Drone Warfare: Redefining the Rules for Engagement

Andrew Peng
5 min readDec 3, 2015

By: Rachel Forrester

While it would be entirely inaccurate to say that American involvement in the Middle East has ever left the public eye, the numerous terrorist attacks that have taken place over the past week have brought it to the forefront of media attention. Although many Americans support engagement in the Middle East, public outcry at American loss of life makes engagement in the traditional sense nearly impossible. Faced with this dilemma and the ever-expanding opportunities presented by technological advancements, both the military and the CIA, with presidential endorsement, have turned increasingly in recent decades towards unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, to execute airstrikes and espionage missions.

While drone warfare does offer substantial advantages over traditional warfare by saving costs and removing US troops from dangerous situations, it has been heavily criticized for presenting a much greater risk to civilian populations than manned missions.

The first documented instances of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) were hot air balloons that were outfitted with bombs and used as weapons in European wars and the American Civil War throughout the mid to late 19th century. Throughout the 20th century, drone technology progressed rapidly through the introduction of remotely controlled vehicles, aerial photography, and guided missile systems, among other things. While drones were used in both world wars, they truly found their niche during the cold war, when they began to replace manned surveillance planes and took on real strategical significance as the only safe method of surveillance of communist territory. In 1994, the Predator drone, which is the main model used today, was first used during the Bosnian war.

The US government’s drone program currently operates from two completely separate programs — the Pentagon program and the CIA program. While there has been some concern that the CIA should not be ordering drone strikes because they are historically a civilian espionage agency and not a paramilitary agency, the CIA has had difficulty maintaining a strong human intelligence program because it does not hire people with family, friends, or other relations in the Middle East, making it very difficult to find people with the necessary language and cultural skills to successfully carry out intelligence missions. Additionally, in recent years the American public has reacted very strongly to American deaths, making human intelligence (when it is unsuccessful) very bad for the CIA’s public image.

While there is no data available to the public that explicitly compares the two programs, most debate and media attention occurs around the CIA program for its “signature strikes” in Pakistan, though in the past few years the Pentagon has been criticized for strikes in Yemen, including one in December 2013 that hit a Yemeni wedding party. Former chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee Diane Feinstein was quoted praising the CIA’s “patience and discretion” but expressing concerns that “the military has not done nearly that well.”

The CIA drone program in Pakistan officially began in 2004 and mainly targets the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and the Haqqani network, (although in the past the CIA has supported the Haqqani family). In 2008, the CIA began its “signature strike” (in quotes because there is no officially confirmed name) program which allows the CIA to use drones to target suspected terrorists whose identities are either unknown or are not on a kill list, and whose involvement in a terrorist organization is assumed based on surveillance of their day to day activity and behavior, in addition to confirmed terrorists, whose identities are known and on a kill list.

Signature strikes have received negative attention from the media and populace for being imprecise and killing many civilians, and though President Obama promised in 2013 to increase transparency about the CIA drone program and integrate it into the Pentagon program (which requires more transparency than the CIA program by law because it is a military organization rather than a civilian one), he promptly waived the CIA program in Pakistan from any new regulations. While President Obama never specifically addressed signature strikes, many people took his speech as a promise that he would discontinue them, and were subsequently disappointed by the waiver.

According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, between 2004 and September 2015 there have been between 2,489 and 3,989 deaths caused by US drone strikes in Pakistan alone, between 423 and 965 of which were civilian deaths. Drones are also used in Yemen, Somalia, Libya, and Afghanistan.

The recent October 2015 strike on a Doctors Without Borders hospital drew a great deal of media attention to a fairly recent development in the US drone program — the adoption of the previously NATO-run Afghanistan program in January 2015. Between January and November 14, 2015, there have been anywhere between 700 and 1046 deaths from US drone strikes in Afghanistan. Between 44 and 103 of these have been civilians.

While drones are championed by the US government for preventing both loss of pilot life and POW situations, many people globally have raised legal and moral inquiries about the use of drones for targeted killing. Though executive order 12333 (Reagan, 1981) banned the US government from planning or carrying out assassinations, lawyers have interpreted “targeted killing” to be distinct from assassination because it targets known terrorists. Signature strikes, which do not necessarily target known terrorists, passed legal scrutiny on the same logic.

According to the Pew Research Center, “In 39 of 44 countries surveyed, majorities or pluralities oppose U.S. drone strikes targeting extremists in countries such as Pakistan, Somalia…Israel, Kenya, and the U.S. are the only nations polled where at least half the public supports drone strikes.”

Another point of controversy is the opacity of the CIA drone program. Most of the actual data about the drone strikes is classified, making it very difficult to actually know how many strikes occur, since reports from individuals in Pakistan and other locations are not always trustworthy. The CIA itself has stated that it does not always know who or even how many people are inside a building it targets, leading to unintended civilian deaths.

While the public remains increasingly divided on the use of drones for foreign military operations and intelligence missions, governing bodies overwhelmingly see the risks of using manned aircrafts as outweighing the risks of using UAVs. It is unlikely that anything, short of a complete US withdrawal from the Middle East, will halt the use of drones for surveillance and airstrikes. Furthermore, the fact that drones have greater capabilities than manned planes likely means that they will eventually usurp the need for manned military aircraft altogether.

In order to ensure that human rights are upheld properly in drone warfare, the military and the CIA should further their efforts to increase the transparency of the drone program to the public and consider ending the controversial signature strike program.