Back to top

It's cheap, neat and efficient — but not entirely — and it saves U.S. lives while taking the lives of our enemies: drone warfare.

Drone warfare is the use of unmanned, remote-controlled armed aircraft for targeted assassinations of terrorists. The tactic has been used with great success by the U.S. in its ongoing war on terror.

Targets are identified either by the military or intelligence authorities and a strike is launched by the CIA, which is currently authorized to conduct the operation. President Barack Obama, however, said in a recent speech that plans are under way to transfer drone operations to the military.

Although these pilotless air strikes have been reasonably precise, collateral damage is inevitable. Critics of the program point out that innocent people have been killed in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and Yemen, the countries in which drone warfare has been most concentrated.

Drone attacks have caused an estimated 3,000 deaths — including untargeted collateral deaths — since 2001, not counting those in Iraq or Afghanistan.

In one instance of a targeted drone assassination, a U.S. citizen in Yemen — believed to be a terrorist — was killed on September 30, 2011, without due process of law, including a trial, to which he was entitled under the Constitution.

The victim was Anwar al-Awlaki, the first known American to be targeted and killed by a drone. Another U.S. citizen named Samir Khan, identified as a terrorist, was also killed in the attack. Al-Awlaki's death was characterized by Obama as "a major blow to al-Qaida's most active operational affiliate."

A wave of protests ensued after the killings, which demonstrators denounced as illegal. But U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder later declared the attack lawful.

With the sanction of America's top legal authority, other than the Supreme Court, Americans who fit the terrorist profile could be targeted.

The drone program began in response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and has continued under the Obama Administration.

So far this year, as of the end of May, 13 drone strikes have occurred in Pakistan and 10 in Yemen, according to The Long War Journal website, which tracks drone warfare.

On May 29, a targeted drone assassination killed the deputy chief of the Pakistani Taliban, Wali ur Rehman. Six other people were also killed in the attack.

Pakistan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs denounced the assassination and charged that it violated "the principles of national sovereignty, territorial integrity and international law." He also declared the strike "counterproductive" since Rehman was viewed as a moderator in some quarters and a potential broker of peace between the government and the Pakistani Taliban.

Rehman’s assassination came in the wake of a recent announcement by Obama that U.S. drone attacks will now be limited to targets "that pose a continuing and imminent threat to the American people."

As U.S. drone use over the years has become more frequent, along with the unintended killings of civilians, domestic and worldwide critics of the counter-terrorism program have become more vocal and militant in their opposition.

Citizens of Pakistan, where many of the drone attacks occurred, have become especially outraged, demanding an end to the program. Anti-U.S. sentiment in the country has been growing since the drone attacks began.

Afghan president Hamid Karzai, who once condoned drone killings of Afghani insurgents in Pakistan, has also called for an end to their use.

Perhaps as a consequence of these complaints — although the Obama Administration has not yet acknowledged it — U.S. drone policy has recently changed.

In a speech delivered by Obama on May 23 at National Defense University, the president announced the imposition of new and more rigid limitations on targeted killing, while at the same time pointing out how successful the drone program has been.

The new criteria for being identified as a drone target requires that an individual person pose a "continuing and imminent threat" to U.S. persons.

Previously, persons were targeted who posed "a significant threat to U.S. interests." These targets included al-Qaida commanders, bomb makers and terrorists plotting against international aviation, U.S. transit systems, European cities and American military forces in Afghanistan, Obama said in his speech.

Despite what Obama has characterized as the new restrictions on targeted killings, drone attacks in Pakistan have continued with an average of about two attacks per month, as of the end of May.

Regarding the killing of American citizens by drones without due process, which had previously occurred, Obama said:

"For the record, I do not believe it would be constitutional for the government to target and kill any U.S. citizen — with a drone or a shotgun — without due process. Nor should any president deploy armed drones over U.S. soil."

There are exceptions to these rules, however, Obama pointed out.

"When a U.S. citizen goes abroad to wage war against America and is actively plotting to kill U.S. citizens — and when neither the United States, nor our partners are in a position to capture him before he carries out a plot — his citizenship should no more serve as a shield than a sniper shooting down on an innocent crowd should be protected from a SWAT team," he said.

"That's who Anwar Awlaki was — he was continuously trying to kill people," Obama said. "He helped oversee the 2010 plot to detonate explosive devices on two U.S.-bound cargo planes. He was involved in planning to blow up an airliner in 2009. When Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Christmas Day bomber, went to Yemen in 2009, Awlaki hosted him, approved his suicide operation and helped him tape a martyrdom video to be shown after the attack. His last instructions were to blow up the airplane when it was over American soil. I would have detained and prosecuted Awlaki if we captured him before he carried out a plot. But we couldn't. And as president, I would have been derelict in my duty had I not authorized the strike that took out Awlaki."

In announcing a more limited use of drone attacks, Obama also said, "To say a military tactic is legal, or even effective, is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance. For the same progress that gives us the technology to strike half a world away also demands the discipline to constrain that power — or risk abusing it."

Many military and intelligence analysts now believe that major drone targets are diminishing, that drone use is becoming counterproductive and that the attacks have resulted in the enrollment of new warriors in the terrorist cause.

But while the military use of drones decline, they may have a bright future in civilian applications.

Among the potentially benign uses of drones are in the search for missing persons by law enforcement. Farmers can use drones to identify land in need of water and or pesticides. Drones can search out people who need rescuing from rooftops or anywhere on the ground in the event of fires, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes or other disasters. Traffic congestion and patterns can be precisely mapped and televised. Highways, bridges, railways and waterways could be inspected and monitored for safety or hazardous conditions. Pipelines and power grids could be similarly monitored. Environmentalists, geologists, map makers and other professions and industries could use unmanned aircraft for aerial plotting and monitoring of large land areas.

So far, however, civilian use of the drone has languished. Public fears about the abuse of drone technology, and the absence of government safety regulations for what could be a very crowded and dangerous sky with too many drones in the air, have shortstopped the development of this potentially profitable and useful industry.

Marc Davis

Marc Davis is a veteran journalist and published novelist. His reporting and writing has been published in numerous print and online publications including AOL, The Chicago Tribune, Forbes Online Media, The Journal of the American Bar Association, and many others. His latest novel, Bottom Line, was published in 2013.

Add new comment

Restricted HTML

  • Allowed HTML tags: <a href hreflang> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote cite> <code> <ul type> <ol start type> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <h2 id> <h3 id> <h4 id> <h5 id> <h6 id>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.