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The US Drone: a brief history

As of September 2018, the United States would have been deploying lethal drones to strike ‘senior militant targets’ for seventeen years, ever since the September 11th, 2001 attacks. Seventeen years in which the data reveals that many casualties from these attacks have been civilians.

Of course, accurate figures are hard to come by – fog always descends on warfare and drone strikes are not immune from that confusion. The US government is notoriously secretive about strike numbers, killings, and targeting and decision making processes. The military continues to offer tidbits that paint its efforts in a positive light: ‘senior militant targets’ were killed in strikes on weddings, funerals, religious schools, even a hospital.

When the direct harm to civilians is writ large and the mask slips, the justifications flow. A 2015 attack on a Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) hospital in Afghanistan was blamed by the US military on a ‘combination of unintentional human errors and equipment failures.’[1] Meanwhile, the US still tries to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of local populations and the parties they are negotiating with, including the Taliban at present. The character of warfare is changing in the era of the unmanned aerial strike. This begs some critical questions to examine: how will we move forward from here, and what will future wars look like?

The US military’s use of drones (UAVs, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) in armed conflict has increased drastically since the start of the ‘War on Terror’. Initially only used for intelligence and surveillance purposes, these ‘eyes in the sky’ became increasingly weaponised; today they are just as likely to be targeting senior militant officials as they are to be monitoring them. And in that shift much has altered. It would not be too much to claim that the Predator UAV, first used in Afghanistan to target Al-Qaeda and Taliban militants, has changed the face and character of war forever.

The first form of the Predator drone was, innocuously, called the ‘Gnat’. A remotely piloted UAV, it came equipped with something that no remotely piloted device had had before – video cameras. The CIA and the military used such drones for filmed reconnaissance, and still do today. It enabled the Panopticon of counter-terrorism surveillance to become a permanent feature of conflict zones the world over.[2]

The drone’s evolution
Invented in 1995, the drones were used to locate Osama bin Laden in 2000 in Afghanistan, following the 1998 US embassy bombings and the 1993 World Trade Center bombings carried out by Al-Qaeda. The question arose – though – is once spotted, what next? Launching a raid on the ground was always risky and complicated, so it led to officials asking whether the US could equip drones with missiles. The mere Gnat became the weaponised Predator. The Predator was 8.23m long with a wingspan of 14.84cm and a weight of 1,035kg when fully loaded. A later version weighed as much as 4,536kg.[3]

The first Predators armed with Hellfire missiles were soon deployed to Afghanistan in the months following the September 11th attacks. A year later, the first drone strike killing outside of an active war zone occurred, carried out in Yemen against a cadre of Al-Qaeda militants.[4]

Today, the Reaper drone, a version that replaced the Predator, is used primarily for targeted killings. The US Air Force describes it as ‘larger and more powerful than the MQ-1 Predator, and is designed to execute time-sensitive targets with persistence and precision, and destroy or disable those targets’.[6] The Reaper has a 900-horsepower engine, compared to the Predator’s 119-horsepower engine, carries more than 15 times the artillery weight, and flies three times faster.[7] The US Air Force officially retired the Predator fleet in March 2018 in favour of the Reaper.[8] The Pentagon now has more than 7,000 aerial drones, with the 2017 fiscal year budget having allocated $4.61 billion for drone-related spending.[9] Flight time costs anywhere from $2,500-3,500 per hour.[10]

Reapers and Predators have lived up to their names. In total, they have killed thousands of people, many civilians, in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, and Syria.[11] The Bureau of Investigative Journalism claims that as of September 2018, 4,973 confirmed US drone strikes have killed at least 7,988 people of whom 751 have been – at minimum – civilians.[12]

Such a loss has escalated over time. The drone programme was much smaller in scope under the Bush administration as it was developing. Armed UAV strikes increased at an alarming rate under the Obama administration amid escalated efforts to combat Al-Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State (IS). The Trump administration has only continued this trend, perhaps most notably striking three Syrian chemical weapons bases in April 2018, after President Bashar al-Assad’s reported chemical attack on his people.[13]

Trumpian tactics, however, changed things. Strikes under him have been markedly different compared to past rhetoric surrounding drone strikes. President Obama’s administration emphasised the precision targeting of high-level terrorists. Trump used the attacks as a deterrent against a foreign government’s actions. This action may set a worrying precedent for a new purpose of drone strikes.

Such heavy handedness is not that surprising from a man whose presidential campaign avowed to ‘bomb the shit’ out of ISIS. And he has been true to that ambition – at least in terms of violence. During his first year in office, Trump tripled the number of hits in Yemen and Somalia from the previous year.[14]

Many Americans, though, remain largely unaware of the US’s actively offensive roles in these undeclared wars because they do not involve military personnel directly on the ground, and are not widely covered in the media. Nonetheless, despite such relative lack of scrutiny, hard questions remain about such use. One of the significant issues with drone strikes is concerning who has the authority to order them. The practice of the CIA ordering the attacks was ended by Obama, transferring this authority to the US military alone, but Trump reversed this action in 2017.[15] This means that, today, the US does not have central oversight of their drone programme by one governing body. Back in the arms of the CIA, US drone strikes lack a comprehensive monitoring and reporting system, and much information is kept classified and unreported.

A global campaign, in numbers
The drone programme expanded quickly. During George W. Bush’s presidency, the military reportedly conducted 57 airstrikes in Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia. But under President Obama, as technology advanced and the terror threat expanded, that number of drone strikes increased ten-fold. His administration authorised more strikes in his first year in office than Bush did in his entire administration.

Perhaps seduced by the notion that drones could conduct ‘precise’ and ‘targeted’ killings, President Obama oversaw 563 airstrikes on Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia. Meanwhile, in 2016 alone, the US conducted 1,071 airstrikes in Afghanistan.[16] Under the Trump administration, the US has doubled down on the airstrike campaign, at rates that far exceed Obama’s first years. On average, Obama’s administration used drones and raids once every 5.4 days; as of last summer, Trump used them about once every 1.25 days.[17] This increase sets an alarming precedent for the rest of his term.

AOAV’s data on explosive violence around the world has shown that, on average, nine out of ten people killed or injured when explosive weapons are used in populated areas will be civilians. In light of this, then, it is not surprising that many deaths from US drone strikes have been civilians, and often such deaths go underreported or not officially recognised. Media reports, for instance, of a 2006 CIA drone strike on a Pakistan madrassa that allegedly killed 80 civilians, including 69 children, was denied as having been perpetrated by the US.[18]

There are numerous cases of other US incidents involving the significant loss of civilian life. A 2009 CIA strike targeting a funeral in Pakistan, for instance, killed an estimated 41 civilians.[19] A 2014 strike on a Yemen wedding party killed 12 people, the family having no apparent ties to Al-Qaeda.[20] A 2015 strike on an Afghanistan Doctors Without Borders hospital killed 42 people and wounded dozens more, with officials claiming drone operators did not know they were targeting a hospital.[21] These incidents may be isolated but, over the years, the cumulative toll on civilians has been profound.

One of the challenges towards proving that the US is acting disproportionately in its use of drone air strikes, however, is that the actual numbers of airstrikes and civilian casualties are impossible to accurately determine. This is largely down to the secrecy that surrounds US air campaigns, and has meant that various organisations, AOAV included, are forced to rely on local and international media sources.

Sometimes admissions are made. The US-led coalition announced in November 2017 that their 2014-2017 airstrike campaign in Iraq and Syria killed at least 800 civilians, with 695 additional reports under review. Such transparency might seem impressive, but human rights organisations estimate the numbers are much higher. Monitoring group Airwars, for instance, estimates that 5,961 civilians were killed in the campaign.[22]

Are drone strikes legal under the international law?
Such civilian deaths have meant that the legality of drone strikes under international law has been one of fierce debate since their first use. The US has flown and operated drones within countries’ borders without their consent, a violation of the principles of sovereignty and security of national borders. And it raises major questions. Are drone strikes outside of the theatre of war in Afghanistan legal? The ‘War on Terror’ was an effective declaration of war in any country accused of supporting or harbouring terrorists. But does that make these strikes legal under the laws of armed conflict?

The laws laid out by the Geneva Conventions apply to all armed conflict, whether between states or with organised armed groups within a state’s territory. They, therefore, govern the global ‘War on Terror’ despite distinction of a traditional enemy. The internationally standardised Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC) defined by the Geneva and Hague Conventions includes four critical requirements: (1) clear distinction between civilians and combatants; (2) proportionality of damage; (3) military necessity of operations; and (4) prevention of unnecessary suffering.[23]

The law of distinction protecting non-combatants states that ‘in order to ensure respect for and protection of the civilian population and civilian objects, the Parties to the conflict shall at all times distinguish between the civilian population and combatants and between civilian objects and military objectives and accordingly shall direct their operations only against military objectives.’[24] Terror groups clearly do not abide by these laws of conflict, attacking civilians as their primary tactic. The US military, however, must make every effort to protect civilian populations according to this protocol. So when considering the US decisions to strike a school or a hospital, adherence to the rule of law comes into question.

In active hostility zones the law of conflict tolerates civilian casualties, but only if the targets are military and damage is proportional to the military’s operational benefit.[25] The Geneva protocol specifically prohibits ‘an attack which may be expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, damage to civilian objects, or a combination thereof, which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated.’[26] But how does one truly judge what damage is ‘excessive’ and why? This definition is by nature subjective. What’s unclear is where the line should be drawn when it comes to combating terrorism. It may be difficult proportionally to equate the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians with the deaths of much smaller numbers of terrorists, but this is how the United States has justified its global drone campaign.

The laws also require that any action must be necessary to advance the military objective, and combatants must be protected from unnecessary suffering.[27] But high casualty numbers contradict these rules of law. The US has defended its drone programme, with the Obama administration making concerted efforts to address criticisms around civilian casualties and the drone strike escalation that occurred. He established the practice of annually reporting on casualties including civilian deaths. Yet, according to the New York Times, ‘Mr Obama embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties that did little to box him in. It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants…unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.’[28] This practice led to a significantly lower number of collateral non-combatant deaths reported, designating anyone unknown killed in a strike as an ‘enemy killed in action.’

In 2015, investigative website The Intercept reported on documents leaked by a whistleblower detailing an Afghanistan operation, Operation Haymaker. They showed that ‘between January 2012 and February 2013, US special operations airstrikes killed more than 200 people. Of those, only 35 were the intended targets. During one five-month period of the operation, according to the documents, nearly 90 per cent of the people killed in airstrikes were not the intended targets.’[29] Such a leak was potent: ninety per cent deaths not being the intended targets challenges to the core the claim that US strikes are proportional.

The US’s legal justification
The US authority to order drone and air strikes ultimately lies with the President under the Authorization for the Use of Military Force Act (AUMF). This act was passed by Congress directly after the 9/11 attacks, and gave the president authority to ‘use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organisations, or persons’ deemed to be behind the attacks.

It is a very wide scope that allows the president legally to declare a global war on terror, to target individuals or nations, and to order drone strikes and surveillance without Congressional approval. AUMF has no time limits or geographical limits and has, therefore, granted Bush, Obama, and Trump the same authority to carry out a seventeen-year global war, a war with no seeming end in sight. The law has been used to justify targeting ‘associated forces’ outside of the war zones of Afghanistan and Iraq and to include their use against terror groups and their affiliates.[30]

Over time, there has been some recognition that limitations are needed. The US has established some legal restrictions on the use of lethal force outside active conflict zones, attempting to increase transparency amid widespread criticism from human rights organisations and the media. In 2013, the Obama administration established the Presidential Policy Guidance (PPG), ‘a framework that governs our use of force against terrorists — insisting upon clear guidelines, oversight and accountability.’ It was to set guidelines for the use of drone strikes outside of ‘areas of active hostilities.’[31] In the end, though, the PPG remained classified and was only released in a redacted version following a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union. Even then it did not provide a clear legal justification for drone strikes outside of the theatre of war; both the Obama and Trump administrations have effectively circumvented the PPG requirements by declaring large swathes of Yemen and Somalia as ‘areas of active hostilities.’[32]

Most notably under the Trump administration, the military has ramped up special operations raids and drone strikes outside of conventional war zones, while relaxing oversight processes and decreasing transparency.[33] In 2017, the administration produced a new version of the PPG, the Principles, Standards, and Procedures (PSP). It had two key changes: first, targets would now include lower level jihadists, ones who did not pose an imminent threat to Americans. Second, proposed drone strikes no longer had to be vetted in the same high-level process established under Obama. The ‘near-certainty’ of civilian survival was still kept in place. President Trump declared large areas of Yemen and Somalia ‘areas of active hostilities’ to ease restrictions on direct action there. The administration has so far ignored executive orders passed by Congress under Obama, requiring annual reports of civilian casualties in counterterrorism strikes.[34]

The fight against terror and for ‘hearts and minds’
Over time, US officials and proponents of the programme have focused repeatedly on drone strikes’ effectiveness at thwarting terrorism and taking out senior militants. American campaigns have, the argument goes, been successful in significantly weakening various groups and their affiliates. Proponents believe that drones deny jihadists sanctuary and limit their ability to plan attacks.

How much of this, though, stands up to scrutiny? Over almost seventeen years of war, US air strikes and ground operations have arguably led to more terrorism, not less.

At the beginning of the post-9/11 strike campaigns, President Bush targeted Al-Qaeda cells in Yemen and Pakistan, and the initial results looked positive as the group’s networks were nearly decimated. However, as the Bush administration shifted its focus to Iraq, Al Qaeda leveraged ties to the Taliban and Pakistan’s Haqqani network, and by the mid-2000s had regenerated in both countries.[35] This raises the question as to whether drones create ‘martyrs’, who then go on to act as recruitment flags for the next generation of discontent youths.

US counterinsurgency and countering violent extremism (CVE) strategy has focused on winning the ‘hearts and minds’ of local populations to gain support and prevent radicalisation, but what of the psychological effects of constant drone surveillance in villages that have been struck in the past? What of the children whose families have been killed in airstrikes? It is important to consider the effects of the damage in years to come and the security vacuums that have been created. Civilian deaths in drone strikes have been a rallying cry and recruitment fodder for the Islamic State, their magazine publications having routinely published long lists of deaths.

American counterterrorism expert David Kilcullen has written that ‘every one of these dead noncombatants represents an alienated family, a new desire for revenge, and more recruits for a militant movement that has grown exponentially even as drone strikes have increased.’[36] The strikes have caused local resentment of the United States and the state governments who have consented to the strikes. The 2017 Manchester arena suicide bomber is believed to have carried out the attack as a reaction to US-led airstrikes in Syria and the resulting civilian deaths.[37]

A new era of warfare
The dawn of the weaponised unmanned aerial drone brought with it a new era of warfare, different in character than those before it. There are new considerations that should be at the forefront of public dialogue alongside the continuous development of lethal technology. Drones have effectively removed the human element from the ground theatre of war, which has its advantages for the safety of soldiers and tactical precision. But do the international laws and standards governing armed conflict and human rights need to adapt to this new form of war? Legal accountability and oversight of such programmes should be seriously considered, as other countries begin to develop their own drone programmes. What will future wars look like, under the Trump administration and its successors?

One often-overlooked concern is the data security of the drone fleet’s systems. An Air Force captain’s computer was hacked in July 2018, and unclassified documents on the Reaper drone were published on the dark web. The records included training manuals on the drone’s operation, alongside a list of airmen working on its maintenance.[38] This instance was not the first time a US drone has been hacked, either. Iraqi insurgents hacked a US Predator drone in 2009, gaining access to live video feeds revealing potential targets with software that reportedly cost $26.[39] In 2011, an engineer with the Iranian military claimed to have downed an American drone by reconfiguring its GPS coordinates.[40] The Pentagon confirmed an American drone was missing and had not been recovered, and CNN reported the drone was part of a CIA mission involving the intelligence community and military stationed in Afghanistan.[41] A year later, the Iranian military announced it had extracted all of the drone’s data and were building a replica with reverse engineering, and released footage allegedly from the downed drone.[42] They claimed to have successfully created an operational UAV based on the model in 2016.[43]

Such instances are few and far between when considering the thousands of drone strikes the US has carried out, but as the future of the drone programme is assessed, cyber security must be a critical consideration in such drone’s future application. It is vital to consider vulnerability to cyber warfare if these systems or their data are commandeered even in one instance. As AOAV has reported, too, the use of drone strikes by terror groups is already commonplace.

As the Trump administration increases strikes and continues to ignore Congressional requirements to publish civilian casualty numbers, the public dialogue around the drone programme needs urgently to be revisited. The legality and morality of a strategy that kills so many civilians must be evaluated. The character of modern war has changed under the drone, and will continue to do so as technology advances; the public must, therefore, interrogate the effectiveness and transparency of a lethal drone global campaign and continue to question whether such a campaign is proportional, ethical and effective. For without such a public call the question will ultimately be raised: where does one form of terrorism end and another begin?



[1] Barbara Starr and Ryan Browne. “Pentagon: U.S. bombing of Afghanistan hospital not a ‘war crime.'” CNN. 29 April 2016.

2 Mark Bowden. “How the Predator Drone Changed the Character of War.” Smithsonian Magazine. November 2013.

3“Predator RQ-1 / MQ-1 / MQ-9 Reaper UAV.” Air Force Technology.

4 “Sources: U.S. kills Cole suspect.” CNN. 5 November 2002.

5 Mark Bowden. “How the Predator Drone Changed the Character of War.” Smithsonian Magazine. November 2013.

6 “MQ-9 Reaper.” US Air Force. 23 September 2015.

7 ” ‘Reaper’ moniker given to MQ-9 unmanned aerial vehicle.” US Air Force Archive. 14 September 2006.

8 Tyler Rogoway. “USAF Officially Retires MQ-1 Predator While MQ-9 Reaper Set To Gain Air-To-Air Missiles.” The Drive. 9 March 2018.

9 “Drone Spending in the FY17 Defense Budget.” Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College. 15 February 2016.

10 “Understanding Drones.” Friends Committee on National Legislation.

11 Karen DeYoung and Greg Miller. “White House releases its count of civilian deaths in counterterrorism operations under Obama.” The Washington Post. 1 July 2016.

12 “Drone Warfare.” The Bureau of Investigative Journalism. September 2018.

13 Michael Crowley and Andrew Restuccia. “Trump Strikes Syria.” Politico. 13 April 2018.

14 Jessica Purkis. “Trump’s first year in numbers: Strikes triple in Yemen and Somalia.” The Bureau of Investigative Journalism. 19 January 2018.

15 Gordon Lubold and Shane Harris. “Trump Broadens CIA Powers, Allows Deadly Drone Strikes.” Wall Street Journal. 13 March 2017.

16 Jessica Purkis and Jack Serle. “Obama’s covert drone war in numbers: ten times more strikes than Bush.” The Bureau of Investigative Journalism. 17 January 2017.

17 Michael Shank. “Doubling Down on Drone Mistakes.” US News. 29 June 2017.

18 Chris Woods. “Over 160 children reported among drone deaths.” The Bureau of Investigative Journalism. 11 August 2011.

19 Conor Friedersdorf. “Obama’s Weak Defense of His Record on Drone Killings.” The Atlantic. 23 December 2016.

20 Rooj Alwazir. “Yemenis seek justice in wedding drone strike.” Al Jazeera. 21 May 2014.

21 “Kunduz hospital attack.” Medecins Sans Frontieres.

22 Kareem Shaheen. “US-led coalition says its strikes have killed 800 Iraqi and Syrian civilians.” The Guardian. 30 November 2017.

23 “The Law of Armed Conflict.” International Committee of the Red Cross. June 2002.

24 “The Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC): 4 Basic Principles.” LOAC Blog.

25 Kate Martin. “Are U.S. Drone Strikes Legal?.” Center for American Progress. 1 April 2016.

26 “Practice Relating to Rule 14. Proportionality in Attack.” International Committee of the Red Cross.

27 “The Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC): 4 Basic Principles.” LOAC Blog.

28 Conor Friedersdorf. “Obama’s Weak Defense of His Record on Drone Killings.” The Atlantic. 23 December 2016.

29 Jeremy Scahill. “The Assassination Complex: The Drone Papers.” The Intercept. 15 October 2015.

30 “Legality of Drone Warfare.” The Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

31 Kate Martin. “Are U.S. Drone Strikes Legal?.” Center for American Progress. 1 April 2016.

32 Charlie Savage and Eric Schmitt. “Trump Poised to Drop Some Limits on Drone Strikes and Commando Raids.” New York Times. 21 September 2017.

33 Stephen Tankel. “Donald Trump’s Shadow War.” Politico. 9 May 2018.

34 Joshua Geltzer. “White House Ignores Executive Order Requiring Count of Civilian Casualties in Counterterrorism Strikes.” New America Foundation. 1 May 2018.

35 Stephen Tankel. “Donald Trump’s Shadow War.” Politico. 9 May 2018.

36 David Kilcullen and Andrew McDonald Exum. “Death From Above, Outrage Down Below.” New York Times. 16 May 2009.

37 “Manchester attack: Who was Salman Abedi?” BBC. 12 June 2017.

38 Jenna McLaughlin. “US Reaper drone data leaked on dark web, researchers say.” CNN. 10 July 2018.

39 Ewen MacAskill. “US drones hacked by Iraqi insurgents.” The Guardian. 17 December 2009.

40 Scott Peterson and Payam Faramarzi. “Exclusive: Iran hijacked US drone, says Iranian engineer.” Christian Science Monitor. 15 December 2011.

41 “Obama says U.S. has asked Iran to return drone aircraft.” CNN. 13 December 2011.

42 “Iran says it has gleaned data from U.S. spy drone.” SF Gate. 23 April 2012.

43 “Iran builds attack drone similar to captured US model, local media say.” The Guardian. 1 October 2016.