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Understanding Drones


Drones have rapidly become one of the U.S. military's primary weapons as U.S. counterterrorism policy has gravitated toward methods that are more secretive, more lethal, and more removed from the battlefield. Here's what you need to know.

What are drones? | Cost | Targets | Congress | Administration | Implications

Drone

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What are drones?

Unmanned arial vehicles, commonly known as “drones,” are remotely controlled aerial systems that are used to carry out lethal counterterrorism strikes as well as surveillance and other non-lethal operations. FCNL focuses primarily on the problem of lethal drone strikes and U.S. drone policy.

How does the United States use drones?

Both the U.S. military and the CIA use drones as part of conventional fighting in war zones as well as to conduct targeted killings of terrorism suspects both inside and outside of battlefields.

The CIA’s drone program remains largely secret. While the Obama administration took steps to transfer all authority for the U.S. drone program to the Department of Defense, the Trump administration reversed course, expanding CIA drone use and reportedly establishing a new CIA drone base in Niger.

Throughout 2017 and 2018, the U.S. conducted drone strikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, Iraq, and Syria.

How much do drones cost the United States?

The cost per flight hour varies by type of drone, but the larger armed systems such as the Global Hawk cost up to $15,000 per hour. According to information obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request, construction of the drone base in Niger was projected to cost $100 million.

The total costs of the U.S. drone program are difficult to assess. Funding is spread across many different legislative line items and is , often not clearly marked. Expert estimates differ on the annual cost of the program. According to the Bard College Center for the Study of the Drone, the Department of Defense requested approximately $9.39 billion for drones and associated technologies in the fiscal year 2019 budget. The Stimson Center assessed the administration’s request at $3.4 billion for drone procurement, research, development, testing, and evaluation.

These discrepancies demonstrate the need for increased transparency. If experts in the field disagree about how much money is even being spent on the drone program, we clearly do not have enough public information to have a substantive national debate.

Who do the drones target?

In war zones, drones are used to target members of non-state organized armed groups that the U.S. is engaged in armed conflict with, such as ISIS in Iraq and Syria and al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Drones target people on a “kill list” who are considered the administration considers to be “high-value” targets, who may or not be in an active war zone. Drones are also used to conduct “signature strikes” of people, based on vaguely defined, suspicious patterns of behavior. Upon closer inspection, the rationale often crumbles. For example, a January 2018 strike in Yemen appears to have mistakenly targeted a 70-year-old farmer and his younger relative.

U.S. drone surveillance footage has also misidentified civilian objects as terrorist targets. In 2015, two civilian houses in Mosul were misidentified as an ISIS command center. This mistake led to a coalition strike with a U.S. bomb that killed four civilians and left one with horrific injuries.

What is Congress’ role in the U.S. drones program?

Three days after the September 11 attacks, Congress passed the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), which authorized military action against those responsible for the 9/11 attacks and those who harbored them. Since then, three presidents have interpreted the AUMF to justify drone stirkes around the world. While many members of Congress have said that the executive branch’s interpretation of the AUMF far exceeds congressional intent, Congress has never acted to rein in the AUMF or to limit the use of drones. For many years, a Congress has never reviewedthe effectiveness of the U.S. drone program, despite years of expert recommendations.

Congress facilitates the U.S. drone program by appropriating funds for the research, development and procurement of drones. Congress also exercises oversight of the U.S. drone program, though much of this is carried out in classified briefings with the House and Senate intelligence committees. In 2017, Congress increased the public reporting requirements for some drone strikes and other lethal operations, requiring the Pentagon to report on how many civilians and combatants were killed and injured in U.S. military strikes, including by drones. These requirements were strengthened in the annual defense spending bill for fiscal year 2019. CIA strikes are not included, and the reporting requirements are due to expire in 2022.

Representatives Ted Yoho (FL-3) and Betty McCollum (MN-4) have been key leaders in the legislative work to end the CIA’s use of drones. In 2019, Rep. Michael Burgess (TX-26) introduced H.R. 112, which would prohibit the CIA from operating drones to carry out lethal action and transfer all authority for the use of lethal drones to the Department of Defense.

What is the administration’s role in the U.S. drone program?

The Trump administration has significantly increased the use of drones and other lethal strikes and decreased transparency about those operations. In the first two years of the Trump administration, it conducted 238 strikes in Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan, compared with 186 strikes at the height of the Obama administration’s drone use in 2009 and 2010.

Upon taking office, President Trump reportedly weakened the rules governing when the U.S. can conduct strikes outside declared war zones. These reported changes include eliminating the requirement that the target pose an “imminent threat”; changing the requirement from “near certainty” that the target is present to “reasonable certainty”; and delegating much authority for approving such strikes to operational commanders in place of an extensive interagency vetting and approval process.

The Trump administration has refused to even publicly confirm its new drone policy. The administration has also revoked a key reporting requirement in an Obama-era executive order requiring annual reporting on the numbers of civilians and combatants killed outside of war zones by drones and other lethal operations. As a result, the CIA is no longer required to disclose how many civilians it kills outside of war zones.

What are the long-term implications of the use of drones?

With no overarching strategy and minimal congressional oversight and public transparency, many mistakenly see drones as a low cost—human and financial—alternative to traditional war. But this is far from the case. The drone program helps keep the U.S in a constant state of endless war, which has resulted in the deaths of approximately 500,000 people, half of them civilians, at a cost of over $5.9 trillion.

Drones and "Blowback"

Evidence suggests that the trauma of living under drones causes anti-American sentiment and aids in the recruitment of violent extremists. According to a former State Department official, for every drone strike, the U.S. generates roughly forty to sixty new enemies. Such long-term damage is known as “blowback”–incidents that arise in later years as an unintended consequence of actions taken today

Effects on Drone Pilots

This new form of war has also had unprecedented effects back home: early studies suggested that drone pilots experience mental health problems at the same rate as pilots participating in live combat. Despite working thousands of miles from the battlefield, many drone pilots experience worrying levels of anxiety, depression, severe stress, and moral injury. Moreover, the military has had a difficult time retaining drone pilots. Long hours--often between three to six times the maximum annual flight hours of regular Air Force pilots--play a major role.

A Dangerous Precedent

The U.S. drone program is setting a troubling precedent for how such operations are conducted by others. The lack of oversight, transparency, and accountability of the U.S. program may serve as a harmful model for other countries. As of 2018 nine other countries have developed or acquired armed drones, with others developing their own drone programs. Non-state groups, like ISIS, have also acquired armed drones.

The Future of Drones and Warfare

Currently, hundreds of companies are developing small and large-scale drone technology, and both state and non-state actors are seeking to integrate drone technology into their military programs. Experts suggest that drone capabilities will rise dramatically in the coming years.

It is past time to pause and evaluate the outcomes of U.S. drone policy. Congress should fully investigate the long-term impacts of drone warfare. We as a country must ask ourselves some serious questions. Aside from the moral issues raised by drone use, there are real questions about their impact on the future of U.S. national security. What has been the impact of drones on U.S. national security and human rights? Has the drone program actually been effective at countering terrorism? What happens when the United States no longer dominates over this technology? What can be done to prevent terrorist groups from acquiring drones?

The United States, together with the international community, must recognize these challenges and begin to outline restrictions and accountability for drone use. Restraining the use of drones worldwide is undoubtedly in the best interest of a more just and peaceful world.