu to finally reassert some level of control over the country. In Yemen or Pakistan, though, the central government has lacked either the ability or credibility to take advantage of the militants’ weakness.

Be wary of applying drones too quickly or broadly. It’s the means, not the end.


  • NATO Association of Canada

    The NATO Association of Canada (NAOC) strives to educate and engage Canadians about NATO and its goals of peace, prosperity and security. The NAOC ensures Canada has an informed citizenry able to participate in discussions about its role on the world stage.

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NATO Association of Canada
The NATO Association of Canada (NAOC) strives to educate and engage Canadians about NATO and its goals of peace, prosperity and security. The NAOC ensures Canada has an informed citizenry able to participate in discussions about its role on the world stage.