All the President’s Drones: Obama’s Targeted-Killing Problem

April 20, 2015 Topic: Security Region: United States Tags: DronesPoliticsDefense

All the President’s Drones: Obama’s Targeted-Killing Problem

The White House’s secrecy regarding the U.S. drone program has not done it any favors. 


ALTHOUGH THE U.S. drone budget had been shrinking, current campaigns in Iraq and Syria and potential new uses elsewhere are likely to breathe new life into the drone program. The technology is already a key component of the United States’ defense and national-security strategy. The Pentagon’s fiscal year 2016 budget requested $2.9 billion for drones, of which nearly $1.2 billion was for research, development, testing and evaluation.

In a speech at the Reagan National Defense Forum in November 2014, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel introduced a new “Long-Range Research and Development Planning Program” that will emphasize research and development in the fields of robotics and autonomous systems, among others, which indicates an extended and potentially sustainable emphasis on the development of drone technology—a big boon to U.S. drone producers who had long complained that overly restrictive regulations were stifling U.S. competitiveness and innovation. The United States has begun to step up its investment in drone technology. At the same time, twenty-three countries have developed or are developing armed drones, according to a 2014 RAND Corporation report, and more than seventy countries have acquired drones of different classes and for different purposes.

The United Kingdom and Israel are the only countries besides the United States to have employed armed drones, but a number of European nations are seeking to develop such technology in order to better compete in the growing drone market. In 2013, seven European countries formed a “drone club” with the goal of developing a “European generation” of drones over the next ten years. And, according to a June 2014 Council on Foreign Relations report, advancements in technology will only make drones more readily accessible to governments and nonstate groups around the world.

The Teal Group Corporation estimates that the drone market will nearly double over the next ten years, increasing from the current $6.4 billion to $11.5 billion. Although the current market is made up of 89 percent military technology and 11 percent civil technology, it is estimated that these percentages will shift to 86 percent military and 14 percent commercial by 2024. Meanwhile, the lines between what is military and what is civilian will continue to blur.

With drone technology expected to proliferate widely in the next decade, it is increasingly important for the United States to establish a clear policy and responsible standards for use. The lack of clarity risks creating a precedent for use mired in secrecy and ambiguity that other countries will follow. As more countries develop and acquire drone technology, and as the technology continues to evolve, it is critical that the United States ensure that drones are used in ways that support, rather than undermine, U.S. interests.


THE DISCOURSE on drones is changing, at home and abroad. The technology itself is evolving in size, shape and form. The definition of the human role in deploying drones is also shifting as technological advances in automation and autonomy take place. And, in even more practical terms, the numbers of uses and users, both commercially and militarily, are increasing at a rapid pace. These changes are influencing discussions on policy and on the conduct of war more broadly. While it is important to make the distinction between the instrument and the nature of war itself, it sometimes appears as though the Obama administration and military officials see drone technology as a panacea for fighting modern wars.

The U.S. government sometimes seems conflicted about the efficacy of drones and targeted killings. A secret CIA report released by WikiLeaks in December 2014 highlights the tensions surrounding the U.S. drone program. The report says that targeted killings can “strengthen extremist groups and be counterproductive.” Although the targeting of high-value leaders can be effective in undermining organizational structures, it can also be responsible for “increasing violence and greater popular support for extremist groups.” The report, which was conducted by the CIA in 2009, highlights the fact that drone strikes “may increase support for the insurgents, particularly if these strikes enhance insurgent leaders’ lore, if noncombatants are killed in the attacks, if legitimate or semilegitimate politicians aligned with the insurgents are targeted, or if the government is already seen as overly repressive or violent.” However, the CIA study also says that drone strikes and targeted killings could be beneficial if they are “part of a broader counterinsurgency strategy that employs other military and nonmilitary counterinsurgency instruments.”

More rigorous study of the costs and benefits of U.S. drone use and the targeted-killing program in general is imperative. In June 2014, the Stimson Task Force on U.S. Drone Policy (for which I served as project director) released a report challenging the Obama administration to develop a comprehensive drone policy. It called on the administration to take short- and long-term steps that would provide clarity for the U.S. drone program. Although some of the recommendations require congressional action and further bureaucratic changes, there were several recommendations that can be addressed through executive order, which would allow the Obama drone legacy to be more than just a record number of strikes.

In the short term, the Obama administration should conduct a rigorous strategic review and cost-benefit analysis of lethal drone strikes, particularly in counterterrorism operations. No congressional approval for such a study would be necessary, and the results could help solidify a clear course for U.S. action. The U.S. government must also make tangible improvements to transparency efforts. Greater transparency has a twofold impact: it engenders public confidence domestically and can serve as a global confidence-building measure, and it improves oversight and accountability.

What would increased transparency look like in practice? First, the administration must provide a report that contains the domestic and international legal bases for the U.S. drone program. The administration’s public statements have not been sufficient in explaining the legal rationales. Transparency should also include the provision of historical data on U.S. strikes to allow for better understanding of how the drone program has been used. It could entail identifying the number of strikes in a given location, the number of casualties, the organizational affiliations of those killed, the identities and numbers of civilian casualties, and who conducted the strikes—all of which can be provided after the strikes have occurred, perhaps with a short delay for security reasons. Aggregate data, without specific details, could be provided as an interim measure.

Greater oversight and accountability can ensure that the U.S. drone program is conducted in compliance with U.S. and international law and also that it is indeed an effective tool in the conduct of U.S. military operations. It will be crucial to identify and implement a mechanism that can review strikes in real time and determine whether there have been errors or successes, and whether the strikes are achieving strategic goals. Transferring the responsibility for strikes from the CIA to the military will make oversight easier, but even for operations that must remain covert, a clear process must be incorporated to encourage evaluation of the drone program. Without oversight and accountability, the program cannot be systematically evaluated and adjusted. Moreover, greater clarity will help develop an effective and useful international precedent and foster the development of appropriate norms for drone use, particularly in settings outside of traditional battlefields.


THE OBAMA administration has less than two years to cement its legacy. It’s time to develop a long-term drone strategy that boosts understanding of and confidence in U.S. decision making and sets an example for other countries for their own drone programs. The United States must find a way to balance legal and ethical frameworks with national-security concerns and commercial innovation. Only a comprehensive U.S. policy that takes security, foreign-policy and commercial interests into account can turn around the negative international view of the technology and U.S. authority on the issue.

The Obama administration must be clear that drones are not a strategy in and of themselves, but rather a tactic in the service of what should be a larger, more clearly articulated strategy—whether for counterterrorism or for other military aims. A clear and convincing articulation of that strategy would illustrate the ways in which drones could be used to support America’s foreign-policy objectives. Anything short of that could jeopardize the very aims that the drone program seeks to further.

Rachel Stohl is a senior associate with the Managing Across Boundaries Initiative at the Stimson Center and was project director of Stimson’s Task Force on U.S. Drone Policy.