Last updated on: 2/1/2024 | 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 thousands of drones to kill suspected terrorists in PakistanAfghanistanYemenSomalia, and other countries. Read more history...

Pro & Con Arguments

Pro 1

Drone strikes make the United States safer.

Drone strikes in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia killed between 7,665 and 14,247 militants and alleged militants, including high-level commanders implicated in organizing plots against the United States between 2013 and 2020. [6] [7] [8] [9] [131]

According to President Obama, “[d]ozens 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, U.S. transit systems, European cities and our troops in Afghanistan. Simply put, these strikes have saved lives.” [10]

Beyond killing terrorists, that drones are remotely piloted saves American military lives. 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. The United States 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.” [18] [28]

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 U.S. and allied 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]

“[O]btaining armed drones leads to about six fewer terrorist attacks and 31 fewer deaths from terrorism annually. This translates to a 35 percent reduction in attacks and a 75 percent decrease in fatalities per year…. [T]here is indeed a compelling counterterrorism rationale for utilizing armed drones to enhance national security. Although armed drone operations can be costly — for example, by causing civilian casualties — our findings strengthen the case that the benefits exceed the costs,” say Joshua A. Schwartz, postdoctoral fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Harvard Kennedy School, Matthew Fuhrmann, professor of Political Science at Texas A&M University, and Michael C. Horowitz, Richard Perry Professor at the University of Pennsylvania. [165] [166]

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Pro 2

Drone strikes keep other countries safer.

U.S. 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.

Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia have officially consented to U.S. drone strikes within their countries because they are unable to control terrorist groups within their own borders. [26]

On Aug. 21, 2020, for example, acting in cooperation with the Somali National Army, a U.S. drone strike killed a “high-ranking” al-Shabab bomb and IED maker. [144]

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 U.S. officials for more drone strikes, and in Apr. 2013 former Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf acknowledged to CNN that his government had secretly signed off on US drone strikes. [35] [36]

In Pakistan, where the vast majority of drone strikes are carried out, drones contributed to a major decrease in violence. The 41 suicide attacks in Pakistan in 2011 were down from a record high of 87 in 2009, which coincided with an over ten-fold increase in the number of drone strikes. [37]

After the Jan. 2020 strike that killed Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Major General Soleimani in Iran, President Donald Trump stated, “Soleimani has been perpetrating acts of terror to destabilize the Middle East for the last 20 years… Just recently, Soleimani led the brutal repression of protesters in Iran, where more than a thousand innocent civilians were tortured and killed by their own government… The future belongs to the people of Iran — those who seek peaceful coexistence and cooperation — not the terrorist warlords who plunder their nation to finance bloodshed abroad.” [145]

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Pro 3

Drones limit the scope, scale, and casualties of military action.

Invading Pakistan, Yemen, or Somalia with boots on the ground to capture relatively small terrorist groups would lead to expensive conflict, responsibility for destabilizing the governments of those countries, large numbers of civilian casualties, empowerment of enemies who view the United States as an occupying imperialist power, and U.S. military deaths, among other 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, lives, and other political consequences. [142] [143]

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. 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 would pose serious risks to U.S. troops including firefights with surrounding tribal communities, anti-aircraft shelling, land mines, improvised explosive devices (IEDs), suicide bombers, snipers, dangerous weather conditions, and harsh environments. [10] [18]

Further, 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]

The traditional weapons of war – bombs, shells, mines, mortars – cause more collateral (unintended) damage to people and property than drones, whose accuracy and technical precision mostly limit casualties to combatants and intended targets. Civilians account for just 7% to 15% of those killed by drones in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen between 2013 and 2020. In the Korean, Vietnam, and Balkan Wars, civilian deaths accounted for approximately 70%, 31%, and 45% of deaths respectively. Civilian deaths in World War II are estimated to be 40% to 67% of total war deaths. [13] [14] [15] [16] [17] [131]

Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates states, “You can far more easily limit collateral damage with a drone than you can with a bomb, even a precision-guided munition, off an airplane.” And former CIA Director Leon Panetta and former State Department Legal Advisor Harold Hongju Koh concur, both using the word “precise” to describe drone strikes. [149] [150] [151] [152]

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Con 1

Drone strikes create more terrorists while terrorizing civilians.

“Growing evidence, including by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), suggests a troubling trend: RPA strikes seem to be encouraging terrorism and increasing support for local violent extremist organizations. This seems to especially be the case in the absence of supporting narratives and perceived legitimacy, wherein terrorist and extremist groups can exploit civilian deaths to further their propaganda and recruitment efforts. For example, research from Pakistan published in 2019 shows that drone strikes ‘are suggested to encourage terrorism’ and ‘to increase anti-US sentiment and radicalization,’ Similarly, one 2020 study found that terrorists were more likely to increase their attacks in the months after a deadly drone strike. Put more bluntly, RPA strikes ‘radicalize civilians faster than they kill terrorists,’” say Erol Yaybokeand Christopher Reid, both of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. [167]

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, according to Reuters. 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.” [59] [60]

Killing low-level terrorists and civilians, creates more terrorists. Abdulghani Al-Iryani, senior researcher at the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies, noted many militants operating in Yemen are “people who are aggrieved by attacks on their homes that forced them to go out and fight.” While Abdulrasheed Al-Faqih, Executive Director of Mwatana Organization for Human Rights, explained, “Incidents of civilian harm in Yemen continue to negatively affect the reputation of the United States in the country and push local communities to consider violence and revenge as the only solution to the harm they suffer.” [49] [146]

General Stanley McChrystal, former leader of the U.S. 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]

Further, innocent civilians are terrorized by the drones. 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.” Clive Stafford Smith, Director of Reprieve, a human rights organization, elaborates, “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.” [49] [58]

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Con 2

Drone strikes violate human rights and nations’ sovereignty.

The Human Rights Clinic at Columbia Law School explains, “While interrogation and detention, as recent history shows all too well, carry their own risks of human rights abuses, these non-lethal approaches at least provide the opportunity for an assessment of whether targeted individuals in fact pose a threat to U.S. interests—an opportunity taken off the table by drone strikes.” Drone strikes, however, are secretive, lack sufficient legal oversight, and prevent citizens from holding their leaders accountable. [153]

The United States frequently calls drone strikes “targeted killings,” which are, as Charli Carpenter, professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, explains, “the extrajudicial execution of nonstate political adversaries,” or political assassination, which is “taboo in war,” banned by the 1907 Hague Convention and the 1998 Rome Statute, and is a “violation of the human right to life enshrined in Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.” [154]

The strikes are especially problematic outside of declared war, when even terrorists must be arrested, tried, and convicted of a capital crime before being killed. [154]

Strikes are also often carried out without the permission and against the objection of the target countries. Iraq Parliament Speaker Mohammed al-Halboosi called the Jan. 2020 strike that killed Iranian Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani “a flagrant violation of sovereignty, and a violation of international conventions… Any security and military operation on Iraqi territory must have the approval of the government.” [155]

Pakistan’s foreign ministry called drone strikes “illegal” and said they violated the country’s sovereignty. 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.” [70] [71]

United Nations officials have called U.S. drone strikes a violation of sovereignty, and have pressed for investigations into the legality of the attacks. [72] [73] [74]

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Con 3

Drone strikes inflict psychological damage on drone pilots.

“As war becomes safer and easier, as soldiers are removed from the horrors of war and see the enemy not as humans but as blips on a screen, there is a very real danger of losing the deterrent that such horrors provide,” according to D. Keith Shurtleff, an Army chaplain at Fort Jackson. Without this deterrent, it becomes easier for soldiers to kill via a process called “doubling,” in which “otherwise nice and normal people create psychic doubles that carry out sometimes terrible acts their normal identity never would.” [157]

Journalist Elisabeth Bumiller describes drone pilots as “fighting a telewar with a joystick and a throttle from his padded seat in American suburbia” thousands of miles away from the battlefield, then driving home to help with homework. [76]

“What has not been widely understood is that the close-up views of the people they observe, and sometimes kill, place military drone operators in a distance paradox. They are physically far away but visually, emotionally and psychologically intimate. Increasingly high definition live video imagery – say, of a prisoner being beheaded – magnifies this intimacy. The impact of the powerlessness to intervene or help in those situations is profound,” explains Peter Lee, professor of applied ethics at the University of Portsmouth. [170]

Piloting a drone is “more intense,” says Neal Scheuneman, a former Air Force drone sensor operator. “A fighter jet might see a target for 20 minutes. We had to watch a target for days, weeks and even months. We saw him play with his kids. We saw him interact with his family. We watched his whole life unfold. You are remote but also very much connected. Then one day, when all parameters are met, you kill him. Then you watch the death. You see the remorse and the burial. People often think that this job is going to be like a video game, and I have to warn them, there is no reset button.” And yet, because they are not combat troops, drone pilots rarely had the same recovery periods or mental-health screenings other troops must complete. [168]

A study from the Department of Neuropsychiatry at the U.S. Air Force’s School of Aerospace Medicine 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. Several studies have found that drone operators experience psychiatric distress at rates higher than pilots of manned aircraft. [46] [169]

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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. Between Nov. 1944 and Apr. 1945, Japan released more than 9,000 bomb-laden balloons across the Pacific, intending to cause forest fires and panic in the western United States in operation “Fu-Go.” Because the US government, in concert with the American press, kept the balloons a secret, the Japanese believed the tactic ineffective and abandoned the project. [87] [88]
3. The first drone strike in Afghanistan, piloted by Air Force operators controlled by CIA analysts, happened on Oct. 7, 2001, a failed attempt to kill Taliban Supreme Commander Mullah Mohammed Omar. [129] [130]
4. The first known killing by armed drones occurred in Nov. 2001, when a Predator killed Muhammad Atef, al Qaeda’s military commander. [129] [130]
5. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, there have been at least 14,040 confirmed strikes between Jan. 2002 and Jan. 2019. Between 8,858 and 16,901 people have been killed, including 910 to 2,200 civilians, and 283 to 454 civilians. [131]


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