Standing less than 2m tall, Boeing’s ScanEagle looks more like something you would find at the local model aero club than anything threatening. But this unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV)—also known as a drone—has become a front-line weapon in the War on Terror. And, increasingly, the weapon of choice for the US military. Originally developed in the early 21st century for reconnaissance purposes, its armed variant represents the bulk of those in existence.
George W. Bush first used them experimentally in 2004. Since then, US presidents and their military have placed increasing reliance on these unmanned weapons that spared lives in executing strikes on elusive and hidden targets, such as terrorists and their camps.
When he took office, Barack Obama followed the trend toward drone strikes, dramatically increasing their use in the war on terror. Some 1,878 drone strikes in Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia during Obama’s tenure included 154 strikes in Yemen alone.
That said, Obama did limit the use of drones. Strikes were to be permitted only:
- Against terrorist targets that posed a “continuing, imminent threat to U.S. persons.”
- Absent extraordinary circumstances, direct action against an identified high-value terrorist be taken only when there is near certainty that the individual being targeted is in fact the lawful target
- If the lawful target is known to be located at the place where the action will occur
- Absent extraordinary circumstances, direct action will be taken only if there is near certainty that the action can be taken without injuring or killing non-combatants.
When Trump took office, all such niceties went out the window. His administration wrote new rules to allow strikes where there was scant or no threat. These could be made against anyone regarded as a terrorist, even by a local military commander. The use of drones and reporting the number of civilians killed by drone strikes ceased. Trump launched 2,243 drone strikes in he first two years alone.
The most notorious Trump strike was in 2020 against Iranian general Qasem Soleimani, killing him and nine others. This violated international law because the U.S. had not provided evidence that Soleimani presented an imminent threat to justify the attack. Trump’s response? “That’s giving a pass to terrorists.
Biden suspended Trump’s rules immediately, and began to review how the policies of both Obama and Trump had worked. In its plan to end “forever wars,” the Biden administration brought drone use to an all-time low. Unfortunately, an August 29 drone strike on a supposed Al Qaeda cell only killed 10 civilians.
Even if Biden does curtail usage, this does not auger well. For the last century, America has shown an increasing tendency to act in its own interests globally. And ‘act’ has increasingly come to equate to military intervention. (See “The Two Trillion Dollar Tragedy”). Despite repeated setbacks, it is the US military that has repeatedly intervened in execution of foreign policy—and this is likely to continue into future
But because Americans are particularly squeamish about their “boys” coming home in body bags, the use of drones to attack terrorists and other awkward targets without risking any number of soldiers as “boots on the ground” that ground operations require. Despite the appeal to US politicians and military alike, there are significant disadvantages to this approach:
- Drones are not cheap. At $800,000 each, they are a bargain, as compared to an F-35, but they require significant technical support and carry expensive stand-off munitions
- They have a very limited payload—ideal for surgical strikes against human targets in a very small area, but trivial compared to artillery bombardment.
- They lower the bar for military engagement, enabling the US to insert itself into other countries at a much lower cost than in the past.
- Like other munitions, drones are indiscriminate who they kill. The ratio of military to civilian deaths is not known, but dozens of civilians at an Afghan wedding were killed by a drone strike in 2008.
This penchant for using force and reluctance to risk American lives to do so does not auger well for discontinuing the use of drones as (in von Clausewitz’s phrase) “diplomacy by other means”. As America continues to lose economic ground to the Chinese, it will be interesting to see whether, in global dominance, the ”Belt and Road” turns out to be mightier than the drone.
(Research material derived from Heather Cox Richardson’s Letter from America)