Drone Warfare: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

By Kaitlin Liebling

The US government has been using armed drone strikes in the Middle East since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. But it wasn’t until President Obama’s term began in 2009 that drone strikes began to be used with startling frequency. For a few years, Obama’s secretive drone policy stirred rare bipartisan criticism.

In the ensuing years, the topic has fallen off the radar. Though in many ways Trump has continued and even expanded (in some cases) the usage of drones, little has been written about the topic, either positive or negative. The public eye has shifted as ISIS has lost territory, and media coverage has shifted with it.

This article aims to change that. We should care when thousands are being killed by drone strikes in the Middle East. We should have an opinion about a technology that can keep our country safe and potentially prevent terrorist attacks. My goal is to give readers a fair and balanced look at drone warfare, allowing you to formulate your own opinion about this important issue. What follows is the good, the bad, and the ugly of drone strikes in the Middle East.

The Bad

Few realize that 2017 was the deadliest year for civilian casualties in Iraq and Syria. Because Trump’s government does not release drone casualty numbers, total casualties are hard to calculate. However, watchdog group Airwars estimated about 6,000 people were killed by drones in 2017, a 200 percent increase over the previous year.

Yet President Trump has only continued the drone policy started by Obama, including Obama’s controversial “signature strikes.” In this type of drone strike, if a “signature” of a potential terrorist is achieved, the drones are deployed to attack.

The signature itself changes based on the circumstances, but is roughly a group of military-aged men in a Middle Eastern country exhibiting suspicious behavior. In most of these cases, the US government never knows the specific identities of the low-level terrorists killed. In rare instances, those killed were not even terrorists at all.

Signature strikes remain highly controversial. Proponents contend that the strikes have killed hundreds, if not thousands, of dangerous terrorists en masse. Critics argue that the vagueness of the “signature”  categorization exposes innocent male civilians in Middle Eastern countries to danger from above. For example, on Dec. 12, 2013, the US government killed 12 innocent Yemeni civilians in a signature strike, forcing the government to pay about $1 million in condolence payments.

The Ugly

The signature strikes policy has quietly continued under President Trump, and have become even more secretive in the process. The Washington Post reported that Trump ignored an Obama-era executive order requiring him to issue a report on the number of civilians and terrorists killed in drone strikes. In the minds of many critics, the secrecy surrounding these numbers hurts the ability for the American public to hold their leaders accountable when drone strikes go wrong.

Indeed, mistakes like the one in Yemen have unfortunately continued to occur even into the Trump era. In a notable strike at a school near Raqqa, Syria, in March 2017, the US government claimed to have killed dozens of militants with a drone. But a later UN investigation into the matter concluded that those wounded and killed were not terrorists but rather around 150 civilians, including children. The report roundly criticized the US for, in effect, failing to do its homework on the location of the strike. The school had been known to house displaced Syrian refugees since 2012.

Paulo Pinheiro, chairman of the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Syria, said, “We did not find any indication that the attack was intended to hit either civilians or a civilian building, but that the U.S. forces had enough time and resources available that they should have been able to take additional precautions that may have led to the air strike being called off or delayed.”

Drone strikes also have the potential to sour relations between Middle Eastern countries and the United States. For example, the Pakistani media is highly anti-American and uses any accidental drone strike on Pakistan’s civilians as an excuse to attack the United States. For this reason, many Pakistani are under the impression that drones are “indiscriminate death machines, slaughtering innocent women and children in high numbers,” even when this is not true. A full 59 percent of them believe the US is the enemy.

Each erroneous strike cements this idea in the minds of Pakistani citizens and governmental leaders, and can lead to real consequences. Anger surrounding the United State’s usage of the tech has led to “the closure of U.S. drone bases and NATO supply routes to Afghanistan on Pakistani soil and fueled the rise of more stridently anti-American politicians such as Prime Minister Imran Khan,” according to the Washington Post. Also, those who have extremist tendencies may become enraged by the drone strikes, which has the potential to encourage them to join up with terrorist groups.

The Good

Yet former President Obama has defended his signature strikes policy in the past. “Dozens of highly skilled al Qaeda commanders, trainers, bomb makers and operatives have been taken off the battlefield,” he said in a 2013 speech. “Plots have been disrupted that would have targeted international aviation, US transit systems, European cities, and our troops in Afghanistan. Simply put, these strikes have saved lives.”

Michael V. Hayden, a former US Air Force General and director of the NSA and CIA, concurred with Obama. “The signature strikes drastically shrank the enemy’s bench and made the leadership worry that they had no safe havens,” he said. “Almost inadvertently, these strikes also helped protect intelligence sources and methods since the strikes seemed more random than they actually were.”

In his opinion piece for the New York Times, Hayden argued for a “dial, not a switch.” He claimed that the CIA regretted the civilian lives lost in drone strikes and has actively tried to change policies to learn from their mistakes. A dial is needed, where the CIA perhaps reforms some aspects of its drone policy, not a complete ‘switch off’ or termination of the entire program as some critics desire. Despite flaws, Hayden insists the drones ultimately do what they are supposed to: they kill terrorists and they save lives.

Indeed, one easily seen advantage of the drone strikes is the untold number of lives the technology has saved. President Obama, informed by US intelligence agencies, probably had a better idea of this than most of his critics. As president, he would have known if a strike had disrupted a potential plot to ram a car into citizens in France, to plant a car bomb in Chicago, or to shoot up a concert in London.

Drone strikes are highly visible when they go wrong and innocents are killed. Some would argue they are much less visible when they go right, and hypothetical hundreds or thousands, who would have become the next innocent victims of a terrorist attack, are saved.

Yet drones have not only saved civilian lives, but also military lives. A drone’s capability for unmanned flight means it can enter hostile territory without fear of loss of life. This eliminates the need for a potentially fatal mission into dangerous, terrorist-controlled land by United States troops.

On a less serious note, using drones also saves significant amounts of money. Flying drones is simply cheaper than it would be to fly manned military aircraft into the target zones. Manned aircraft cost $18,000 to $169,000 per flight hour, 6 to 42 times more than attack drones.

Are They Worth It?

Whether good or bad, the drone strikes continue. They have saved unknown amounts of US military lives. They have eliminated thousands of dangerous terrorists. And they have killed hundreds of innocent Middle Eastern civilians.

Who is right in this moral tug-of-war?

Both critics and supporters alike present valid points, and the ethical balance of the issue remains tough to pin down. Is a potential life saved through a terrorist’s demise worth the possibility of an innocent Middle Eastern civilian being killed in an miscalculated strike?

The government, whether Democrat or Republican, certainly seems to think so. And the vast majority of the public remains too uninformed to take a stand on this important issue.