The use of unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, by the U.S. has been subject to substantial criticism both domestically and abroad. Those inside and outside the administration have asserted, correctly, that drones are simply a tool, not a policy. The most effective way to analyze drone use is through this metric — that it is a tool and an extremely useful one at that. The ability to almost constantly loiter over a target with a dual strike capability has provided a significant trove of image and signals intelligence for officials as well as instilling fear and limiting the movement of terrorist actors.
Shaping a global outlook opposite that of the previous administration, candidate and then-President Obama has sought a policy that remained tough on terrorism while devoting a fraction of resources — known as applying a "light footprint." Drones were an attractive option for this president as a means of pulling back on large-scale American intervention abroad yet still remaining engaged in the fight against terrorism. "The first thing I'd say about the use of drones is that it is a far more targeted way of taking out terrorist leaders and terrorist networks than invading and occupying a country like Iraq. So there is far less civilian casualties, far less suffering than large-scale military operations like we saw in Iraq," Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said on the Al Jazeera program "Up Front" in September.
The munitions deployed by armed U.S. drones are actually quite accurate. "Lethal UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle] strikes frequently have been criticized for their alleged tendency to cause excessive civilian casualties. This criticism has little basis in fact. Contrary to popular belief, UAV technologies, in fact, enable greater precision in targeting than most other common means of warfare," the Stimson Center Task Force on U.S. Drone Policy wrote in its 2014 report. Some in the field have even asserted that drones are the most humane method of exercising force given this fact.
However, targets are only as good as the intelligence provided by these platforms — and others — which is not always 100 percent exclusively reliable, meaning it should be married with other forms of intelligence, such as human intelligence. Many civilian casualties occur as a result of a willingness on the part of officials to pull the trigger while relying on this intelligence as well as what are deemed "signature strikes" or strikes that target a particular area based on a certain defined pattern similar to terrorist behavior. Oftentimes, officials do not know who lies at the other end of a Hellfire missile in signature strikes. Even more disturbing, as has been known for some time and reaffirmed in a trove of leaked documents published by The Intercept recently, military-aged males in war zones or regions thought to be inhabited by terrorists are perceived by the government to be terrorists until proven otherwise.
While acknowledging civilian casualties and mistakes, Rhodes responded to host Mehdi Hasan's criticisms by asserting that the Obama administration did not invade a country as the George W. Bush administration did. He did, however, add that drones are "a weapon of war and in war there are civilian casualties." When asked about the continued use of signature strikes, Rhodes obviously declined to comment on intelligence practices but offered that "we take strikes when we feel it's necessary to protect our forces in Afghanistan or to disrupt a terrorist plot ... we take action only when there is a threat to U.S. forces or to U.S. personnel."
Despite being part of a larger counterterrorism strategy — with special operations forces training local security forces while simultaneously collecting intelligence and conducting raids — the administration has overly relied on drones as evidenced by their continued use in Yemen despite zero U.S. personnel on the ground. (The U.S. does not even have an embassy presence.) Many have decried the overall effectiveness of these platforms within an overall counterterrorism strategy, saying that the indiscriminate civilian deaths provide a rallying point against the U.S., thus creating more terrorists than they eliminate. This realization, however true, exemplifies that drones are merely a tactical tool.
Despite the U.S. virtual monopoly on drone technology and its use within the last decade or so, there has been great concern regarding the proliferation of this platform by other nations and how they might deploy it. Recently, the United Kingdom and Pakistan used armed drones to carry out targeted killings. The U.K. killed one of its own citizens believed to be a hacker for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), while Pakistan killed suspected militants in its tribal regions as part of a larger effort to disrupt terrorist safe havens.
While the fear of greater lethal use of drones, given their relative ease and limited risk to personnel, has been touted for a long time, Rhodes offered an alternative view. "Drones are just a weapon ... the way we look at it is it's a use of force, right? And you could use force with the drone, you could use force with fixed aircraft, you could use force with missiles. So the question, again, is whether or not it is just for our country to be using force beyond its borders. ... The way we look at the legal basis for this is whether or not we have a justification in taking action in self-defense — that's the critical question for the international community."
While none of this is new, per se, it is an important examination in the context of the forthcoming presidential election and how a new president will apply this tool to a policy and strategy in counterterrorism and military operations.
Despite the fact that drones would be relatively ineffective against peer adversaries such as Russia or China that possess highly advanced radar and anti-aircraft systems, drones and counterterrorism are not going anywhere. Ultimately, for the U.S., the issue will continue to boil down to how "imminent" threats are in the future and whether or not officials assert that the U.S. is engaged in an armed conflict with non-state groups such as al Qaeda — affording some legal protection however thinly veiled. It is best to learn from mistakes to help shape better policy; therefore, it would be welcoming for a similar inquiry into the Obama administration's use of drones akin the Senate Intelligence Committee's examination of the George W. Bush administration's detention and interrogation techniques. After all, making the same mistakes repeatedly is the definition of insanity.
Pomerleau is a freelance journalist based in Washington covering politics and policy. Follow him @MpoM24.