- The US has relied heavily on drones for many missions – including lethal strikes – for decades.
- Drones are only a platform, and what matters for international law is how those platforms are used.
- In the US, focus on the drones themselves has overshadowed debate with the wider ethics of armed violence.
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When it comes to armed drones, is smaller and more precise necessarily better?
The question came to my mind upon seeing the news that the US Air Force just successfully test-launched a new weaponizable drone, the ALTIUS-600, making it the smallest drone in operation. Even more remarkably, this tiny aircraft was launched from the second-smallest-drone, the Kratos XQ-58A Valkyrie, while the Valkyrie was in flight.
There is nothing objectionable about the development of mini-drones. One could even argue they would be improvements, in humanitarian terms, over the use of the much larger Reaper to deliver 500-pound bombs in allegedly “precise” strikes that instead often sweep up scores of civilians and destroy the property their surviving family members rely on for their livelihoods.
But the US military’s obsession with minimalism – from fewer boots on the ground to lower-payload munitions – also minimalizes public engagement with the wider ethics of armed violence.
The emphasis on size, mobility and precision is the product of a highly limited and limiting view rife in American political discourse: that the key ethical and legal problem presented by armed drones is collateral damage. This narrative – reflected in public opinion surveys, Hollywood films and political discourse – circumscribes debate.
As Sarah Kreps, a Cornell professor and WPR contributor, notes in her book with John Kaag, the question of collateral damage is but a subset of a subset of a subset of the wider international law on the killing of human beings by governments.
At the overarching level, that law applies to governments in peacetime, not in war. The basic legal rule, enshrined in Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, is clear: “No arbitrary deprivation of the right to life.”
Due process is required for state-sanctioned executions; guilt must be proven, not assumed. And even the death penalty for criminals convicted of the worst genuine offenses is increasingly frowned upon and must be carried out using humane means. The only exceptions to this prohibition on the use of deadly force are in cases of imminent harm to others where no other options for preventing that harm are available.
Of course, in times of war, things shift, and the law of war applies. The default proscription against killing is lifted, but only under strict conditions, reflecting the fact that war is considered an aberration, a small subset of the variety of circumstances in which states might direct lethal force against individuals. Among the conditions that must be met, a state of war must apply.
Those doing the violence must be members of the state’s armed forces; civilian CIA pilots would be unlawful combatants. The targets must be military objectives, not civilians. And the harm and suffering caused even to legitimate military targets must be minimized to what is necessary to weaken the enemy and not involve inhumane methods or disproportionate or indiscriminate collateral harm.
Here and only here do the rules of collateral damage apply, with the central question being, How much harm to bystanders and infrastructure is acceptable given the necessity of hitting a particular legitimate military target with a particular military means deployed by a particular military actor in a particular military context?
In short, the collateral damage question is embedded within the rules governing who may be targeted, which are in turn embedded within the rules governing who may do the targeting, which are subordinate to the bigger question of whether a situation falls within the scope of war law at all, rather than peacetime human rights rules.
Yet, popular attention so often focuses on this tiny subset of the rules governing collateral damage, eliding these higher-level issues.
Suppose a drone were not only perfectly precise and relatively humane, but also carried a firearm rather than explosives or sword blades. Suppose it killed quickly, rather than burning its victims alive or hacking them death, as a new Hellfire missile is designed to do in the name of limiting collateral damage. And suppose the identity of the target could be determined without fail, using biometrics before a bullet was fired.
The accuracy of such an attack does not resolve the question of whether a kill decision is correct in the first place. These targeting decisions often rely on human intelligence – reports from locals – to determine who is allegedly a mortal danger to US interests.
But in insurgencies and civil wars, reports from local sources are just as often used to settle old scores as to provide accurate intelligence, as the research of Stathis Kalyvas, a professor at Yale, has long showed.
At times, in fact, the US has often relied not on specific kill orders of specific individuals, but rather on “signature strikes” – a best estimate of who is likely to match the profile of a suspected militant in a particular context – to determine whether to launch a strike that often targets whole groups.
As the NGOs Article 36 and Reaching Critical Will have documented, signature strikes have been carried out based on criteria as arbitrary as the sex and age of the victims, with nearly any military-age male in a frontier region vulnerable to lethal strike. These combinations of false stereotypes, faulty intelligence, mnemonic shortcuts and sheer hubris have killed scores of civilian teenage boys, not by accident, not by precision weapons failure, but by design.
These civilian men and boys directly targeted by the US include 16-year-old Tariq Aziz, a soccer player, amateur photographer and anti-drone activist. Aziz died in late October 2011 in Waziristan, Pakistan, when a CIA-fired Hellfire missile burned him and his 12-year-old cousin Waheed Khan beyond recognition as he drove to give his aunt a ride home from a wedding.
Even in a precise strike carried out far from other villages, with no collateral damage, the killings of these boys would have been not only tragic, but criminal. In a real war, we would have called this a case of civilian targeting – a war crime. In peacetime – a more accurate view of the state of relations between the US and Pakistan – we would simply call this murder.
That the Pakistani government approved or perhaps even requested the strike doesn’t make it legitimate. It merely makes both governments complicit in political murder.
All these important legal concerns are lost in a view of weaponized drones and targeted killings that sees the main issues as those of precision, human intelligence, accuracy and the reduction of collateral damage to “bystander” civilians, as if the civilians we are directly targeting merit no outrage on their own.
Reducing collateral damage is important in real wars, but that is not the only or even the primary concern with the use of ever-smaller lethal technology to wage ever-more subtle forms of peacetime political violence.
Terrorism is a crime. States are obligated to capture criminal suspects, put them on trial, allow them to defend themselves and free them if they are found innocent. Drones enable the opposite, as do special operations teams with kill orders.
But drones do something else as well: They provide a veneer of precision and bloodlessness that directs our attention to efforts at collateral damage control, obfuscating the reality of what is and has always been a campaign of extrajudicial execution sweeping up civilians whether by accident or by design.
It concludes, “A policy that allows the use of covert, lethal force under the laws of armed conflict outside of the context of an armed conflict undermines the protection of internationally recognized human rights and international law.”
It added that any reform agenda must not make the mistake of focusing too narrowly on any single abuse, which “risks missing the emergence of a more problematic phenomenon, the gradual accumulation of legal loopholes.”
As a result of this ethical devolution, not limited to but certainly epitomized by drone politics, our understanding not only of political-legal reality, but also of political-legal possibility, becomes smaller and more insignificant.
Leaders of the free world would be wise to reverse course and return to fundamental principles. One reason to be heartened is the fact that President Joe Biden’s review of the use of US drones outside of active battlefields is really a review of America’s targeted killing program.
Another is the fact that the US military might prefer to be kept in reserve for conventional wars, rather than thrust into counterterror and counterinsurgency missions for which it is ill-suited.
To be clear: Weaponized drones themselves are also not the problem. Drones are only a platform, and what matters in international law terms is how platforms are used. But if there is a reason to focus on drones, it is because of the way in which, as Gregoire Chamayou shows us, our conceptual understanding of drones as a particular technology has also impacted our ability to even notice what is wrong with their use in international law terms.
Focusing on technology relaxes our legal and ethical horizon and narrows our parameters of debate, and this needs to change. Smaller and simpler is not always better. Less is not always more.
Charli Carpenter is a professor of political science and legal studies at University of Massachusetts-Amherst, specializing in human security and international law. She tweets @charlicarpenter. Her WPR guest column will appear every other Friday.