One of the most hotly debated topics in modern warfare, the ethical use of military drone strikes, has faded from public attention in the Trump era. However, questions surrounding the use of drone strikes are far from settled, and President Donald Trump’s increased use of these strikes should reignite the debate. Evaluating the deployment of drones in the Global War on Terror (GWOT) is particularly difficult, due to the lack of government transparency. It is more important than ever that the American people have proof that these weapons are being used ethically, that drone strikes are against legitimate targets, and that they contribute to the long-term success of the war on terror. Deployed as a military weapon, drone strikes are used to kill terrorist leaders, who often move fluidly across tortuous landscapes and state borders. These strikes also seek to remove logistical support centers, weapons caches, or “safe havens.” In a conventional war, eliminating these types of targets is considered legitimate. In unconventional warfare, terrorists’ centers of operations frequently overlap with their homes and population centers. This loss of a physical distinction between the terrorists’ operations and local civilians’ daily lives complicates the ethics of drone strikes. What can and cannot be considered a legitimate target becomes less clear when combating terrorism. The first known drone strike occurred in Afghanistan on October 7, 2001. Over the next seven years, President George W. Bush authorized 56 additional strikes. His successor, President Barack Obama, escalated the use of drone strikes in GWOT, totaling 563 unique strikes. During this period, the U.S. government asserted the use of drone strikes was effective in reducing the strength of targeted terrorist organizations, including Al Qaeda. Yet the highest levels of classification obscured its policies on the use of drone strikes from public scrutiny. To judge the government’s claim, the public needs transparency on the process for selecting targets and proof that the strikes are contributing to eventual victory in the GWOT. Too little information is available about the individuals who were killed in drone strikes, and even less information can be gathered on who was targeted. So long as the U.S. drone strike programs remain hidden from public view, U.S. citizens, responsible for electing those political leaders who make these decisions, remain unable to account for the legitimacy of the targets. For the sake of assuring the American people that the use of drones in the GWOT is just, the U.S. government ought to devise a way to increase transparency and prove their targets legitimate, without jeopardizing the drone program’s future as a means of conducting combat operations. It is also unclear whether or not drone strikes contribute to defeating terrorism depends on the definition of “success” in the GWOT. The original Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), approved by Congress in 2001, specifically authorized force against those responsible for the 9/11 terrorist attacks and those who harbor them. If one considers victory to be defined as the neutralization of Al Qaeda, then drone strikes have contributed to victory, but continued strikes are questionable. On the other hand, if one accepts the ongoing GWOT is not limited to the conditions set forth in the 2001 AUMF, then the ongoing strikes might be considered part of a successful counter-terrorism campaign, so long as the U.S. government continues to narrowly focus the strikes on the terrorists’ “war efforts”. If one instead considers victory as elimination of terrorism throughout the world, then the argument that drone strikes are purposeful becomes a more difficult proposition. Critics suggest that each additional drone strike ultimately leads to more terrorists. In the war against terrorism, a weapon that generates support for that tactic would be counterproductive. The United States ought to only use drone strikes when the targets are legitimate and the strikes further the war effort. Ensuring ethical use of drones today will also set the standard for the deployment of drones in future conflicts, be they against an extremist group, during engagement with a rogue state, or during a conventional conflict. Understanding the nuances of ethical deployment of increasingly complex weapons systems, such as combat drones, is essential to the development of the next generation of international leaders. We will be accountable for how we choose the rules and regulations which will dictate the future of drones in war. About the author: Abigail Gage is the Veterans Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP). She will receive a Masters of Arts from the Johns-Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in May 2018. Concurrently, Abigail is a Major in the Maryland Army National Guard. Prior to SAIS, Abigail worked for the House Armed Services Committee as a research assistant and served on active duty in Iraq and Germany. Abigail earned her Bachelors in Anthropology and Archaeology from Washington and Lee University.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.