We Won't Always Drone Alone

March 4, 2013 Topic: Military Strategy Region: United States

We Won't Always Drone Alone

The United States is setting precedents for unmanned warfare that it might regret.


The Obama administration’s enthusiastic employment of armed drones in counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations—in some cases targeting American citizens—has prompted appropriate scrutiny and debate in the U.S. Congress and among the public. This week, as the Senate Intelligence Committee votes on the nomination of Obama counterterrorism advisor John Brennan to head the CIA, drones are again likely to dominate public discourse.

Unfortunately, thus far the drone discussion has focused almost exclusively on legal and technical issues—at the expense of wider strategic considerations. Failing to ask these big questions about drones could be costly for America’s national interests at home and abroad.


When and how the executive branch can employ drones—and what oversight from the legislative and judicial branches is required—are important and serious matters. They become especially significant when they intersect with the rights of American citizens, whether in domestic surveillance or in international counterterrorism strikes. In emotional terms, drones collide with some of America’s most fundamental values. For these reasons, the existing debate over drones should continue.

That said, the United States has well-established rules for the use of lethal force in war and in law enforcement operations. There are extensive rules governing surveillance, too. From this perspective, drones represent a new way of doing things that the executive branch has done for some time and do not pose a radical challenge to existing policies and procedures—except, perhaps, for strains imposed by the sheer number of strikes. Ultimately, however, America has had the drone debate before in various guises and will eventually find a way forward that satisfies legal and oversight concerns.

A broader and deeper challenge is how others—outside the United States—will use drones, whether armed or unarmed, and what lessons they will draw from Washington’s approach. Thus far, the principal lesson may well be that drones can be extremely effective in killing your opponents, wherever they are, without risking your own troops and without sending soldiers or law enforcement personnel across another country’s borders. It seems less likely that others will adopt U.S.-style legal standards and oversight procedures, or that they will always ask other governments before sending drones into their airspace.

Based on their actions, it is almost as if Obama administration officials believe that the United States and its allies will have a long-term monopoly on drones. How else can one explain their exuberant confidence in launching drone attacks? However, the administration’s dramatic expansion in drone strikes—and their apparent effectiveness—will only further shorten Washington’s reign as the drone capital of the world by increasing the incentives to others eager to develop, refine or buy the technology.

Have Obama administration officials given any thought to what the world might look like when armed drones are more widespread and when Americans or U.S. allies and partners could become targets? To an outsider, there is little evidence of this kind of thinking in the administration’s use of drones.

This is a serious problem. According to an unclassified July 2012 report by the Government Accountability Office, at least 76 countries already have acquired unmanned aerial vehicles, known as UAVs or drones; the report also states that “countries of concern” are attempting to acquire advanced UAVs from foreign suppliers as well as seeking illegal access to U.S. technology. And a 2012 special report by the United Kingdom’s Guardian newspaper indicated that China has 10 or more models, though not all are armed. Other sources identify additional varieties in China. At least 50 countries are trying to build 900 different types of drones, the GAO writes.

More generally, the administration’s expanding use of drones is a powerful endorsement of not only the technology, but of the practice of targeted killing as an instrument of foreign and security policy. Having provided this powerful impetus, the United States should not be surprised if others—with differing legal standards and more creative efforts at self-justification—seize upon it once they have the necessary capabilities. According to the GAO, this is already happening—in government-speak, “while only a limited number of countries have fielded lethal or weaponized UAVs, this threat is anticipated to grow.” From this perspective, it is ironic that a president so critical of his predecessor’s unilateralism would practice it himself—particularly in a manner that other governments will find much easier to emulate than the Bush administration’s larger-scale use of force. How does the Obama administration plan to respond if and when China or Russia uses armed UAVs to attack groups they define as terrorists?

Fortunately, unless and until they become considerably cheaper, armed drones may remain primarily a weapon of states against other states or non-state actors like terrorists and drug lords. If this endures, states will just as reluctant to launch drones strikes on one another as to undertake any other kind of armed attack, and most non-state groups won’t be able to afford them. However, terrorists with ambitious and anti-American state-sponsors probably will gain access to armed drones before too long. But since one government’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter, U.S. lives and objectives could soon be threatened by drones.

The Obama administration’s heavy reliance on drone strikes is more than understandable. Frustrated by a long war in Afghanistan, eager to withdraw U.S. forces and to focus on domestic concerns, excited by a successful new capability—any leader would be sorely tempted to double-down on deadly drones. And the administration’s escalating use of drones may even prove to have been the right decision. But it would be much easier to be comfortable with the administration’s approach if it seemed like some real thought had gone into it. Regretfully, as in so many other areas of the administration’s foreign policy, it just doesn’t look that way.

Paul J. Saunders is executive director of the Center for the National Interest and associate publisher of The National Interest. He served in the State Department from 2003 to 2005.