Globalist Analysis

Drones: Backfiring on U.S. Strategy

Do drone attacks violate international humanitarian law?


  • CIA officers are concerned that the use of drones will backfire and may help Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders recruit more militants.
  • Drone attacks are considered cowardly weapons — and Pakistani rockers sing about America's lack of honor and courage in fighting the war.
  • Drone "pilots" have higher levels of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) than those fighting in the combat zone.
  • One of the most successful U.S. drone operators is a 19-year-old high school dropout who has experience with video games.

Predator drones are equipped with large and powerful cameras that beam real-time images to their operators. Last February, a Predator crew operating out of Creech Air Force Base, Nevada, asked for an air strike against three vehicles with males supposed to be insurgents.

An OH-58D Kiowa helicopter fired Hellfire missiles and rockets which destroyed the three vehicles, killing 23 innocent men, women and children — and 12 more were seriously injured.

In a scathing report released on May 29, the U.S. military blamed the strikes on the “inaccurate and unprofessional reporting” by a team of Predator drone operators.

This episode illustrates the serious risks involved in the use of drones, which many law experts see as violating rules of war. Predator drones are extensively used in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where they track and kill suspected insurgents, sometimes with their own missiles.

A report by Philip Alston, the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, makes a thorough assessment on the effect of drones, whose use has provoked significant controversy.

Drones’ proponents argue that since they have significant surveillance capacity and great precision, they are able to avoid collateral civilian casualties and injuries. They also state that since drones may provide the ability to conduct aerial surveillance and to gather “pattern of life” information, they may allow operators to distinguish between peaceful civilians and those engaged in direct hostilities.

The above episode is a clear demonstration of the fallacy of this argument and of the dangers to civilians in using such lethal weapons.

According to the Alston report, the main concern about drones is that they make it easier to kill without any risk to a state’s forces. An even greater risk is the process of trivializing war, thus making it a deadlier, more dangerous activity since it affects not only those who are targets — but also those who direct the operation and for whom war becomes no more significant than a video game.

As Alston states in the report, “because operators are based thousands of miles away from the battlefield, and undertake operations entirely through computer screens and remote audio-feed, there is a risk of developing a ‘Playstation’ mentality to it.”

In these conditions, it is not surprising that one of the most successful drone operators is a 19-year-old high school dropout who owes much of his technical expertise to his experience with video games.

An additional complication to the use of drones is that, in many cases, international forces are too often uninformed of local practices, or too credulous in interpreting information, to be able to arrive at a reliable understanding of a situation, according to Michael N. Schmitt, a professor of international law at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies, in Germany.

He believes that precision warfare (such as the type carried out by drones) intersects, or has the potential to interact, with international humanitarian law in four specific areas. These areas are the prohibition of indiscriminate attacks, the principle of proportionality, the requirement to take precautions in attack — and perfidy and other misuses of protected status.

Precision attacks as carried out by drones may violate international humanitarian law’s tenet of distinction, as stated in Articles 48, 51 and 52 of Additional Protocol I. As indicated by Schmitt, distinction has been cited as a “cardinal” principle of international humanitarian law by the International Court of Justice.

CIA officers are concerned that the use of drones will backfire and may help Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders recruit more militants. “Some of the CIA operators are concerned that, because of its blowback effect, [the drones’ program] is doing more harm than good,” said Jeffrey Addicott, former legal adviser to U.S. Special Forces, in an interview with Inter Press Service.

Those on the receiving end of drone attacks consider them cowardly weapons — and Pakistani rockers sing about America’s lack of honor and courage in fighting the war.

The use of drones has some additional complications. Although those who operate the drones are far away from the theater of their operations, they can still watch the consequences of their actions. In many cases, they are not a pretty sight — particularly when the victims are innocent women and children, as shown in vivid detail by the high-resolution aircraft’s cameras.

In these conditions, it is not surprising that drone “pilots” have higher levels of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) than those fighting in the combat zone.

Although the full range of psychological effects of the use of such weapons systems is not yet fully understood, what is clear is the need for a thorough study of the consequences in those who operate them.

Currently, several countries — including China, France, India, Israel, Iran, Russia, Turkey and the United Kingdom — either have or are seeking drones with the capability to shoot laser-guided missiles.

If the use of these dangerous weapons becomes more frequent, so will adverse impacts on the safety of innocent civilians and violations of international humanitarian law.

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About César Chelala

César Chelala is a global health consultant and contributing editor for The Globalist. [New York, United States]

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