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State’s New Armed Drone Policy Confuses Ends With Means

Posted by David Deptula on


The intent behind the State Department’s new international policy for armed drones is admirable in principle but the declaration’s hoped-for real-world effect will fall short for three reasons. First, the combat effects of drones can be achieved through a variety of military means. Second, Remotely Piloted Aircraft (as the Air Force calls them) are tools whose use is guided by policy and strategy; they are not fundamentally unique. Third, critical drone exporting nations like Russia and China are not signatories to the declaration.

The Department of State issued its “Joint Declaration for the Export and Subsequent Use of Armed or Strike-Enabled Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs)” on Oct. 5, and it’s been signed by 45 supporting nations. The declaration stipulates that the international community “must take appropriate transparency measures to ensure the responsible export and subsequent use of these systems.”

The joint declaration on drones represents admirable intentions, but its practical impact will be elusive because the declaration’s characterization of drones as sufficiently distinctive to warrant such an agreement does not reflect reality. Drones enable greater ethical oversight allowing the ability to observe, evaluate, and respond to targets of interest in a highly informed fashion. Drones give mission commanders the means to achieve mission objectives in a precise fashion, while limiting collateral damage and unintended casualties.

Whether gathering Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) data, or engaging in actual strike operations, drones have become useful security tools owing to their persistence and accuracy. However, legacy military means can also gather ISR information and execute kinetic strikes. For example, when rebuilding the Iraqi Air Force, the United States provided manned Cessna Caravan aircraft outfitted with sensors and missiles just like those on drones. Whether a target is observed and struck by a manned Cessna or a Predator, the net effect is the same.

Today’s drones do not conduct automated attacks as portrayed in Hollywood movies. Remote data links controlling drones allow highly trained personnel—including lawyers and commanders—to better assess a situation to decide a most prudent course of action. To say that drones require special policy guidance and an international agreement, fails to recognize and acknowledge that these aircraft allow greater ethical oversight and greater precision in force application from a distance than any other means. It is also worth noting that historically, armed drones employ weapons on less than 2 percent of missions flown.

Over the past 15 years, the use of drones over areas like Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and beyond became controversial due to the mythology nurtured by both adversaries and the uninformed that they operate as autonomous killing machines causing indiscriminate loss of life. This characterization is completely inaccurate. Drones allow effective, more accurate, and less vulnerable employment of force to attain desired policy goals. The singling out of drones in the State Department declaration does more harm than good by lending undue credibility to adversary propaganda that these aircraft somehow represent “Terminator-like” machines that warrant extra regulation.

Finally, the declaration will have no impact on limiting drone proliferation since Russia and China did not sign it and have a long history of selling arms without restraint. Jordan, a U.S. ally in the current fight against Daesh (aka ISIL), requested American drones for use against a common enemy. The Obama administration denied the request.  Jordon then procured drones from China. Although humane principles are laudable, it is also important to recognize that agreements without key nations participating are self-defeating and can undermine U.S. security objectives.

Meanwhile, Syria’s use of barrel bombs, and Russia’s dropping of non-precision weapons against hospitals and civilians in direct contravention of the laws of armed conflict are resulting in crimes against humanity. Perhaps a better use of the State Department’s time would be addressing that dire situation rather than wasting effort trying to limit the use of drones that actually contribute to meeting the legitimate security concerns of using nations.

David Deptula, a retired Air Force Lt. General, is now dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Power Studies. He is a member of the Breaking Defense Board of Contributors

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