In recent years, we have seen the rise of a new form of military technology called drones. With their arrival has come the inevitable response of critics in a self-righteous hurry to condemn drones – more formally known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) – as the newest atrocities of modern warfare. This newfound hatred for drones is not surprising, but it is completely misguided and is only a result of misinformation and fear of what we don’t fully understand.
The vast majority of U.S. drone strikes take place in countries that we are not at war with, but that house belligerents with whom we are at war. Al-Qaeda members and their affiliates in Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia are the main targets, and while civilian casualties are a tragic and inevitable part of this aerial campaign, there is no doubt that the targets in these countries are enemy combatants and drone warfare is generally safer than any other kind.
Drone strikes can kill civilians. It would be dishonest to pretend otherwise. But, before we as a country unilaterally dismiss drone strikes as war crimes, let us examine the alternatives and determine if a better course of action is available. The alternative to aerial strikes would be, of course, ground troops in countries like Pakistan and Somalia. Enemy combatants operate out of those nations, but the idea of sending ground troops to those countries seems objectionable. We’ve seen the backlash from the Iraq War: the desolation of a country, over a trillion dollars spent by the U.S. government, and countless civilian deaths estimated to exceed 100,000. Ground war brings chaos and with it death and destruction on a colossal level. A drone is also controllable. A drone can’t rape. A drone can’t lose its mind and go on a murderous rampage. Drone strikes, while still not absolutely precise, are at least contained attacks that do not threaten the very fabric of society.
It seems unlikely that critics of drone strikes are clamoring for troops to be deployed in the aforementioned countries, but what of other aerial strikes committed by piloted planes? The first, and most obvious, reason why drones are preferential to standard piloted planes is the lack of risk for the pilots carrying out the operation. Drones are so effective because they can get into areas that a manned plane could not, and carry out missions that would be deemed suicidal for a pilot to undertake. But, unbiased research also reveals that drone strikes result in fewer civilian deaths than standard bombings. Civilian death rates are extremely difficult to measure and many different sources have come up with various numbers, but even taking the highest estimations, the ratio of civilian deaths to enemy combatant deaths is significantly lower with drone strikes than manned bombings. There are various reasons for this. First, drones are more capable of scouting out an area before a strike. Their size and unmanned nature means they are much more capable of surveillance and can more accurately determine if there are civilians in the vicinity. Drones also traditionally fire guided missiles that can be aimed at specific targets and even aborted if necessary, as opposed to the unsophisticated blanket bombing techniques used by most manned aircrafts that results in a much larger scale of destruction and death.
Of course, deaths of innocent civilians as a result of drone warfare will contribute to hatred of America and possibly convert new terrorists, but so does every other form of warfare. Fewer innocent lives lost and structural damage done logically suggests less backlash.
The final option is that the United States should not be engaged in war with any of these countries in any capacity, and that’s a valid argument to be made, but not one that is particularly relevant when analyzing the pros and cons of drone warfare. We live in a strange point in history where conflicts are ill defined and our nation is at war with organizations and ideologies rather than other nations. As of today, drones are the most effective resource we have for addressing this martial ambiguity and straddling the line between armed conflict and open war. Whether or not you believe we should be engaged in these conflicts has no bearing on the fact that drones are extremely effective, both in terms of killing enemy combatants and reducing the loss of civilian death rates.