Thursday, April 18, 2013

Predator Drones: Literature Review

Literature Review on Predator Drones
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UVA’a) or drones are defined as an unmanned aircraft that does not carry a human operator and is capable of flight under remote control or autonomous programming (Department of Defence 2012). The United States relies heavily on its predator drone program to eliminate enemies in its overseas armed conflicts, specifically in countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia. The use of these drones is not new, however the nature of their use currently has changed. Throughout the 20th century drones were used mostly for surveillance and intelligence gathering, however now they are used for targeted killings of enemy combatants (Khan 2011).  According to a study conducted by Dunn et al. suggests that the use of UVA’s by the United States has increased over the passed decade. Data suggests that over 1300 strikes have been conducted against various enemy targets, killing almost 3000 insurgents and 500 civilians  (Dunn, Wheeler and Wolff). The technical precision of these weapons has been under controversy. One factor that results in reduced target precision is the delay between movement on the ground and the arrival of the image via satellite to the drone pilot  (Living Under Drones 2012). However, the problem that still needs to be addressed is that even though drones are much more efficient and cost beneficial than traditional means of warfare, their precision still is limited. Even when drones are precise their resulting casualties and damages are not necessarily confined to a specific individual, vehicle or building targeted. Its blast radius can extend anywhere to 15-20 metres and blast material may be projected to significant distances from the blast (ibid).
The rationale for the United States for using drone warfare and its subsequent legal justification stems from the  Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF), a resolution passed by congress upon the aftermath of 9/11. The AUMF allows the President to use “all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, comitted, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harboured such organizations or persons” (Authorization for Use of Military Force, Pub. L. No. 107-40, 115 Stat. 224 (2001)). The problem with this, however is that it gives the President expansive powers to declare any individual or organization as an enemy, and also it fails to impose geographic boundaries of any kind (Vogel 2010-11). Vogel also argues that as long as the laws of armed conflict (Jus in bello) are adhered to, drone strikes are completely justified in their application (2010-11:139).
The matter still cannot be laid to rest. There are many ambiguities in Vogel’s approach. This fact is visible in the terminology used in addressing the victims of drone strikes. The media that reports on drone strikes tends to lump the affectees into two categories: civilians or militants (Khan 2011). This reinforces widespread ambiguities and misunderstandings that all “militants” are legitimate targets for the use of lethal force, and that any drone strike conducted against these militants is lawful. This binary distinction of militant/civilian inevitably enables political discourse to make sweeping generalizations of the drone program’s efficiency, efficacy and accuracy, which is also questionable from a legal perspective, and also the reliability in determining the status of a victim as a “militant” (Living Under Drones 2012).  Moreover there is not much of a distinction between high and low value targets, and how much of collateral damage is permissible for this (x) specific high value  target?  The New America Foundation reported that less than 13% of drone strikes carried out under President Obama have killed a militant leader. (Peter Bergen and Megan Braun, Drone is Obama’s Weapon of Choice, CNN (Sept. 6, 2012)). Bergen and Braun also report that since 2004, some 49 “militant leaders” have been killed in drone strikes, constituting “2% of all drone-related fatalities” (ibid).
The impact of drone strikes upon the local population must also be taken onto account, as the strikes result in serious economic, social and political implications. The most direct impact of the strikes after killings and injuries include damage to property and economic hardship. The victims and their relatives suffer severe emotional trauma. Moreover the constant presence of drones hovering above residential areas leaves the locals traumatized and fearful of a sudden attack. It affects the willingness of locals to engage in a wide variety of social and political activities where there is a requirement of a large gathering of people. People fear that they may be mistaken for being a militant (Living Under Drones 2012). People have stopped sending their children to school, disrupted their social gatherings and thus undermine community life for example, attending funerals or weddings all in fear of their safety (ibid.).


Department of Defence, 331 Joint Publication 1-02. "Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms." 2010.

Dunn, David Hastings, Nicholas J. Wheeler and Stefan Wolff. "The Political Effects of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles on Conflict and Cooperation Within and Between States." n.d.

Khan, Akbar Nasir. "The US' Policy of Targeted Killings By Drones in Pakistan." Islamabad Policy Research Institute Journal 11.1 (2011): 21-40.

"Living Under Drones: Death, Injury and Trauma to Civilians From US Drone Practices in Pakistan." Stanford Law School; NYU School of Law, 2012.

Vogel, Ryan J. "Drone Warfare and the Law of Armed Conflict." Denver Journal of Law and International Policy 39.1 (2010-2011): 101-138.



  1. Cite the opinion that the AUMF "gives the President expansive powers to declare any individual or organization as an enemy, and also it fails to impose geographic boundaries of any kind." You then mention "as long as the laws of armed conflict (Jus in bello) are adhered to, drone strikes are completely justified in their application." Does the AUMF in any way cause the laws of armed conflict to be broken? Does it exploit some loophole in international law?

  2. At the end of your second you mention, "Vogel also argues that as long as the laws of armed conflict (Jus in bello) are adhered to, drone strikes are completely justified in their application, however, your sentence before this seems to contradict, implying that the AUMF is not adequate. Why don't you think Vogel is correct?

  3. Ambiguities in definitions are a large problem with international institutions when dealing with phenomenon like drones. Do you think there will be any meaningful change in the way these multilateral groups deal with inconsistencies in definitions?