Drone Warfare: the Dehumanization of War
Drone Warfare: the Dehumanization of War

Tom Engelhardt, fellow at The Nation Institute writes, “first came professional war, then privatised war, then mercenary and outsourced war – all of which made war ever more remote from most Americans. Finally, both literally and figuratively, came remote war itself.” Engelhardt maps the evolution of U.S. warfare from the professional war (post-Vietnam era when soldiers are no longer drafted, but paid volunteers) to the privatized war (1990s when corporations become more involved in warfare) to the mercenary and outsourced war (post 9/11 era when for-profit industrial complex carries out military and intelligence responsibilities in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere) to the next phase, remote war (drone warfare carried out by machines).1

Drone warfare is now the “linchpin of the Obama administration’s counterterrorism strategy in Central Asia — and one it is increasingly exporting to places such as Yemen and the Horn of Africa.”2  While used in attacks, drones are also used for surveillance, reconnaissance, and intelligence. Until recently Drone warfare was one of the most secretive programs of the U.S. government, though it is now under the scrutiny of the media worldwide.

The New America Foundation claims that the U.S. has been responsible for 2,903 drone strikes in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region since 2004. Drone attacks have risen steadily since 2004, peaking in 2010.3  From 2004 -March 2012, an estimated 1,778- 2,764 deaths are attributed to U.S. Predator strikes in Pakistan, of those an estimated 1,485-2,293 were militants. The New America Foundation statistics are based on research of major world-wide media institutions, including Pakistani television reports.4   The numbers are not exact because after a drone attack, the militants quickly remove the dead and do not report the exact numbers in fear that it would make them look weak.5  The U.S. and Pakistani army do not release the numbers as well.

This analysis will examine arguments for and against the use of drones in warfare, taking into consideration the influence of international law and human rights.

Arguments for Drone Warfare

Many support the use of drones, claiming it puts less American soldiers in harm’s way and kills fewer civilians than the alternative. Most argue that drones are effective militarily. Drones can strike in impassable terrain, fly over enemy territory and need to refuel less than manned jets. Training drone controllers is faster and significantly cheaper than training pilots. Future drones may be more effective than traditional fighter jets as they will be able to avoid radar detection and gain hyper- maneuverability.6

Drones are considered by some to be an effective anti-terrorism mechanism. They are feared by terrorists more than elite troops because they are nearly invisible and almost completely silent.7  They have weakened militant groups, such as the Taliban and AL-Qaeda in Pakistan, who have stopped using electronic devices and who no longer gather in large numbers. Some militant leaders even spend their nights outside for safety reasons.8   The result is battle fatigue and decreased ability to mobilize.

The Obama administration justifies the drone attacks under international law and the U.S. constitution. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder notes that the U.S. constitution guarantees due process, but not judicial process. Holder claims that the following conditions must be met by a target to be killed by a drone: the target must be “senior operational leader of al-Qaida or associated forces” otherwise known as an “enemy combatant.” The target must be planning an attack against the U.S. and be located in a country that has given the U.S. authority to strike. The target must not be able to be captured at the time the decision is made. Thus, the use of drones falls under the category of “imminent threat.”9   These preconditions align with the Geneva Convention-based Law of Armed Conflict that requires verification of military targets, precautionary measures to minimize civilian harm and the avoidance of disproportionate collateral damage.10

Some members of the Pakistani military support the drones, at least privately, because they have benefited from some of the attacks. For example a 2009 drone attack killed Baitullah Mehsud, leader of a militant alliance who was suspected to behind the 2007 assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Drones have forced some Taliban officials to leave their homes, a feat that was impossible for the Pakistani military to achieve using traditional methods that often led to the loss of military personnel and unwanted engagement with local villagers. People living in the areas are conflicted. Many favor drone strikes compared to other military operations or less selective bombardments.11  Thus, compared to the alternative, drones can be considered the lesser evil.

Arguments Against Drone Warfare

Many are against drones as well, claiming they create more militants than they kill. The perception of the drones amongst Pakistanis is perpetuated over the Pakistani media, claiming that they kill civilians indiscriminately.12   The fact that the attacks are secretive exacerbates anger and suspicion. A 2011 Pew Research Center poll found that only 12 percent Pakistanis viewed the U.S. favorably, while 69 percent saw the U.S. as more enemy than friend.13   The percent of Pakistanis who support the military in their fight against extremists in the tribal areas has dropped since Obama came to office. Thus one could argue that this is a failed approach.14

Some make geopolitical arguments against the use of drone. Secretary Clinton warned that high civilian casualty rates might strengthen opposition to Pakistan’s weak, pro-American president, Asif Ali Zardari.  Secretary Gates warned that Pakistan might cut off supplies to U.S. troops in Afghanistan. This actually happened in 2011 when a NATO airstrikes mistakenly killed 24 Pakistani soldiers on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Drone attacks were stopped for two months and have since resumed, but the U.S. can no longer carry out signature attacks.15

Others argue that drones significantly increase the executive branch’s ability to wage a clandestine war. CIA powers to carry out drone attacks in Pakistan and Yemen, particularly ungoverned tribal areas, are unchecked by the legislative and judicial branches. While, the use of drone against American militants Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan were authorized by the Justice Department, it is certainly problematic that the U.S. killed its own citizens without due process.16

Many fear a loss of accountability. While drones often circle a target for hours before it strikes, resulting in fewer civilian casualties than from manned attacks, the attacks are still more likely to take place because they are easier and less risky. The UK’s Ministry of Defense claims that the undeclared air war in Pakistan and Yemen is possible because of unmanned capability. Detachment from the war-zone is a significant ethical issue as many fear that drones increase the possibility of combat.17   Jennifer Robinson, a London-based human rights lawyer, believes that drone warfare has already resulted in a dehumanization of conflict. U.S. authorities use the term “bugsplat” to refer to humans killed by drone missiles, a term also used in children’s computer games. This dehumanization makes it easier to kill targets and results in public apathy.18

Some have practical concerns about drones, such as the dependence on two-way satellite communications, which are vulnerable to jamming by militants.  If the data links fail, then the drone must revert to pre-loaded software and GPS guidance, which can be problematic on complex missions. Today’s drones also face a latency problem, a delay between the instruction and the response.  A pilot on manned jet can take immediate action, while drones cannot.  Even though drones operating in Pakistan and Afghanistan are not under threat of surface-to-air-missiles, this could be a significant problem in other locations. If drones gained autonomy from their controller, some of these problems would be addressed, though other ones would be created.19

Some retired military officials notes that drone warfare cannot substitute for aiding local leaders in their efforts to marginalize militants. Drone attacks do not strengthen economies, curb corruption, or improve government services. Surgically killing senior terrorists does not address the underlying causes of war.20  Though, it can certainly be viewed as a cheaper alternative.

Cost arguments have been made for and against the use of drones. Some might view them as wasteful, given that in 2010, the U.S. air force noted 79 drone accidents, costing $1 million each. Bad weather, loss or disruption of communications links, and “human error factors,” were the main causes.21  Approximately 168-180 people are required to keep a Predator drone or the Reaper aloft, while F-16 only requires 100.  The drones themselves are less expensive $15 million compared to the F-16 ($55 million for a new one). Censors and accidents though often decrease the cost differential.22


In an ideal world, drone warfare would not be necessary. Warfare would not be necessary. Over the history of humankind, war has always been messy. People on both sides of the battle get killed. Thus leaders tend to be very cautious before choosing a military option after exhausting all other possibilities. Now, the U.S. is presented with a totally new type of warfare, in which soldiers can fight without the risk of harm. As detractors note, this is very dangerous because now only one side in the battle gets killed and the others are safe.

This asymmetry may decrease as other countries devote time and money to strengthening their military capacities and build drones. Science fictions films, such as The Terminator, no longer seem like a distant future for mankind. Despite all of the ethical and human rights concerns, it is hard to imagine that the U.S. military will not continue down this path. Looking at the bottom line, who in the U.S. wants to put more American lives at risk?  As noted by Engelhardt, the progression from a citizen’s army to a robot military has been underway for decades. One can only hope that those behind the steering wheel will not forget the value of human life.

1  Engelhardt, Tom. “How drone war became the American way of life.” Al Jazeera. March 1, 2012.
2  Shah, Pir Zubair. “My Drone War.” Foreign Policy. March/April 2012.
3  “The Year of the Drone.” New America Foundation.  March 13, 2012.
4  “2004 – 2007: The Year of the Drone.” New America Foundation.
5  Shah, Pir Zubair. “My Drone War.” Foreign Policy. March/April 2012.
6  “Flight of the drones.” The Economist. October 8, 2011.
7  Darnstädt, Thomas and Hujer, Marc and Schmitz, Gregor Peter. ” Are Obama’s Efforts to Justify Drone Warfare Aimed at Iran?Der Spiegel. March 15, 2012.
8  Shah, Pir Zubair. “My Drone War.” Foreign Policy. March/April 2012.
9  Darnstädt, Thomas and Hujer, Marc and Schmitz, Gregor Peter. “Are Obama’s Efforts to Justify Drone Warfare Aimed at Iran?Der Spiegel. March 15, 2012.
10  “Flight of the drones.” The Economist. October 8, 2011.
11  Shah, Pir Zubair. “My Drone War.” Foreign Policy. March/April 2012.
12  Ibid.
13  “Obama’s Shadow Wars.” Foreign Policy. March/April 2012.
14  Rhode, David. “The Obama Doctrine.” Foreign Policy. March/April 2012.
15  Ibid.
16  Ibid.
17  Monbiot, George. “With its deadly drones, the US is fighting a coward’s war.” The Guardian. January 30, 2012.
18  Robinson, Jennifer. “‘Bugsplat’: The ugly US drone war in Pakistan.” Al Jazeera. November 29, 2011.
19  “Flight of the drones.” The Economist. October 8, 2011.
20  Rhode, David. “The Obama Doctrine.” Foreign Policy. March/April 2012.
21  Zenko, Micah. “10 Things You Didn’t Know About Drones.” Foreign Policy. March/April 2012.
22  Ibid.

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