In his much-lauded speech on counterterrorism at the National Defense University, President Obama sought to draw limits on U.S. use of unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, to target terrorists. The administration has announced plans to shift responsibility for the drone program from the CIA to the Pentagon and require that drones be used only against those who pose an imminent threat to the country. In his speech, Obama signaled an openness to the creation of a special court that would oversee future drone operations. He suggested that the number of drone strikes will drop in the “Afghan war theater”—which includes the tribal areas of Pakistan, where the vast majority of strikes have taken place (as illustrated in this comprehensive map by my colleagues at Bloomberg Businessweek.) According to Obama, the withdrawal of U.S. troops in 2014 and “the progress we have made against core al Qaeda will reduce the need for unmanned strikes.”
There’s some reason to believe, then, that the drone campaign will slow down considerably during Obama’s second term. But it’s far too soon to herald the end of the drone war. Fiscal constraints, strategic realities, and tactical considerations—some of which Obama highlighted during his speech—mean that drones will remain a central feature of U.S. counterterrorism policies for years to come. Here are five reasons why flying robots are here to stay:
1. They’re Cheap. The U.S. has around 8,000 drones in its arsenal, most of which are used for surveillance and spying. That amounts to around one-third of all military aircraft. Yet drones cost a small fraction of manned fighter jets, which still consume more than 90 percent of all Pentagon spending on air power. The most powerful drone currently used by the CIA and the military in anti-terrorist operations is the MQ-9 Reaper; it costs around $12 million per drone. A conservative estimate of the cost of an F-22, the Air Force’s most advanced war plane, is 10 times that amount. An analysis by the American Security Project concluded that, even after accounting for the dozens of personnel needed to operate drones, plus their crash rate, “the drones most widely used in U.S. operations have a slight cost advantage over fighter jets.”
2. They Work. As Obama said at NDU, “dozens of highly skilled al Qaeda commanders, trainers, bomb makers, and operatives have been taken off the battlefield” by drones. Estimates of the numbers killed by U.S. drone strikes vary; according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, the strikes have killed 3,136 people, including 555 civilians. Though tragic, the ratio of civilian deaths caused by drones—about 17 percent—compares favorably with alternative forms of warfare. In conventional military conflicts, civilian deaths typically account for anywhere between 30 percent and 80 percent of all fatalities. By those standards, U.S. drones strikes have been remarkably precise—and their accuracy has improved with time. According to the New America Foundation, in the 48 drones strikes conducted in Pakistan last year, fewer than 2 percent of those killed were civilians.
3. They’re Necessary. Despite their comparatively low cost and relative accuracy, killing terrorists from the sky is still less desirable than capturing them on the ground. The trouble is that al-Qaeda continues to thrive in places where government institutions and security forces are weak, embattled—or, in the case of Syria, just as unappealing as the extremists. As upheaval continues to spread across the greater Middle East, the U.S. will have even fewer local allies to count on. But after almost 12 years of bloody counterinsurgency in Afghanistan and Iraq, neither the president nor the Pentagon have any desire to send U.S. troops into such seething, jihadist-infested hotspots as Yemen, Mali, or Syria. In badlands like these, drones will continue to be the least worst option.
4. They’re Popular. What was perhaps most curious about Obama’s drones speech was that it was politically unnecessary. A poll taken in February found that 56 percent of Americans support drone attacks against suspected terrorists. The consensus cuts across party lines: The policy is backed by 68 percent of Republicans, 58 percent of Democrats and 50 percent of independents. The fact that drones are already being used less often—there have been 25 lethal strikes through the first five months of 2013, compared to 114 in all of 2012—coupled with their improved precision, means that public support is likely to remain strong.
5. They’re Spreading. Americans like to think they enjoy a monopoly on drone technology. They don’t. According to the Brookings Institution’s P.W. Singer, a leading authority on drones, at least 75 militaries around the world have used drones, and more than two dozen possess versions that “are armed or of a model that has been armed in the past.” The global market for drones, including those used for civilian purposes, is expected to grow massively in coming decades. It’s almost certain that states other than the U.S. will attempt to carry out lethal drone attacks against their enemies. For that reason, Obama should take the lead in establishing an international protocol governing the acceptable use of drones. Convincing other countries to sign on to such a convention might require the U.S. to further curtail its drone use. But don’t expect to get rid of them altogether.