Last updated on: 5/1/2017 | Author:

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), otherwise known as drones, are remotely-controlled aircraft which may be armed with missiles and bombs for attack missions. Since the World Trade Center attacks on Sep. 11, 2001 and the subsequent “War on Terror,” the United States has used drones to kill suspected terrorists in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, and other countries.

Proponents say that drones have decimated terrorist networks abroad via precise strikes with minimal civilian casualties. They contend that drones are relatively inexpensive weapons, are used under proper government oversight, and that their use helps prevent “boots on the ground” combat and makes America safer.

Opponents say that drone strikes create more terrorists than they kill. They contend that drone strikes kill large numbers of civilians, violate international law, lack sufficient congressional oversight, violate the sovereignty of other nations, and make the horrors of war appear as innocuous as a video game. Read more background…


Pro & Con Arguments

Pro 1

Drone strikes make the United States safer by decimating terrorist networks across the world.

Drone attacks in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia have killed upwards of 3,500 militants, including dozens of high-level commanders implicated in organizing plots against the United States. [6] [7] [8] [9] According to President Obama, “dozens of highly skilled al Qaeda commanders, trainers, bomb makers and operatives have been taken off the battlefield. 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.” [10] David Rohde, a former New York Times reporter held hostage by the Taliban in Pakistan for several months in 2009, called the drones a “terrifying presence” for militants. [11] On Nov. 1, 2013 drone strikes killed Pakistani Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud. [12]

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Pro 2

Drones kill fewer civilians, as a percentage of total fatalities, than any other military weapon.

The traditional weapons of war – bombs, shells, mines, mortars – cause more unintended (“collateral”) damage to people and property than drones, whose accuracy and technical precision mostly limit casualties to combatants and intended targets. [13] Although estimates vary because of the secretive nature of the program, it is estimated that 174 to 1,047 civilians have been killed in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia since the United States began conducting drone strikes abroad following the Sep. 11, 2001 attacks, roughly 8-17% of all deaths from US drones. [5] [6] [7] [8] [9] In comparison, in World War II, civilian deaths, as a percentage of total war fatalities, are estimated at 40 to 67%. [13] [14] In the Korean, [15] Vietnam, [16] and Balkan Wars, [17] the percentages are approximately 70%, 31%, and 45% respectively.

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Pro 3

Drones make US military personnel safer.

Drones are launched from bases in allied countries and are operated remotely by pilots in the United States, minimizing the risk of injury and death that would occur if ground soldiers and airplane pilots were used instead. [18] Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and their affiliates often operate in distant and environmentally unforgiving locations where it would be extremely dangerous for the United States to deploy teams of special forces to track and capture terrorists. Such pursuits may pose serious risks to US troops including firefights with surrounding tribal communities, anti-aircraft shelling, land mines, improvised explosive devices (IEDs), suicide bombers, snipers, dangerous weather conditions, harsh environments, etc. Drone strikes eliminate all of those risks common to “boots on the ground” missions. [10]

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Pro 4

Drone strikes are cheaper than engaging in ground or manned aerial combat.

With approximately $5 billion allocated for drones in the 2012 Department of Defense budget, [19] America’s entire drone program constitutes only about 1% of the entire annual military budget. [20] In comparison, the military’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program alone cost the United States $9.7 billion in fiscal year 2012. [21] US manned military attack aircraft cost anywhere from $18,000 to $169,000 per hour to operate – six to 42 times more than attack drones. [22] Al Qaeda spent roughly half a million dollars to plan and execute the attacks on the United States on Sep. 11, 2001. [23] In response, the United States spent roughly $2.2 trillion on funding manned air and ground wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and on homeland security costs in the following decade – over $4 million for every dollar al Qaeda spent. [23]

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Pro 5

Drone strikes are legal under international law.

Article 51 of the UN Charter provides for a nation’s inherent right to self-defense when it has been attacked. [24] The UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions has said that Article 51 applies if the targeted state agrees to the use of force in its territory, or the targeted group operating within its territory was responsible for an act of aggression against the targeting state where the host state is unwilling or unable to control the threat themselves. [25] Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia have officially consented to US drone strikes within their countries because they are unable to control terrorist groups within their own borders. [26] Former US State Department Legal Adviser and current Yale Professor of International Law Harold Koh says that a state engaged in an “armed conflict or in legitimate self-defense” is not required to provide targets with legal processing before using lethal force, and a country may target individuals in foreign countries if they are directly participating in hostilities or posing an imminent threat that only lethal force can prevent. [27] The United States also has the right under international law to “anticipatory self-defense,” which gives the right to use force against a real and imminent threat when the necessity of that self-defense is “instant, overwhelming, and leaving no choice of means, and no moment of deliberation.” [28]

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Pro 6

Drone strikes are legal under US law.

Presidential powers under Article II of the US Constitution allow the use of force against an imminent threat without congressional approval. [29] Additionally, in 2001 Congress passed the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), authorizing armed conflict with al Qaeda and associated forces indefinitely. [30] The AUMF states that the President is “authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.” [31] The AUMF does not have a geographic boundary, and the Obama administration notes that al Qaeda militants far from the battlefield in Afghanistan are still engaged in armed conflict with the United States and therefore covered under the law. [32]

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Pro 7

Drones limit the scope and scale of military action.

Since the 9/11 attacks, the main threats to US security are decentralized terrorist networks operating in countries around the world, not large countries fighting with massive air, ground, and sea armies. Invading Pakistan, Yemen, or Somalia to capture relatively small terrorist groups would lead the United States to expensive conflict, responsibility for destabilizing those governments, large numbers of civilian casualties, empowerment of enemies who view the United States as an occupying imperialist power, US military deaths, and other unintended consequences. America’s attempt to destroy al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan by invading and occupying the country resulted in a war that has dragged on for over 12 years. Using drone strikes against terrorists abroad allows the United States to achieve its goals at a fraction of the cost of an invasion in money, manpower, and lives.

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Pro 8

Drone strikes are subject to a strict review process and congressional oversight.

President Obama, in his “Presidential Policy Guidance” released on May 23, 2013, established five criteria that must be met before lethal action may be taken against a foreign target: “1) Near certainty that the terrorist target is present; 2) Near certainty that non-combatants will not be injured or killed; 3) An assessment that capture is not feasible at the time of the operation; 4) An assessment that the relevant governmental authorities in the country where action is contemplated cannot or will not effectively address the threat to U.S. persons; and 5) An assessment that no other reasonable alternatives exist to effectively address the threat to U.S. persons.” [33] Intelligence committees and “appropriate” members of Congress are briefed on every strike that America takes. [33] Months before the targeting of American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen, the Obama administration submitted information for comment to the Department of Justice, which conducted additional analysis to ensure that the action was consistent with US laws. [10]

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Pro 9

Drone strikes are carried out with the collaboration and encouragement of local governments, and make those countries safer.

US drone strikes help countries fight terrorist threats to their own domestic peace and stability, including al Qaeda and the Taliban in Pakistan, al Shabaab in Somalia, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen, and al Qaeda in the Maghreb in Algeria and Mali. Yemen’s President, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, has openly praised drone strikes in his country, stating that the “electronic brain’s precision is unmatched by the human brain.” [34] In a 2008 State Department cable made public by Wikileaks, Pakistani Chief of Army Staff General Ashfaq Kayani asked US officials for more drone strikes, [35] and in Apr. 2013 former Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf acknowledged to CNN that his government had secretly signed off on US drone strikes. [36] In Pakistan, where the vast majority of drone strikes are carried out, drones have contributed to a major decrease in violence. The 41 suicide attacks in Pakistan in 2011 were down from 49 in 2010 and a record high of 87 in 2009, which coincided with an over ten-fold increase in the number of drone strikes. [37]

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Pro 10

The United States cannot risk falling behind the rest of the world in the development of drone technologies.

More than 87 countries own some type of surveillance or attack drone, changing the way nations conduct war and threatening to begin a new arms race as governments scramble to counterbalance their adversaries. [38] In 2010 Iran unveiled what it claimed was its first armed drone, [39] and China unveiled 25 drone models. [40] In 2011 there were 680 active drone development programs run by governments, companies, and research institutes around the world, compared with 195 in 2005. [41] [41] The Teal Group, a defense-consulting firm, estimated in June 2013 that the global market for the research, development, and procurement of armed drones would nearly double over the next decade from $5.2 billion annually to $11.6 billion. [43] Insurgent groups are also moving to acquire this technology; in 2011, Libyan opposition forces bought a drone during their attempt to overthrow dictator Moammar Gadhafi [44] and Lebanese militant group Hezbollah claimed in 2012 that it flew an Iranian-made drone over Israel. [45]

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Pro 11

Drone pilots have a lower risk for post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) than pilots of manned aircraft and other battlefield soldiers.

Drone pilots suffer less than traditional pilots because they do not have to be directly present on the battlefield, can live a normal civilian life in the United States, and do not risk death or serious injury. Only 4% of active-duty drone pilots are at “high risk for PTSD” compared to the 12-17% of soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. [46]

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Pro 12

The majority of Americans support drone strikes.

According to a July 18, 2013 survey by Pew Research, 61% of Americans supported drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. [2] Support spanned the political divide, including Republicans (69%), independents (60%), and Democrats (59%). [2] A Mar. 20, 2013 poll by the Gallup organization found that 65% of Americans believed the US government should “use drones to launch airstrikes in other countries against suspected terrorists” and 74% of Americans who “very” or “somewhat” closely follow news stories about drones supported the attacks. [47] A May 28, 2013 Christian Science Monitor/TIPP poll found that 57% of Americans supported drone strikes targeting “al Qaeda targets and other terrorists in foreign countries.” [48]

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Con 1

Drone strikes create more terrorists than they kill.

People who see their loved ones injured or killed in drone attacks become motivated to join actions against the United States. According to author Jeremy Scahill, the vast majority of militants operating in Yemen today are “people who are aggrieved by attacks on their homes that forced them to go out and fight.” [48] Support for al Qaeda in Yemen is “indigenously spreading and merging with the mounting rage of powerful tribes at US counterterrorism policy” as the drone strikes have “recruited thousands.” [49] The number of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) core members grew from 300 in 2009 (when US drone strikes resumed after a seven-year hiatus) to 700 in 2012, resulting in an exponential increase in the number of terrorist attacks in the region. [50] Both the “Underwear Bomber,” who tried to blow up an American airliner in 2009, [51] and the “Times Square Bomber,” who tried to set off a car bomb in New York City in 2010, [52] cited drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia as motivators for the plots.

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Con 2

Drone strikes target individuals who may not be terrorists or enemy combatants.

President Obama’s policy of “signature strikes” allows the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the military’s Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) to target anyone who fits a specific terrorist profile or engages in behavior the US government associates with terrorists, regardless of whether or not they have been conclusively identified by name as enemy combatants. [53] Classified documents leaked in Oct. 2015 showed that in one five-month period of drone strikes in Afghanistan, as many as 90 percent of those killed were not the intended targets, and that those unintended deaths were classified as “enemies killed in action” regardless of whether they were civilians or combatants. [120] At the height of the drone program in Pakistan in 2009 and 2010, as many as half of the strikes were classified as signature strikes. [54] According to top-secret intelligence reports reviewed by McClatchy Newspapers, drone operators are not always certain of who they are killing “despite the administration’s guarantees of the accuracy of the CIA’s targeting intelligence.” [55] The CIA and JSOC target “associated forces,” “foreign fighters,” “suspected extremists,” and “other militants,” but do not publicly reveal whether those killed are actively involved in terrorism against the United States. [56] In two sets of classified documents obtained by NBC News describing 114 drone strikes in Pakistan and Afghanistan between Sep. 3, 2010 and Oct. 30, 2011, 26 strikes targeted “other militants,” meaning that the CIA could not conclusively determine the affiliation of those killed. [54]

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Con 3

Drone strikes kill large numbers of civilians and traumatize local populations.

According to a meta-study of drone strikes, between 8 to 17% of all people killed in drone strikes are civilians. [5] Since the United States began conducting drone strikes abroad following the Sep. 11, 2001 attacks, it is estimated that between 174 and 1,047 civilians have been killed in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. [6] [7] [8] [9] According to 130 interviews with victims and witnesses of drone strikes by researchers from Stanford and New York University, people who live in the affected areas experience harm “beyond death and physical injury” and “hear drones hover 24 hours a day,” and live with the fear that a strike could occur at any moment of the day or night. [57] According to Clive Stafford Smith, Director of human rights organization Reprieve, “an entire region is being terrorized by the constant threat of death from the skies. Their way of life is collapsing: kids are too terrified to go to school, adults are afraid to attend weddings, funerals, business meetings, or anything that involves gathering in groups.” [58] Yemeni tribal sheik Mullah Zabara says “we consider the drones terrorism. The drones are flying day and night, frightening women and children, disturbing sleeping people. This is terrorism.” [49]

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Con 4

Drone strikes mostly kill low-value targets who are not significant threats to US safety and security.

Drones kill very few “high-value” targets with alleged leadership roles in al Qaeda or anti-US Taliban factions. [57] Reuters reported that of the 500 “militants” the CIA believed it had killed with drones between 2008 and 2010, only 14 were “top-tier militant targets,” and 25 were “mid-to-high-level organizers” of al Qaeda, the Taliban, or other hostile groups. [59] The CIA had killed around 12 times more low-level fighters than mid-to-high-level during that same period. [59] According to the New America Foundation, from 2004 to 2012 an estimated 49 “militant leaders” were killed in drone strikes, constituting “2% of all drone-related fatalities.” [60]

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Con 5

Drone strikes violate international law.

Under international humanitarian law, the targeted individual must be directly participating in hostilities with the United States. [57] Under international human rights law, the targeted individual must pose an imminent threat that only lethal force can prevent. [57] Simply being suspected of some connection to a “militant” organization — or, under the CIA’s policy of “signature” drone strikes, fitting the profile of a terrorist in an area where terrorists are known to operate – is not legally sufficient to make someone a permissible target for killing. [63] Article 6(1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a multilateral treaty adopted by the United Nations, states that “no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life,” even in times of armed conflict. [61] Article 2(4) of the UN Charter prohibits the threat or use of force by one state against another, [64] with the exceptions of (1) the consent of the host state, [65] and (2) when the use of force is in self-defense in response to an armed attack or an imminent threat, where the host state is unwilling or unable to take appropriate action. [25] Members of militant groups with which the United States is not in an armed conflict are therefore not lawful targets. [62] Amnesty International says drone strikes can be classified as “war crimes” or illegal “extrajudicial executions.” [66]

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Con 6

Drone strikes are secretive, lack sufficient legal oversight, and prevent citizens from holding their leaders accountable.

Drones are used in conflicts where war is not openly declared and authorized by Congress, allowing the executive branch to have nearly unlimited power over secret wars across the world. Strikes by the CIA (responsible for approximately 80% of all US drone strikes worldwide) are classified under US law as Title 50 covert actions, defined as “activities of the United States Government… where it is intended that the role… will not be apparent or acknowledged publicly.” [67] As covert operations, the government cannot legally provide any information about how the CIA conducts targeted killings. [67] The CIA has yet to officially acknowledge its drone programs anywhere in the world, [66] let alone describe the rules and procedures for compliance with US and international law. [66] The administration only gives drone program details to members of Congress whom it deems “appropriate,” [33] and it has sought to prevent judicial review of claims brought in US courts by human rights groups seeking accountability for potentially unlawful killings. [69]

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Con 7

Drone strikes violate the sovereignty of other countries.

Strikes are often carried out without the permission and against the objection of the target countries. Pakistan’s foreign ministry on June 4, 2012 called drone strikes “illegal” and said they violated the country’s sovereignty. [70] On Oct. 22, 2013, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said that the “use of drones is not only a continued violation of our territorial integrity but also detrimental to our resolve at efforts in eliminating terrorism from our country… I would therefore stress the need for an end to drone attacks.” [71] The United Nations’ Human Rights Chief, [72] Special Rapporteur on counter-terrorism and human rights, [73] and Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions [74] have all called US drone strikes a violation of sovereignty, and have pressed for investigations into the legality of the attacks. In a July 18, 2013, 39-country survey by Pew Research, only six countries approved of US drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. [2]

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Con 8

Drone strikes allow the United States to become emotionally disconnected from the horrors of war.

According to Keith Shurtleff, US army chaplain and ethics instructor, as soldiers are “physically and psychologically removed from the horrors of battle and see the enemy not as humans but as blips on a screen, there is a danger of losing the deterrent to war that its horrors normally provide.” [75] Without this deterrent, it becomes easier for the United States to start new battles and extend existing conflicts indefinitely. Drone pilot Colonel D. Scott Brenton, in a July 29, 2012 interview with the New York Times, acknowledged the disconnect of fighting a “telewar with a joystick and a throttle” thousands of miles away from the battlefield, then driving home to have dinner with his family. “I feel no emotional attachment to the enemy,” he said. “I have a duty, and I execute the duty. No one in my immediate environment is aware of anything that occurred.” [76] According to Representative Lynn Woolsey (D-CA), it’s “such a trend to dehumanize warfare. It’s machines and computers doing the job… [but this] is not video games, these are real people and it’s real death and we’re making real enemies around the world by continuing with the drone strikes.” [77]

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Con 9

US drone strikes give cover for other countries to engage in human rights abuses.

America’s use of drones in foreign countries makes it all but impossible to demand that other countries self-impose limitations on their own drone use. Just as the United States justifies its drone strikes with the argument that it is at war with al Qaeda and its affiliates, drone strikes may be used by other countries to target what they consider terrorists and what Americans would consider as cover for human rights abuses against non-combatants. [11] China could justify drone strikes against Tibetan separatists in India, Russia could justify attacks against rebels in Chechnya, or Turkey could target Kurdish insurgents in Iraq. Philip Alston, former UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, said that an “arms race” spurred by the widespread use of drones by the US government is already well under way. [78]

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Con 10

Drone strikes are extremely unpopular in the affected countries.

General Stanley McChrystal, former leader of the US military in Afghanistan, says that the “resentment created by American use of unmanned strikes… is much greater than the average American appreciates. They are hated on a visceral level, even by people who’ve never seen one or seen the effects of one.” [79] 76% of residents in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of northwestern Pakistan (where 96% of drone strikes in the country are carried out) oppose American drone strikes. [80] 16% think these strikes accurately target militants and 48% think they largely kill civilians. [81] Only 17% of Pakistanis back American drone strikes against leaders of extremist groups, even if they are conducted in conjunction with the Pakistani government. [82] On three separate occasions, Pakistan’s Parliament has voted to condemn the attacks and end the country’s cooperation with the CIA, [83] and leaders in the FATA voted on Nov. 4, 2013 to block NATO supply lines unless the United States stops its drone strikes. [84] On Dec. 16, 2013, Yemen’s parliament passed a motion calling for the United States to end its drone program in the country after a wedding convoy of 11 to 15 people were killed by a US drone strike. [85]

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Con 11

Many drone operators have emotional and psychological stress.

A study from the US Air Force’s School of Aerospace Medicine, Department of Neuropsychiatry, found that drone pilots, in addition to witnessing traumatic combat experiences, face several unique problems: lack of a clear demarcation between combat and personal/family life; extremely long hours with monotonous work and low staffing; “existential conflict” brought on by the guilt and remorse over being an “aerial sniper”; and social isolation during work, which could diminish unit cohesion and increase susceptibility to PTSD. [46] According to a study of 709 drone pilots by the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center, approximately 8.2% reported at least one adverse mental health outcome, most commonly disorders related to adjusting to re-entry into civilian society, depression, and relationship problems. [86]

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Did You Know?
1. The first recorded use of attack drones occurred on July 15, 1849 when the Habsburg Austrian Empire launched 200 pilotless balloons armed with bombs against the revolution-minded citizens of Venice. [1]
2. According to a July 18, 2013 survey, 61% of Americans supported drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. Support spanned the political divide, including Republicans (69%), independents (60%), and Democrats (59%). [2]
3. The first targeted drone strike by the United States occurred on Feb. 4, 2002 in Afghanistan when a CIA Predator drone fired on a group they believed included Osama bin Laden. The targets, all killed, were civilians gathering scrap metal.[3]
4. The most common drone used for attack purposes, General Atomics' MQ-9 Reaper, has a range of 3,682 miles, an operational altitude of 50,000 ft, and a maximum flight time of 27 hours. [ [4]
5. Civilians accounted for 8-17% of all deaths from US drones in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. [5] [6] [7] [8] [9]


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