The Three-Question Test: Drones get an “F”

Daniel L. Davis 

It is truly discouraging to me that in a country that justly prides itself on producing great scientific minds and creative thinkers, that on a few key substantive issues we fail to ask – much less answer – crucial questions.  Drone strikes is one of the most glaring and egregious examples.

These acts – which are sometimes called targeted killings, UCAV (unmanned combat aerial vehicle) strikes, or precision targeting – are at their most elementary level, killing human beings via remote control at typically a great distance from the target.  In that sense, they are no different than an infantryman firing a rifle at an enemy combatant from 300 meters away, a tank gunner destroying an enemy vehicle and its crew from four kilometers out, or firing an artillery piece at enemy troops from a distance of over 30 kilometers.  The justification for using drones, however, can be radically different from the standard we apply to ground combat.

The Laws of War govern the behavior of ground troops, airmen, and sailors in armed conflict.  The laws were designed to keep otherwise violent and bloody wars from descending into barbarism, which can sometimes strip even the victors of their humanity.  The Department of Defense has strictly enforced these laws on our troops during Desert Storm, the long Iraq conflict and the still-ongoing struggle in Afghanistan. 

When troops have been caught violating the strict DoD-crafted Rules of Engagement, they are punished, sometimes severely.  That high standard seems to evaporate, however, when the acts are carried out from aerial platforms, controlled from a secret, remote location.  The unwillingness to apply the same rules of engagement and standards of conduct to the use of drones is damaging America’s hard-fought reputation - and all emotional arguments aside - is manifestly ineffective in accomplishing US objectives.  In fact, it us usually counterproductive.

 Speaking at The Center for The National Interest last week, one of America’s most experienced living diplomats Chas W. Freeman, said the decision to begin expanding the use of drone warfare in 2002 was one of the nation’s greatest strategic blunders since 9./11.  Of that decision, he said “This turn toward robotic warfare has evolved into a program of serial massacres from the air in a widening area of West Asia and northern Africa.  It is a major factor in the metastasis of anti-Western terrorism with global reach.”

 Most critically, he added that “The terrorist movements U.S. interventions have spawned now have safe havens not just in Afghanistan, but in the now failed states of Iraq and Syria, as well as Chad, Lebanon, Libya, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Sinai, Somalia…and a toehold among Muslim Americans… We are creating more terrorists than we are killing.” 

The application of any element of national power - whether it’s the use of the military, an aggressive diplomatic effort, or providing humanitarian assistance – must pass three tests.  1) a successful outcome of the action contemplated must advance American strategic interests; 2) the action must have a plausible chance of accomplishing the objectives sought, and 3) that it not violate American law or ethical standards.  If a contemplated action cannot pass all three tests, it must be abandoned on the drawing board.

Based on an analysis of actions abroad taken by the United States over the past 15 years, it appears a different standard has been applied.  In practice, our leaders have asked these three questions before deciding to take a given action: 1) do we have the resources and technology to actually do the thing; 2) can it tactically hurt our opponents or help our allies; and 3) how will this play politically at home and diplomatically with our allies?  The decision to use drones to conduct targeted killings can pass all three of these tests; it utterly fails the three-question test that actually matters.

Technologically, drones are very effective.  They can see, be piloted, and attack targets very effectively from literally the other side of the world.  Killing enemy targets no doubt tactically damages some terror network’s ability to function for a time.  Sometimes the attacks help domestically, as it makes the leaders who ordered it look tough on terror and gives the impression they are not standing idly by. 

But it is now abundantly clear that even successful drone strikes to not advance American strategic interests, they almost never cause more than temporal harm to the enemy, and usually result in hardening their resolve and making them more violent.  Finally, they unequivocally damage our reputation and prestige, especially in quarters of the globe where we seek to influence people away from using violence. 

America is a country filled with remarkable people that has done much good around the world for many, many decades, sacrificing our own blood and treasure in the defense of others.  We have some of the brightest minds and kindest hearts.  But until we begin reigning in our use of technology to do things that do not advance American interests or values, we will continue doing more harm than good to our own national security. 

 Daniel L. Davis is a foreign policy fellow and military expert  at Defense Priorities and retired from the US Army as a Lt. Col. after 21 years of active service. He was deployed into combat zones four times in his career, beginning with Operation Desert Storm in 1991, and then to Iraq in 2009 and Afghanistan twice (2005, 2011). He was awarded the Bronze Star Medal for Valor at the Battle of 73 Easting in 1991, and awarded a Bronze Star Medal in Afghanistan in 2011. He earned a Master of International Relations from Troy University in 2006 and speaks level II German and level I Russian. 

This piece was originally published by The National Interest on June 14, 2016. Read more HERE