The Drawbacks of Drones

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Recently, the Obama administration confessed that an American citizen was inadvertently killed as the result of a drone strike in Pakistan. The killing rightfully sparked much outrage in American news outlets and spurred an apology from the President.

At the same time, many commentators noted that drone strikes create less collateral damage than missiles or Special Forces missions. Drones allow American policymakers to kill individuals with minimal risk.

However, drones are not perfect military tools precisely because of their strategic ease. The lack of risk associated with drone strikes enables American leadership to overuse drones and kill increasingly less dangerous people. This “mission creep” has diminishing returns and results in increased anti-American sentiment. Thus, the ease of drone strikes partially diminishes their effectiveness as a policy tool.

At first, the strategic benefits of drone strikes are clear. Constant surveillance of human targets greatly increases available information and minimizes misidentification. A single Predator drone can follow a human target for days. Furthermore, the drone operator can wait until the target is alone, minimizing the risk of collateral damage. In addition, the luxury of time that the drone allows gives generals more time to correctly determine the identity of the target. Drones can kill terrorists without blowing up any weddings. Human soldiers launching a raid rarely have time to consider whether their targets are civilians or combatants.

Furthermore, drone strikes allow more oversight. Remote-controlled strokes allows the American government to carefully assess the benefits and costs of killing. The military can conduct a judicial process to determine the legality of the killing. For the first time in human history, enemy combatants can be tried and sentenced on the battlefield.

Finally, drones aren’t human. Instead of sending SEAL Team Six every time Obama wants to kill someone, the American government risks no human life. Even if drones were more likely to cause collateral damage, the lack of risk would be tremendously appealing. For the American government, drones are the perfect tool to kill people.

Of course, many people dispute the legality of drone strikes. It is unclear whether the use of drones constitutes war; or whether it is legal for the United States to kill American citizens using drones.

The shroud of government secrecy prevents meaningful congressional oversight over the executive branch and military. In addition, the secrecy associated with drones also prevents public discussion. Because of the lack of “boots on the ground,” the American public isn’t invested in drone strikes; the average American doesn’t know that the United States kills people everywhere from Pakistan to Yemen. Few Americans mention the “Pakistani War” — although the implications of American violence is just as important in Pakistan as it was in Iraq and Afghanistan. Drones let the United States kill people without the American public caring.

Additionally, some say that the drones are just morally worse than other forms of warfare. It’s never fun to live under ever-ending surveillance and the continual threat of death.

Clearly, drones have problems. Regardless, conventional wisdom holds that drones are strategically superior to their military alternatives regardless of their potential legal and moral issues,

However, I argue that the very ease of drone strikes makes them less effective strategically than conventional arguments give them credit for. The absence of risk or penalty associated with drones makes it hard to avoid “mission creep”— a gradual, unconscious shift in goals. Even if the Obama administration initially intended to kill only senior Al-Qaeda members or the most dangerous terrorists, there would be no reason for them to stop there; since these killings have such little immediate risk, it is easy to justify the increase of killing less harmful terrorists with drones. Each kill has diminishing security returns since each human target is less dangerous to the United States. It’s hard to declare a hard stop to killing when it is so easy.

Additionally, the negative effects of drone strikes — collateral civilian damage and increased anti-American sentiment — are likely to increase with higher rates of drone strike killings. One drone killing, especially of a notorious terrorist or Al-Qaeda member, is unlikely to spark much anti-American sentiment (the average Pakistani is not a fan of terrorism). These top terrorists might be foreigners hiding in the Pakistani mountains — they are unlikely to have local connections. However, repeated killings of less important targets are more likely to trigger resentment. Less important targets are usually leaders of regional networks who have made efforts to ingratiate themselves with the locals. Therefore, as the United States kills less dangerous terrorists, anti-American sentiment rises dangerously.

Drone supporters always compare drones to their alternatives — again, missile strikes and SEAL team raids are risky and cause huge amounts of collateral damage. However, due to their costs, they’re only likely to be used rarely, as was the case with the Abbottabad raid that killed Osama Bin Laden in 2011. Of course, the associated collateral damage with one missile strike is more likely to cause more anti-American sentiment than one drone strike. My argument is that drone strikes are unlikely to occur in isolation — their ease makes repeated killings likely. One drone strike may be harmless, but hundreds are quite dangerous.

Clearly, drones still have their strengths; the relative lack of collateral damage is an undeniable advantage over other policy tools. However, American policymakers should acknowledge the temptation that comes with the ease of using drone strikes and the negative effects that accumulate from relying on drone strikes. After all, when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

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