Last updated on: 10/29/2020 | 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 Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, and other countries.

Proponents state that drones strikes help prevent “boots on the ground” combat and makes America safer, that the strikes are legal under American and international law, and that they are carried out with the support of Americans and foreign governments

Opponents state that drone strikes kill civilians, creating more terrorists than they kill and sowing animosity in foreign countries, that the strikes are extrajudicial and illegal, and create a dangerous disconnect between the horrors of war and soldiers carrying out the strikes.

Pro & Con Arguments

Pro 1

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

Drone strikes in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia have killed between 7,665 and 14,247 militants and alleged militants, including high-level commanders implicated in organizing plots against the United States. [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 US 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. [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 2

Drone strikes are legal under American and international 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]

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]

Harold Hongju Koh, JD, Professor of International Law at Yale University and former US State Department Legal Adviser explained, “a state that is engaged in an armed conflict or in legitimate self-defense is not required to provide targets with legal process before the state may use 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 3

Americans support drone strikes.

A Jan. 23, 2020 poll, after the Jan. 3 drone strikes that killed Iranian Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani, found that 35% of Americans agree that drone strikes are a “very effective way to achieve US foreign policy,” an increase from 23% in 2015. Fewer people believe signing international agreements (29%), sanctions (23%), or military intervention (17%) are very effective. [140] Meanwhile ,47% supported President Trump’s decision to order the strikes that killed Soleimani and others. [141]

According to a July 18, 2013 survey by Pew Research, 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]

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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Pro 4

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.

On Aug. 21, 2020, for example, acting in cooperation with the Somali National Army, a US 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 US 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 protestors 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 5

Drones limit the scope, scale, and casualties of military action, keeping the US military and civilians in other countries safer.

Invading Pakistan, Yemen, or Somalia with boots on the ground to capture relatively small terrorist groups would lead 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, 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, and lives. [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. [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. [10] 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]

Drones also have lower civilian casualties than “boots on the ground” missions. Between 1,193 and 2,654 civilians have died in drone strikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen, or between 7% and 15% of the those killed by drones . [131] By contrast, about 335,000 total civilians have been killed violently in the War on Terror in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Syrian, and Yemen. [139] 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. [13] Civilian deaths in World War II are estimated at 40 to 67% of total war deaths. [13] [14] In the Korean, Vietnam, and Balkan Wars, civilian deaths accounted for approximately 70%, 31%, and 45% of deaths respectively. [15] [16] [17]

Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, PhD, stated, “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.” Former CIA Director Leon Panetta, JD, concurred, ““I think this is one of the most precise weapons that we have in our arsenal.” And Former State Department Legal Advisor Harold Hongju Koh, JD, agreed that drones “have helped to make our targeting even more precise.” [149] [150] [151] [152]

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Con 1

Drone strikes mostly kill low-value targets and create more terrorists.

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]

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.” [49] 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.” [146]

The number of Al Qaeda core members in the Arabian Peninsula grew from no more than 300 in 2009 when drone strikes resumed to at least 700 in 2012, resulting in an increase in terrorist attacks in the region. [50] Both the “Underwear Bomber,” who tried to blow up an American airliner in 2009, and the “Times Square Bomber,” who tried to set off a car bomb in New York City in 2010, cited drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia as motivators for the plots. [51] [52] David Rohde, who was held captive by the Taliban for eight months, stated, “the Taliban were able to garner recruits in their aftermath by exaggerating the number of civilian casualties.” [147]

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Con 2

Drone strikes terrorize and kill civilians.

A Pakistani man stated, “When [children] hear the drones, they get really scared, and they can hear them all the time so they’re always fearful that the drone is going to attack them. Because of the noise, we’re psychologically disturbed — women, men, and children… Twenty-four hours, [a] person is in stress and there is pain in his head.” [148] Yemeni tribal sheik Mullah Zabara said, “we consider the drones terrorism. The drones are flying day and night, frightening women and children, disturbing sleeping people. This is terrorism.” [49]

Clive Stafford Smith, Director of Reprieve, a human rights organization, stated, “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]

According to Micah Zenko, PhD, political scientist, and Amelia May Wolf, research associate in the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations, “drones are far less precise than airstrikes conducted by piloted aircraft, which themselves also conduct ‘precision strikes.’ Drones result in far more civilian fatalities per each bomb dropped.” [149]

President Obama’s policy of “signature strikes” allowed 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 they have been conclusively identified 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% 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, 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 the people killed are actively involved in terrorism against the United States. [56] In two sets of classified documents obtained by NBC News, 26 of 114 drone strikes in Pakistan and Afghanistan between Sep. 3, 2010 and Oct. 30, 2011, targeted “other militants,” meaning that the CIA could not conclusively determine the affiliation of those killed. [54]

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Con 3

Secretive drone strikes amount to extrajudicial assassination and violate human rights.

Drone strikes are secretive, lack sufficient legal oversight, and prevent citizens from holding their leaders accountable. Drone strikes often skip steps taken by boots on the ground approaches. 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.” [153]

The United States frequently calls drone strikes “targeted killings,” a term that does not have a definition in international law. Charli Carpenter, PhD, Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, explained, “The term was originally coined by a human rights organization to distinguish El Salvador death squads’ assassination of individuals from the squads’ wider indiscriminate killings of civilians. Both acts, Americas Watch correctly argued, violated human rights standards as well as the international laws surrounding war.” Thus, “targeted killings” are, Carpenter explained, “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]

UN Rapporteur on Extra-Judicial Executions Agnès Callamard tweeted in response to a Jan. 2020 drone strike, “The targeted killings of Qasem Soleimani and Abu mahdi al muhandi most likely violate international law incl human rights law. Lawful justifications for such killings are very narrowly defined and it is hard to imagine how any of these can apply to these killings.” [156]

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

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Con 4

Drone strikes violate the sovereignty of other countries and are extremely unpopular in the affected countries.

Strikes are 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. [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, Special Rapporteur on counter-terrorism and human rights, and Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions have all called US drone strikes a violation of sovereignty, and have pressed for investigations into the legality of the attacks. [72] [73] [74] 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]

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] 48% think the strikes 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 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 5

Drone strikes allow an emotional disconnect from the horrors of war and inflict psychological stress on drone operators.

According to D. Keith Shurtleff, an Army chaplain and the ethics instructor for the Soldier Support Institute at Fort Jackson, stated, “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.” Without this deterrent, it becomes easier for soldiers to kill via a process called “doubling,” in which “[o]therwise nice and normal people create psychic doubles that carry out sometimes terrible acts their normal identity never would.” [157]

Drone pilot Colonel D. Scott Brenton, in a July 29, 2012 interview with the New York Times, acknowledged the disconnect of what journalist Elisabeth Bumiller described 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. “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]

A study from the Department of Neuropsychiatry at the US 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. [46]

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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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