The U.S. military’s and CIA’s increase use of Unarmed Aerial Vehicles, commonly called “drones,” has been at the center of a growing contentious public debate. In order to intelligently weigh in on the discussion one must have a rudimentary understanding of drone technology, the different classes of drones in the U.S. inventory and their military or political uses. We can ignore the fact that drones are often used to make a political statement.
In their most basic configuration drones are remotely controlled aerial surveillance platforms. They are normally equipment with high-resolution cameras and other detection and imagining equipment. As a tool for covert or secretive surveillance the drones are the top in their class. For engaging specific individuals and small hardened targets the drones can be armed with a variety of weapons. Drones are remotely flown to their areas of operations by a pilot-controller who might be located hundreds or even thousands of miles away. Often a ground controller (intelligence officer) is on the ground in the area of operation providing real-time intelligence. Some times the person on the ground paints the target with a laser designator. It is not unusually for more than one drone to be assigned to the same area of operation. In the war on terror drones are used to find valuable targets of opportunity and either directly engage them or pass the engagement off to other assets.
In the last ten years drone technology has leaped forward. The public is most familiar with the Predator (w/o hellfire missiles) and the Reaper Hunter drones. Depending on their configuration these drones can fly over 40, 000 feet and loiter over an area for hours without being detected. Because they are propeller driven they produce no vapor trail or detectable heat signature. They are extremely cost-effective to use in comparison to manned vehicles. The drones can easily be deployed to any staging area and withdrawn on a moments notice. The cost to manufacture a drone is a faction of the price to produce a manned aircraft. Most importantly the drones are flown remotely with the pilot(s) seating safely out of the theatre of operation. If the drone is lost due to mechanical failure or a hostile act, no American pilot will be killed or capture.
What makes drones so effective in fighting the war on terror is also its Achilles Heel in a more robust military environment. The drones are easy targets for radar guided surface to air missiles. The slow prodding drones make easy targets for even antiquated propeller driven fighter plans.
Drones are piloted via a scrambled and encrypted satellite link. Anything or person that interferes with the signal adversely effects a drone’s performance. It is theoretically possible for a drone to be hijacked by the very same forces that are within its crosshairs. Unlike the flying terminator machines in “Salvation Terminator” America’s drones are not self-aware and controlled by their own artificial intelligence. U.S. drones are told what to do and can, only to a very limited extend, act on their own.
It should be obvious why America successfully uses drones over Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan and Afghanistan. In the areas of operation in (over) these countries America is unchallenged in the air. When the drones fly around unchallenged they make highly effective and efficient killing machines.
Human rights groups object to America’s use of drones to target individuals. Amnesty International, the London Based human rights advocacy group, believes that America’s use of drones in this way is tantamount to extrajudicial executions, and thus illegal and immoral. I tend to agree that in general the act of using a drone to target and kill an individual is illegal. Yet, I do not believe that it is immoral or violates the target’s “human rights.”
Are the U.S. drone attacks legal under international law? The legality of the strikes would depend on a number of factors which need not be addressed in any detail for purposes of this post. The governments of Somalia, Yemen and Afghanistan have consented to the U.S.’s operating drones within their airspace and to the targeting of high-value individuals. Also, the U.S. is involved in armed conflict in Afghanistan. I believe that the use of drones in these countries would be legal under both local and international law. Besides, the human target rarely if ever has a proper forum where he or his family can seek redress for a U.S. drone strike.