Airstrikes by unmanned aerial vehicles have become a matter of serious dispute lately. The controversy focuses on the United States, which has the biggest fleet of these weapons and which employs them more frequently than any other country. On one side of this dispute are those who regard them simply as another weapon of war whose virtue is the precision with which they strike targets. On the other side are those who argue that in general, unmanned aerial vehicles are used to kill specific individuals, frequently civilians, thus denying the targeted individuals their basic right to some form of legal due process.
Let’s begin with the weapons systems, the MQ-1 Predator and the MQ-9 Reaper. The media call them drones, but they are actually remotely piloted aircraft. Rather than being in the cockpit, the pilot is at a ground station, receiving flight data and visual images from the aircraft and sending command signals back to it via a satellite data link. Numerous advanced systems and technologies work together to make this possible, but it is important to remember that most of these technologies have been around in some form for decades, and the U.S. government first integrated them in the 1990s. The Predator carries two Hellfire missiles — precision-guided munitions that, once locked onto the target by the pilot, guide themselves to the target with a high likelihood of striking it. The larger Reaper carries an even larger payload of ordnance — up to 14 Hellfire missiles or four Hellfire missiles and two 500-pound bombs. Most airstrikes from these aircraft use Hellfire missiles, which cause less collateral damage.
Unlike a manned aircraft, unmanned aerial vehicles can remain in the air for an extended period of time — an important capability for engaging targets that may only present a very narrow target window. This ability to loiter, and then strike quickly when a target presents itself, is what has made these weapons systems preferable to fixed wing aircraft and cruise missiles.
The Argument Against Airstrikes
What makes unmanned aerial vehicle strikes controversial is that they are used to deliberately target specific individuals — in other words, people who are known or suspected, frequently by name, of being actively hostile to the United States or allied governments. This distinguishes unmanned aerial vehicles from most weapons that have been used since the age of explosives began. The modern battlefield — and the ancient as well — has been marked by anonymity. The enemy was not a distinct individual but an army, and the killing of soldiers in an enemy army did not carry with it any sense of personal culpability. In general, no individual soldier was selected for special attention, and his death was not an act of punishment. He was killed because of his membership in an army and not because of any specific action he might have carried out.
Another facet of the controversy is that it is often not clear whether the individuals targeted by these weapons are members of an enemy force. U.S. military or intelligence services reach that conclusion about a target based on intelligence that convinces them of the individual’s membership in a hostile group.
There are those who object to all war and all killing; we are not addressing those issues here. We are addressing the arguments of those who object to this particular sort of killing. The reasoning is that when you are targeting a particular individual based on his relationships, you are introducing the idea of culpability, and that that culpability makes the decision-maker — whoever he is — both judge and executioner, without due process. Those who argue this line also believe that the use of these weapons is a process that is not only given to error but also fundamentally violates principles of human rights and gives the state the power of life and death without oversight. Again excluding absolute pacifists from this discussion, the objection is that the use of unmanned aerial vehicles is not so much an act of war as an act of judgment and, as such, violates international law that requires due process for a soldier being judged and executed. To put it simply, the critics regard what they call drone strikes as summary executions, not acts of war.
The Argument for Airstrikes
The counterargument is that the United States is engaged in a unique sort of war. Al Qaeda and the allied groups and sympathetic individuals that comprise the international jihadist movement are global, dispersed and sparse. They are not a hierarchical military organization. Where conventional forces have divisions and battalions, the global jihadist movement consists primarily of individuals who at times group together into distinct regional franchises, small groups and cells, and frequently even these groups are scattered. Their mission is to survive and to carry out acts of violence designed to demoralize the enemy and increase their political influence among the populations they wish to control.
The primary unit is the individual, and the individuals — particularly the commanders — isolate themselves and make themselves as difficult to find as possible. Given their political intentions and resources, sparse forces dispersed without regard to national boundaries use their isolation as the equivalent of technological stealth to make them survivable and able to carefully mount military operations against the enemy at unpredictable times and in unpredictable ways.
The argument for using strikes from unmanned aerial vehicles is that it is not an attack on an individual any more than an artillery barrage that kills a hundred is an attack on each individual. Rather, the jihadist movement presents a unique case in which the individual jihadist is the military unit.
In war, the goal is to render the enemy incapable of resisting through the use of force. In all wars and all militaries, imperfect intelligence, carelessness and sometimes malice have caused military action to strike at innocent people. In World War II, not only did bombing raids designed to attack legitimate military targets kill civilians not engaged in activities supporting the military, mission planners knew that in some cases innocents would be killed. This is true in every military conflict and is accepted as one of the consequences of war.
The argument in favor of using unmanned aerial vehicle strikes is, therefore, that the act of killing the individual is a military necessity dictated by the enemy’s strategy and that it is carried out with the understanding that both intelligence and precision might fail, no matter how much care is taken. This means not only that civilians might be killed in a particular strike but also that the strike might hit the wrong target. The fact that a specific known individual is being targeted does not change the issue from a military matter to a judicial one.
It would seem to me that these strikes do not violate the rules of war and that they require no more legal overview than was given in thousands of bomber raids in World War II. And we should be cautious in invoking international law. The Hague Convention of 1907 states that:
The laws, rights, and duties of war apply not only to armies, but also to militia and volunteer corps fulfilling the following conditions:
To be commanded by a person responsible for his subordinates;
To have a fixed distinctive emblem recognizable at a distance;
To carry arms openly; and
To conduct their operations in accordance with the laws and customs of war.
The 1949 Geneva Convention states that:
Members of other militias and members of other volunteer corps, including those of organized resistance movements, belonging to a Party to the conflict and operating in or outside their own territory, even if this territory is occupied, provided that such militias or volunteer corps, including such organized resistance movements, fulfill the following conditions:
(a) that of being commanded by a person responsible for his subordinates;
(b) that of having a fixed distinctive sign recognizable at a distance;
(c) that of carrying arms openly;
(d) that of conducting their operations in accordance with the laws and customs of war.
Ignoring the question of whether jihadist operations are in accordance with the rules and customs of war, their failure to carry a “fixed distinctive sign recognizable at a distance” is a violation of both the Hague and Geneva conventions. This means that considerations given to soldiers under the rules of war do not apply to those waging war without insignia.
Open insignia is fundamental to the rules of war. It was instituted after the Franco-Prussian war, when French snipers dressed as civilians fired on Germans. It was viewed that the snipers had endangered civilians because it was a soldier’s right to defend himself and that since they were dressed as civilians, the French snipers — not the Germans — were responsible for the civilian deaths. It follows from this that, to the extent that jihadist militants provide no sign of who they are, they are responsible under international law when civilians are killed because of uncertainty as to who is a soldier and who is not. Thus the onus on ascertaining the nature of the target rests with the United States, but if there is error, the responsibility for that error rests with jihadists for not distinguishing themselves from civilians.
There is of course a greater complexity to this: attacking targets in countries that are not in a state of war with the United States and that have not consented to these attacks. For better or worse, the declaration of war has not been in fashion since World War II. But the jihadist movement has complicated this problem substantially. The jihadists’ strategy is to be dispersed. Part of its strategy is to move from areas where it is under military pressure to places that are more secure. Thus the al Qaeda core group moved its headquarters from Afghanistan to Pakistan. But in truth, jihadists operate wherever military and political advantages take them, from the Maghreb to Mumbai and beyond.
In a method of war where the individual is the prime unit and where lack of identification is a primary defensive method, the conduct of intelligence operations wherever the enemy might be, regardless of borders, follows. So do operations to destroy enemy units — individuals. If a country harbors such individuals knowingly, it is an enemy. If it is incapable of destroying the enemy units, it forfeits its right to claim sovereignty since part of sovereignty is a responsibility to prevent attacks on other countries.
If we simply follow the logic we laid out here, then the critics of unmanned aerial vehicle strikes have a weak case. It is not illegitimate to target individuals in a military force like the jihadist movement, and international law holds them responsible for collateral damage, not the United States. Moreover, respecting national sovereignty requires that a country’s sovereignty be used to halt attacks against countries with which they are not at war. When a country cannot or will not take those steps, and people within their border pose a threat to the United States, the country has no basis for objecting to intelligence operations and airstrikes. The question, of course, is where this ends. Yemen or Mali might be one case, but the logic here does not preclude any country. Indeed, since al Qaeda tried in the past to operate in the United States itself, and its operatives might be in the United States, it logically follows that the United States could use unmanned aerial vehicles domestically as well. Citizenship is likewise no protection from attacks against a force hostile to the United States.
But within the United States, or countries like the United Kingdom, there are many other preferable means to neutralize jihadist threats. When the police or internal security forces can arrest jihadists plotting attacks, there quite simply is no need for airstrikes from unmanned aerial vehicles. They are tools to be used when a government cannot or will not take action to mitigate the threat.
The Strategic Drawback
There are two points I have been driving toward. The first is that the outrage at targeted killing is not, in my view, justified on moral or legal grounds. The second is that in using these techniques, the United States is on a slippery slope because of the basis on which it has chosen to wage war.
The United States has engaged an enemy that is dispersed across the globe. If the strategy is to go wherever the enemy is, then the war is limitless. It is also endless. The power of the jihadist movement is that it is diffuse. It does not need vast armies to be successful. Therefore, the destruction of some of its units will always result in their replacement. Quality might decline for a while but eventually will recover.
The enemy strategy is to draw the United States into an extended conflict that validates its narrative that the United States is permanently at war with Islam. It wants to force the United States to engage in as many countries as possible. From the U.S. point of view, unmanned aerial vehicles are the perfect weapon because they can attack the jihadist command structure without risk to ground forces. From the jihadist point of view as well, unmanned aerial vehicles are the perfect weapon because their efficiency allows the jihadists to lure the United States into other countries and, with sufficient manipulation, can increase the number of innocents who are killed.
In this sort of war, the problem of killing innocents is practical. It undermines the strategic effort. The argument that it is illegal is dubious, and to my mind, so is the argument that it is immoral. The argument that it is ineffective in achieving U.S. strategic goals of eliminating the threat of terrorist actions by jihadists is my point.
Unmanned aerial vehicles provide a highly efficient way to destroy key enemy targets with very little risk to personnel. But they also allow the enemy to draw the United States into additional theaters of operation because the means is so efficient and low cost. However, in the jihadists’ estimate, the political cost to the United States is substantial. The broader the engagement, the greater the perception of U.S. hostility to Islam, the easier the recruitment until the jihadist forces reach a size that can’t be dealt with by isolated airstrikes.
In warfare, enemies will try to get you to strike at what they least mind losing. The case against strikes by unmanned aerial vehicles is not that they are ineffective against specific targets but that the targets are not as vital as the United States thinks. The United States believes that the destruction of the leadership is the most efficient way to destroy the threat of the jihadist movement. In fact it only mitigates the threat while new leadership emerges. The strength of the jihadist movement is that it is global, sparse and dispersed. It does not provide a target whose destruction weakens the movement. However, the jihadist movement’s weakness derives from its strength: It is limited in what it can do and where.
The problem of unmanned aerial vehicles is that they are so effective from the U.S. point of view that they have become the weapon of first resort. Thus, the United States is being drawn into operations in new areas with what appears to be little cost. In the long run, it is not clear that the cost is so little. A military strategy to defeat the jihadists is impossible. At its root, the real struggle against the jihadists is ideological, and that struggle simply cannot be won with Hellfire missiles. A strategy of mitigation using airstrikes is possible, but such a campaign must not become geographically limitless. Unmanned aerial vehicles lead to geographical limitlessness. That is their charm; that is their danger.
George Friedman is the founder and CEO of Stratfor, the global intelligence website. This article has been republished with permission of Stratfor.