The proliferation of drones has become a hot topic in discussions on foreign policy. The Guardian mapped drone strikes in Pakistan, writing that they had been used “over 330 times with up to 3,247 casualties – including up to 852 civilians.”
Drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles, are defined as aircrafts without a human pilot on board, controlled by pilots on the ground. They can be used for many purposes, such as surveillance or for military purposes, in which they are outfitted with weapons such as Hellfire air-to-ground missiles. The United States has around 8,000 drones, and they have been used extensively in Pakistan since 2004 and since 2002 in Yemen, as well as in Somalia to target terrorist groups.
Drones are extremely controversial, in part because of their civilian casualties. The United States has been evasive on the exact number of civilian casualties, and also downright denied any: “Fortunately, for more than a year, due to our discretion and precision, the U.S. government has not found credible evidence of collateral deaths resulting from U.S. counterterrorism operations outside of Afghanistan or Iraq, and we will continue to do our best to keep it that way,” former counterterrorism advisor, and now, CIA director John Brennan said in 2011.
But zero collateral deaths is quite implausible. Drone pilot Brandon Bryant and another pilot were following orders when they pressed the trigger on a joystick and launched a missile at a house in Afghanistan. The countdown began, and at 3 seconds left a child walked into the corner. The explosion happened and he asked the pilot next to him if they had just killed a kid. “Yeah, I guess that was a kid,” the man responded. And in January, according to the Bureau for Investigative Journalism, in southeastern Yemen a drone mistakenly hit a house and killed 2 children.
The percentage of civilian victims in drone deaths have been estimated anywhere from between 4 percent to 20 percent. However, in more traditional military settings, civilian deaths often range from between 33 percent to more than 80 percent of all deaths. Drones are not as accurate as they are often portrayed, yet still more precise than a lot of traditional military operations. But drone strikes also have also understandably increased anti-American sentiment in Pakistan. These sentiments may end up increasing terrorist attacks rather than decreasing them. Using drones in other countries also amounts to undeclared warfare and a complete disregard for sovereignty, and I know I for one would not want foreign countries flying drones above my home to attack terrorist groups, while putting me at risk. I think the main issue, however, is that without the risk to American lives with drones we will get too sloppy. What actions merit a justified killing will become more lax when we have zero risk to the lives of our people. The rules for drones have not been established, although the UN is in the middle of an investigation on U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan. We must figure out where drones fit into the rules of warfare or risk living in a world policed by drones, both foreign and domestic.