Science / Drones

An Argument for Drones

Over the past thirteen years, America’s “War on Terror” has raised concerns about the Executive Branch’s actions in waging such a war. As the war moves into its second decade, American military actions have become increasingly clandestine. Never has this been more clear than the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones.

Highly debated for both their ethicality and practicality, their integration into the American military arsenal has left many unsure of how to feel about their use. Some argue that more human rights violations are committed than the American government lets on, as recent reports from a recent drone strike in Pakistan suggest. Furthermore, there are those, including prominent members of the military itself, who believe that the United States is creating more enemies than it is removing through its drone program. General James E. Cartwright, the former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and an influential adviser during President Obama’s first administration told the New York Times, “If you’re trying to kill your way to a solution, no matter how precise you are, you’re going to upset people even if they’re not targeted.” 

As the War on Terror continues its ceaseless campaign, these are viable questions to be asking. Are drones effective enough to justify their continued use?, And if so, should that outweigh the risks, such as those General Cartwright lays out? I argue that drones are an essential weapon in the fight against terrorism and that to abandon such a successful program would significantly undermine our efforts in the fight against terrorism.

The utility of drones and their utility over troops on the ground is undeniable. Drones have been proven to be more precise than putting boots on the ground. Avery Plaw, a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts, conducted research comparing the ratio of combatant deaths to civilian deaths between drones and other uses of force. Even if using Professor Plaw’s highest proportion of combatant to civilian deaths – 20 percent – that number is still lower than the estimates of civilian deaths from conventional warfare, which ranged from approximately 33 to 80 percent. Clearly, in an area where we are particularly concerned – protecting the lives of the innocents – drones are often more effective than using ground troops.

Another important measure of success is whether drones effectively eliminate the enemy. According to the Brookings Institution over 3,300 al-Qaeda operatives have been killed by drone strikes. Many are high-ranking leaders of the cellular structure, hurting training, communication, and the overall effectiveness of these organizations. In addition, The Long War Journal reports that since 2004, drones have eliminated 94 top leaders of al-Qaeda.

This success rate has put fear into the leadership of al-Qaida and has led to the replacement of killed targets by “lower leaders who are not as experienced as the former leaders” and who are “prone to errors and miscalculations.” Out of fear of the threat of drone strikes, terrorist leadership has moved off the grid in order to avoid being caught, which hampers the ability of these networks to operate. Newly recruited Jihadists have been told to, “maintain complete silence of all wireless contacts” and “avoid gathering in open areas.” Drones have forced terrorist networks to work in the shadows, unable to coordinate well-planned and large-scale strikes. They are forced to resort to small, uncoordinated, and often unsuccessful attacks.

What also makes drones more effective than any other weapon in our arsenal is that they are the most rational and pragmatic option. Critics call on the United States to bring these jihadists to justice and have them stand trial. But why should this be done? Why do they deserve rights reserved for American citizens, even as they act in the name of destroying America’s way of life? These organizations do not ascribe to any form of law, whether American or international. They are non-state actors with no affiliation to any governmental body.

Furthermore, there are those who argue that the drone is an inhumane weapon. But conventional weapons have shown to be just as if not more bloody and inhumane than a drone in many cases. World War II saw the fire bombings of Tokyo and Dresden, where hundreds of thousands of people, more innocent than many of the targets of drone strikes, were killed, wounded, or left homeless. Furthermore, in 2009 the United States was responsible for the death of more than 30 innocent women and children in Yemen. This massacre was not carried out by drones, as Yemen did not allow drones. Rather, F-16 Tomahawks, conventional and manned fighter planes, carried it out. Manned fighter planes are not as precise as drones, whose technology can detect and determine targets more effectively.

While it would be naïve to argue that drones are right all the time, as they have been shown not to be, they are more precise than manned vehicles. At a time when casualties are magnified, having a more precise weapon is valuable for a military arsenal.

In nearly all respects, drones prove to be worth any perceived trade-offs to more traditional tactics of fighting. Their efficacy in dismantling and disrupting terrorist networks with greater precision than other feasible means makes them a valuable that