Drone Warfare

The GFF’s Analysis on Drones and the US Right to Kill

By: Tom Galloway

Under the Obama administration, the United States has begun to rely heavily on drone strikes to combat Al Qaeda elements and the Taliban, launching lethal strikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. Drones – remotely-controlled, pilotless aerial vehicles armed with weapons–have proved appealing to American leaders wary of putting U.S. troops into dangerous and difficult areas, particularly after a decade of costly wars. But drones carry risks of their own—legal, moral and political—and we had better consider them as drones become among the most widely used weapons in our arsenal. Thus far, American and international media coverage of drones primarily focuses on aspects such as the secretive nature of the program within the U.S. government and civilian casualties in Pakistan and Yemen. While certainly important, there are also many areas that have not received deserved attention. The Galloway Family Foundation is committed to emphasizing and covering these underplayed aspects of drone analysis.

While unprecedented in their use today, drones are actually not new. First employed by the Germans in World War II, drones were also used in by Israel in the 1982 Lebanon War and by the United States in the first Gulf War. Only after 9/11, however, have they become an indispensable tool in the U.S.’s campaign against anti-American terrorism. While winding down ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, President Obama has dramatically increased the use of drones (for both surveillance and lethal targeting) around the world. Though the program is barely acknowledged by government officials, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism has tracked a minimum of 444 strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia (none of which the U.S. is officially engaged with in an armed conflict). The most recent strike occurred in Yemen in mid-December 2013—at least 10 people were killed while traveling as a convoy to a wedding. Most of the dead were civilians though some in the wedding party were identified as al Qaeda members. U.S. surveillance drones have been used in various countries in Africa, South America and Asia.

Drone strikes received more public attention in 2013 than they probably ever have, culminating in a May speech by President Obama on U.S. counterterrorism policy that directly addressed and defended the use of drones. The drone debate also coincided with another of the most important stories of the year—the NSA surveillance leaks. Government transparency and accountability became hot button issues, and Americans were made aware of how much is hidden from them in the U.S.’s ongoing war on terrorism. The NSA leaks also brought attention to the concept of “secret law”—an entire body of law created by executive decrees and confidential court decisions that is kept confidential. The Administration’s legal justification for the right to kill is not public knowledge, and the only related document that is available is a leaked white paper from the Department of Justice outlining only its specific reasoning for killing a high-level al Qaeda operative when that person is also a U.S. citizen away from U.S. territory (i.e. Anwar Awlaki). Drones also occupied international headlines. In Germany, drones became an election issue after the public was made aware of a thirteen-year surveillance drone program that cost a half-billion dollars and was subsequently cancelled by mid-2013. China flew its first stealth drone in November 2013. The drone program and civilian deaths are consistently cited as factors fueling rampant anti-Americanism in Pakistan and Yemen.

Drones can and do provide valuable services in both civilian and military environments. For example, drones were used to collect information on damage following the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster in 2011. Lethal strikes have also been an important part of a broader military strategy that has largely destroyed the core al Qaeda group in the AfPak region. But they also have important consequences and long-term implication that cannot be ignored. Drones will be one of the most important features of the 21st century military, and a key test for both the government and the public will be how to balance the useful and legal aspects of drones with the dangerous and counterproductive ones.

The Galloway Family Foundation seeks to provide a comprehensive analysis on the use of drones and the right to kill by exploring several related areas of interest in close detail. Currently, we have identified over thirty topics and sub-topics that we believe thoroughly examine the myriad issues in the debate on lethal drones while raising even more important questions on their legality and efficacy. Please visit the links below to explore these topics:

The Right to Use Lethal Force

What is “armed conflict”?

The role of the courts

Al Qaeda and its “associates”: Who can be killed?

Who is a “terrorist”?

Lawful use of drones by non-state actors

Automating the decision to kill

The nature of the “threat” and the right to kill

Jus in Bellum: The Way Force May Legally Be Used

Imminence and the window of opportunity


Signature Strikes