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Research on the Use of Drones in the War on Terror

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The use of drones has been a major feature of the War on Terror being waged by the United States. This sample research paper explores several aspects of this issue in greater depth.

The emergence of drones in the military

To start with, then, it is worth clearly defining what a drone is. In response to this question, Howell has indicated the following:

"In aviation and in space, a drone refers to an unpiloted aircraft or spacecraft. Another term for it is an 'unmanned aerial vehicle' or UAV. On Earth, drones are often used for military purposes because they don't put a pilot's life at risk in combat zones" (paragraph 1).

So, a drone is essentially an airplane that is capable of flying itself, without the requirement of having a human being on board to drive it. Within the context of counterintelligence and the War on Terror in particular and military operations in general, drones are outfitted with weaponry such as guns, missiles, and bombs; and they are programmed to unleash this weaponry when they reach specified geographical coordinates.

Military use of drones

The use of drones is often a preferred option in military operations due to the simple fact that drones allow one to attack the enemy while at the same time ensuring the safety of the lives of one's own people. If a pilot were on board a military aircraft, then his life would be in real danger in the midst of a military operation. With drones, however, such a risk simply does not exist.

The use a machine for violent purposes against human beings, however, raises a number of important questions. For one thing, one can wonder about the simple effectiveness of drone strikes, and how they match up to other kinds of military operations. For another, drones inhabit a murky legal status, insofar as it is sometimes difficult to judge whether the use of drones legally qualifies as actual warfare.

The use of drones also raises critical moral questions, insofar as it becomes unclear who should be held responsible and accountable for the results produced by drone strikes. These are the kinds of questions and issues that will now be taken up by the present sample essay.

Results of drone strikes

It would seem that drone strikes thus far have in fact been effective at taking out important terrorist figures. As Michaels indicated in March 2015:

"A drone strike that killed an alleged planner of the 2013 Kenyan mall massacre is the latest victory for a U.S. campaign that has taken out more than 500 suspected terrorist leaders since shortly after the 9/11 attacks. Most have been drone strikes, the Obama administration's weapon of choice" (paragraphs 1-2).

So, insofar as the purpose of the American campaign against terrorism has been to eliminate terrorist leaders, the case can clearly be made that the use of drone strikes has been an intelligent choice of military tactics. Moreover, this tactic has clearly had the added benefit of keeping Americans themselves out of harm's way.

In the ground campaign in Iraq, for example, actual American families experienced the loss of their loved ones, which substantially diminished morale and support for that war. With the drone strikes, on the other hand, Americans themselves barely feel a thing.

Deaths as a result of military drone strikes

On the other hand, however, the truth would seem to be that drone strikes are also responsible for the deaths of many innocent civilians, even as they have achieved the objective of eliminating key terrorist leaders. And as Shane has pointed out:

"Every independent investigation of the strikes has found far more civilian casualties than administration officials admit. Gradually, it has become clear that when operators in Nevada fire missiles into remote tribal territories on the other side of the world, they often do not know who they are killing but are making an imperfect best guess" (paragraph 5).

This is disconcerting, to put the matter as mildly as possible. In particular, the question could be asked: if the United States is making innocent people in the Middle East live in fear of being randomly murdered from the sky at any time, then is the United States itself not guilty, almost by definition, of an act of terrorism? Clearly, there are few prospects more terrifying for the average person than that of being shot from the sky at any time, for no reason whatsoever.

Military drone strike statistics

This concern regarding the results of drone strikes is exacerbated by the relevant statistical evidence on the matter. On the basis of the relevant data, Blake has reported:

"drone strikes conducted by the United States during a 5-month-long campaign in Afghanistan caused the deaths of unintended targets nearly nine out of ten times, leaked intelligence documents suggest" (paragraph 1).

It is difficult to know what exactly to say about a finding such as this one. At the very least, one could ask whether the successful elimination of Islamic extremists and terrorists is really worth this kind of "collateral damage"—a term which, of course, is just a euphemism that is used to refer to the murder of innocent civilians. If drone strikes are to be considered justifiable, then one would think that the use of this tactic should have to produce something better than a mere 10-percent success rate.

Legality of drones

The use of drones in military operations also raises important legal issues. The main problem in this regard has to do with the fact that the United States has consistently used drone strikes within the territories of nations that the United States is not in fact officially at war with. This is related to the broader point that "Terror" itself is a concept, and not a jurisdiction. As Moynihan has pointed out:

"The exercise of self-defence in this case is not against a state but against an armed group, which brings its own legal difficulties. Although not uncontroversial, an argument can be made that military action against armed groups, without the consent of the state in which they are to be found, is lawful if that state is unable and unwilling to prevent the armed groups attacking other states" (paragraph 6).

If this is true, then it would the case (for example) that the United States could lawfully attack Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Syria, even as the United States remains on militarily neutral terms with the government of Syria as such.

Determining the jurisdiction of terrorist attacks

There are also legal and conceptual difficulties pertaining to whether the use of drone strikes against armed terrorists actually constitutes an act of warfare at all, or whether it would be better to conceptualize such efforts in terms of the framework of law enforcement. Depending on how this matter is conceptualized, the norms regarding the taking of human life could change in somewhat drastic ways. To quote Moynihan again:

"For an isolated act of self-defence, only human rights law applies. That law sets a very high threshold before the taking of life can be justified: the threat to others must be immediate (as in a policing operation)" (paragraph 7).

In short, if drone strikes are police operations, then they would need to respect human rights laws that prohibit the placid acceptance of collateral damage; and if they represent acts of war, then they would also need to respect the laws governing warfare itself. Either way, drone strikes would seem to lie on extremely complex and shadowy legal grounds.

Military drones and morality

Protecting national security against acts of terror is important, but it is also worth considering drone strikes from a strictly moral perspective. When the matter is seen from this angle, the most concerning aspect of drone strikes would seem to be the almost-total lack of real moral responsibility being assigned for the taking of human life. As Maguire has clearly stated:

"A big part of the moral problem with drones is that they make it too easy for that powers-that-be to bomb whomever they want without much political fallout. Sending troops in on the ground and putting them in direct danger comes with political consequences, but if we attack our so-called 'enemies' remotely, and don't have soldiers coming back in body bags, then there's not going to be nearly as much backlash" (paragraph 7).

It was stated above that with drone strikes, actual American families do not have to feel a thing. But seen from the moral angle, this itself is a huge aspect of the problem: people are getting murdered, and no one expects the victims feels much of anything; in short, there is no real sense of moral responsibility for what is essentially murder.


In summary, the present essay has consisted of a discussion of several aspects of the use of drones in the War on Terror, including the nature of drones themselves, the results of drone strikes, the legal implications of drone strikes, and the moral implications of drone strikes.

A key conclusion that has been reached here is that the use of drone strikes is morally atrocious, insofar as it tends to reduce human death to the level of virtual reality and absolve the need for actual human beings to take responsibility for the deaths of other actual human beings. This is the kind of callous disregard that characterizes terrorists; it is thus unbecoming of their enemies.

Works Cited

Blake, Andrew. "Obama-Led Drone Strikes Kill Innocents 90% of the Time: Report." Washington Times. 15 Oct. 2015. Web. 13 Mar. 2016. http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2015/oct/15/90-of-people-killed-by-us-drone-strikes-in-afghani/.

Gordon, Neve. "Drones and the New Ethics of War." Common Dreams. 23 Jan. 2015. Web. 13 Mar. 2016. http://www.commondreams.org/views/2015/01/23/drones-and-new-ethics-war.

Howell, Elizabeth. "What Is a Drone?" Space.com. 2 Jun. 2015. Web. 13 Mar. 2016. http://www.space.com/29544-what-is-a-drone.html.

Maguire, Laura. "The Ethics of Drone Warfare." Philosophy Talk. n.d. Web. 16 Mar. 2016. http://www.philosophytalk.org/community/blog/laura-maguire/2015/09/ethics-drone-warfare.

Michaels, Jim. "Drones: The Face of the War on Terror." USA Today. 20 Mar. 2015. Web. 13 Mar. 2016. http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2015/03/19/drones-pakistan-iraq/25033955/.

Moynihan, Harriet. "UK Drone Strikes on ISIS Raises Legal Questions." Chatham House. 15 Sep. 2015. Web. 13 Mar. 2016. ;https://www.chathamhouse.org/expert/comment/uk- drone-strike-isis-raises-legal-questions.

Shane, Scott. "Drone Strikes Reveal Uncomfortable Truth: U.S. Is Often Unsure About Who Will Die." New York Times. 23 Apr. 2015. Web. 13 Mar. 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/24/world/asia/drone-strikes-reveal-uncomfortable-truth-us-is-often-unsure-about-who-will-die.html.



Ultius, Inc. "Research on the Use of Drones in the War on Terror." Ultius | Custom Writing and Editing Services. Ultius Blog, 17 Mar. 2016. https://www.ultius.com/ultius-blog/entry/research-on-the-use-of-drones-in-the-war-on-terror.html

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Ultius, Inc. "Research on the Use of Drones in the War on Terror." Ultius | Custom Writing and Editing Services. March 17, 2016. https://www.ultius.com/ultius-blog/entry/research-on-the-use-of-drones-in-the-war-on-terror.html.

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Ultius, Inc. "Research on the Use of Drones in the War on Terror." Ultius | Custom Writing and Editing Services. March 17, 2016. https://www.ultius.com/ultius-blog/entry/research-on-the-use-of-drones-in-the-war-on-terror.html.

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