Drones and Their Effect in Modern Warfare

By Cameron Shonnard

As the war on terror has grown larger, new means of warfare have continued to be developed by the United States military and the government agencies it works with (predominately the CIA) in order to best protect the development of democracy in foreign nations. Through their actions of attacking and fighting to take control of its opposers, terrorists have successfully halted the United States from instilling democratic ideals in the governments of the foreign nations it is involved with (Afghanistan, Iraq, etc.). In committing these acts of rebellion against democratic ideals, terrorist groups have not only destabilized the democracy of other nations but the democracy of the United States itself. After the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, Al Qaeda caused the U.S. to use means of war that went against our democratic ideals (including invading a sovereign nation, using torture as a method to gain information, and going against war laws that our government set forth to follow). The United States entered the war on the mitigation that we were fighting against the “war on terror”.

As we began fighting in the war, the need for the development of new technologies skyrocketed. Although UAVs (commonly referred to as drones) were present before the war, the need to modify them was seen as a priority for the US military. As stated in How the Predator Drone Changed the Character of War, “It was a Predator mission that located Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan in 2000. But efforts to act on that intelligence were frustrated by the complexities of launching a raid and by concerns about the risks to U.S. troops and civilians. In exasperation, national security officials began asking: Why can’t we put a missile on a drone?” When UAV use first began, public knowledge of these machines were very limited because they weren’t a widely used object at the time. These beginning drones, called Predators, were strictly used for reconnaissance and surveillance missions. Predators gave the U.S. military the ability to survey, spy, and provide information to ground units as to the whereabouts of enemy combatants. As stated in How the Predator Drone Changed the Character of War, “Soldiers long coveted the ability to see over the next hill” . These capabilities allowed for greater safety of our ground troops because they had an eye in the sky to watch over them and give them the ability to have someone watching them from every angle possible.

Another beneficial use of surveillance drones is the ability of air personnel to locate high-value targets. Since UAVs weren’t initially used as weapons, they drew little to no public criticism. It was only when these vehicles were used as weapons that the critics began to speak. Although these unarmed vehicles largely benefitted our nation and the soldiers they assisted, there came a time where the nation saw a benefit in equipping these vehicles with weapons. The use of these vehicles grew exponentially as the United States sought revenge for the attacks that happened on our own soil. After the attacks on the World Trade Centers, the U.S. saw the benefit these vehicles brought in removing terrorist threats without having to risk the lives of soldiers stationed overseas. In Drone Wars: Armed Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, it is stated that within the first year of their use, these UAVs hit approximately 115 targets in Afghanistan. As these targeted killings began to be used more and more, the number of criticisms that came about grew as well. Although very effective, the collateral damage of these bombings were killing civilians near the strikes as well. In The Unblinking Stare: The drone war in Pakistan, Steve Coll states how President Obama acknowledged that American drones had killed civilians and how these instances were “heartbreaking tragedies”. Many critics believe that because the collateral damage is putting too many civilians at risk, UAV use should be ended and should be reverted to past tactics. Though they believe that drone use should be reverted, I believe that it should remain as is. As shown in The Unblinking Stare: The drone war in Pakistan, past tactics include the use of fighter jets and strike missile that are quick strikes that cannot survey the target before striking. As stated by President Obama, such strikes are likely to cause “more civilian casualties and more local outrage.” Without the ability to survey the targets, the amount of collateral damage and civilian deaths would be significantly higher than if UAVs were used to complete the same mission. These UAVs are helping to reduce the amount of collateral damage in war so civilian casualties can be minimized. As stated in The Unblinking Stare: The drone war in Pakistan, UAVs, as opposed to fighter jets, typically “circle for hours, or even days, before striking.” The ability of the drone to sit and monitor the target creates an unprecedented level of assurance that there will be as little collateral damage possible and that the intended target will be eliminated.

The targeting of high ranking individuals isn’t for the purpose of destroying as many as possible, but rather remove those in power who can make decisions that are detrimental to the United States and its development of democratic ideals in foreign nations. As stated in How the Predator Drone Changed the Character of War, the weaponized vehicles, now called the MQ-9 Reaper, have the new technology that can “greatly reduce that ratio of civilian to combatant deaths.” Having these vehicles equipped with extremely high-resolution cameras allows for extreme precision and recognition that the target is the one that needs to be removed. Having the ability to sit and monitor a target helps to reduce criticism against these UAV uses and the legal and ethical issues attached to them. As pilots and monitoring officials fly and observe, lawyers work alongside to make sure that a targeted kill of that specific target lies within legal limits. In Drone Wars: Armed Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, Andrew Callam states “Many lawyers conclude that the attacks meet the basic test to target civilian terror suspects abroad.”  Although currently not illegal under U.S. law, the current law is in need of revision. In order to maintain the level of effectiveness of drones today, there needs to be a more defined law to prevent the current law from being misinterpreted by the lawyers working with the pilots. In Drone Policy: A Proposal Moving Forward, Amos Guiora states that the current law is based on “”imminence” so expansively there need not be clear evidence of a specific attack to justify the killing of an individual”. Having the help of lawyers certainly helps to reduce the ratio of combatant to civilian death by a significant amount but with the current laws it does not reduce it zero. In this small proportion of civilian deaths lies the ability for criticism and rationale for need of a new, refined law, that eliminates any gray space for the current uses of drones.

As UAV use has increased over the years, their ability to remove terrorism threats in foreign countries has greatly increased. Their effectiveness and precision has accounted for many saved lives, eliminated threats, and peace of minds of military families. Although they will never be able to fully replace soldiers on the ground. Their benefit of air surveillance and support will continue to go on to help ease and complete conflict. As use continues to grow, officials must continue to observe and protect the warfare to make sure it stays within the legal boundaries of war, because if they do not, the use of UAVs will become criminal.