Military Drones – Increasingly the Weapon of the Future

The modern military importance of drone (unmanned) aircraft cannot be overstated. Whatever the debate going forward, military drone use ( like the Predator, Reaper, and Hawk) has exploded in the last 10-12 years. Drones have changed the way the US wages war; they have been used and even depended on in the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns to conduct surveillance and attack missions in remote and inaccessible areas. Their greatest value to the military is likely always understated and most probably classified information. 

And it is ironic that we are here, particularly with President Obama in the White House. The President ran for office in 2008 against what he described as excesses of counterterrorism under President George W. Bush. Nearly six years later (and benefitting from the knowledge of what actually works)  it is apparent the President is committed to fighting terrorism the same way it has been fought for the last 13 years.

The President has grown up

Obama’s hasty promise to the world of more transparency and less military presence, has taken a hit at home and abroad. He has been in many ways more secretive and less disclosing about US military tactics—particularly weapons and tactics that are being used to combat international terrorism and threats to US interests. Not long ago the President refused to comment on the acceleration of American drone strikes in Yemen.

I am not being entirely critical here. I am saying that it was easy for the enterprising Senator Obama to talk on these subjects. That man, now the President of the United States, has discovered that dealing with terrorism and terrorists requires a policy and a willingness to take action. Give him credit here: he is directly involved and taking regular action. More on that below.

Recently Al-Qaeda, Al-Shabaab, and other terrorist organizations have been flooding Africa. Drones seem to be not only the most logical response to the challenges of dealing with these organizations, but by far the most economical. The US has an operational drone base in Africa—the drones are operating from an air strip at a remote location in Djibouti. The Pentagon continues to evaluate and adjust its drone strategy, as it increases its dependence on drones to keep an eye on militant groups that are operating in eastern Africa.

How many drones does the U.S have and how much do they cost?

According to recent reports, the Pentagon now has some 7,000 aerial drones, compared with fewer than 50 a decade ago. The fiscal year 2012 budget included nearly $5 billion for unclassified drone research, development and procurement.  The CIA has about 30 Predator and Reaper drones, which are operated by Air Force pilots from a U.S. military base in an unnamed U.S. state. The Department of Homeland Security has at least 10 unarmed Predator drones. The cost per flight hour varies by type of drone. Predator and Reaper drones cost about $2,500-3,500 per flight hour; larger armed drones like the Global Hawk cost about 10 times as much: up to $30,000 per flight hour.

Who decides when and how drones will be used?

The military and the CIA are the two primary US groups using drones abroad. Decisions to use drones for surveillance are generally made within the usual military and civilian chain-of-command structures. The process for deciding to use drones for strikes—particularly in countries that are not declared combat zones—is less well known.

Interesting reports generated by the American Security Project claim that as often as weekly, 100+ members of a national security team gather via teleconference to sift through intelligence, biographies, and photos of terrorism suspects. The decision to target known terrorists is made in the meeting—it is the President who approves the decision to use deadly force.

Regulation of drone use depends primarily on the location in which they are deployed. In declared combat zones (such as Afghanistan), there are clear rules of engagement and chain of command. In countries not declared combat zones (such as Yemen), the U.S. is supposed to work with the government of the country in which it is operates drones. There are significant lapses in meeting this requirement.  The biggest example of that is Pakistan, who has been incensed at drone attacks conducted within its borders.

The Obama Administration has not officially stated where and how it employs lethal drone strikes. While the President has officially acknowledged that covert strikes do occur in places such as Yemen and Somalia, there are no specifics about the extent of the programs and precise deployment of drones for lethal strikes.

Drone Use and International Law

The US is not without its critics on using drones for military missions. There have been many in the international community decrying the use of drones, particularly when those drones conduct operations within the boundaries of sovereign countries without any declaration of war. US officials have not yet directly cited any law in justifying the use of drones. They have justified drone use to Article 51 of the United Nations Charter, which states that a state has “the inherent right of individual or collective defense” until the UN security council takes action.

Critics argue that this failure to provide legal justification implicates the US in violating international legal frameworks on interstate force and national sovereignty. These critics also contend that US drone programs in Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen set a dangerous precedent that could lead to any nation with strike-capable drones employing similar tactics, which could lead to a “global drone war.”

If the list of drones being developed around the globe is any indication, I would say drone use is not just the new way the US is operating, but it is the new way in which the nations of the world intend to conduct their future military operations

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