The news Thursday that two aid workers held hostage by al Qaida had been killed inadvertently in an American drone strike in January has reignited a long-simmering debate about the role of drones in the so-called war on terror. The conversation is healthy: The use of drones for the purpose of targeted killing is a relatively new development in the history of warfare and thinking about its legitimacy and effectiveness is still fluid.
The legal implications are complicated. Does the use of drones constitute extra-judicial killing? Assassination? Self-defense? Clearly, the Obama administration, like the George W. Bush administration before it, believes that these strikes are legal, though the underlying issues are ambiguous and inevitably open to interpretation.
The ethics of drone warfare are similarly contested, although there is little if any difference between an aircraft pilot releasing munitions on a barely visible target on the basis of a radio command from a forward air controller and a drone pilot releasing the same weapon from a remotely piloted vehicle on the basis of the same intelligence.
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The operational effectiveness of drones, however, is unambiguous. According to an average of drone strike statistics cited by The New York Times, 522 strikes have killed an estimated 3,376 militants and 476 civilians – decimating al Qaida leadership even as the loss of innocent life intensifies anti-American sentiment wherever strikes are carried out.
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While the use of drones must therefore be carefully weighed against the fact that it creates enemies even as it destroys them, the same argument might as well be used against all airstrikes, or for that matter artillery strikes. Both of these alternatives tend to be more indiscriminate in their effects than drones. And drone pilots in air-conditioned trailers on secure bases are less likely to err than fighter pilots, who have to deal with multiple other stresses while on missions.
The evolution of drones from surveillance to weapons platform, once it began, was naturally irresistible. Piloted remotely by operators hundreds or even thousands of miles away, drones can fly slowly over a target area for long periods of time, searching for targets with distinctive signatures and guided by teams with real-time access to a wide range of intelligence information. They can therefore be used for “dynamic” targeting, striking opportunistically when they “see” something that qualifies as a target. And since they are relatively inexpensive and their crews are lodged in distant, safe locations, they are well suited to riskier missions.
These qualities have combined to shatter core al Qaida. Over time, as information accumulated from intercepted communications, data seized in raids, and human intelligence, targeting became increasingly accurate. And the more complete the intelligence picture, the deadlier the drone program became. If you were an al Qaida player, you had nowhere to hide. Strikes aimed to eliminate not just the terrorist at the very top of the chain, but the links below as well.
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This had two mutually reinforcing effects. The first was that if you were in the chain of command, you had to spend a lot more time ensuring your personal security than running networks and planning and executing attacks. The second was that the attrition of the command chain put less experienced and occasionally less competent terrorists in positions of responsibility. The overall result was a progressive erosion of the group’s ability to plan and carry out successful operations. This same process will apply to ISIS in Iraq and Syria as U.S. intelligence mounts, bit by bit, over the next several years.
Intelligence collection and processing, however, are not perfect. The use of drone strikes and other airstrikes have long claimed innocent lives, as highlighted by the January drone attack that killed aid workers Giovanni La Porto and Warren Weinstein, an American citizen. On Thursday, President Obama acknowledged their deaths, admitting that the CIA did not know the hostages were present. Officials also said they did not specifically target another American killed in the strike, al Qaida member Ahmed Farouq, and they did not have prior information indicating his presence at the site of the attack. The costs of these failures could rise if jihadists respond by situating hostages alongside terrorist leadership to deter future attacks.
But the brutal fact is that the effectiveness of drone strikes will ensure they remain an indispensable tool in the war against al Qaida and now ISIS. The loss of the two hostages is unlikely to be repeated; it was probably a horrible fluke. But this is a war and we would be unrealistic to think that such awful things can be wholly prevented in the future.
As the U.S. military eventually shifts away from traditional aircraft, once the procurement of the F-35 fighter/bomber is complete, much of the U.S. air fleet will become unmanned. Given the nature of the adversary, the terrain, and the huge expense of deploying boots on the ground to pick off dangerous jihadists, drones will remain the weapon of choice.
Steven Simon is a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College and the co-author of “The Age of Sacred Terror: Radical Islam’s War Against America” and “The Next Attack.” He served on the National Security Council staff 1994-1999 and 2011-12.