The United States of America present a state actor with the greatest potential to influence international relations and global security environment. One of the main aims of each National Security Strategy of the U.S., regardless which president currently rules the nation, is to respect and spread core democratic values such as liberty, justice, truth and human security. In accordance with these fundamental beliefs, America tends to spread democracy globally by the most modern warfare means, which are available.

In these terms, new technical phenomena of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) represents a break in traditional understanding of warfare. This “robotization” of war has previously unseen ethical, moral and practical implications. The United States government’s use of drones was established during the conflicts in 1990s and has been presented as an active US military warfare program since then. It is inevitable to highlight that massive deployment of drones by the U.S. administration began in relation to the deadliest terrorist attacks on the United States soil on 9/11 and following proclamation of “War on Terror” under the President George W. Bush. Although during the Bush administration it was demonstrated that suchlike attacks cause many casualties, killings of innocent civilians and jeopardize human security, his successor Barack Obama followed this trend even on more frequent basis. Therefore, we look at two speeches made by then President Obama – Speech at the National Defense University, Fort McNair on 23rd of May, 2013 and Remarks by the President in a Conversation on the Supreme Court Nomination at the University of Chicago Law School on 7th of April, 2016, since they both offer thorough explanations of why his administration used drones to target enemies of the United States and justification of the use of such drone program.

Introduction to drone technology

First of all, if we want to submerge deep into the issue of drones operated by the U.S. administration, we have to understand the terminology related to the drone program and also circumstances that affected this substantial program. We refer to the term “drone” even though there are many different names that are commonly used when evaluating this phenomenon. The most precise designation would be “unmanned aerial vehicle” (UAV), which is a part of the “unmanned aircraft system” (UAS). This system includes not only flying devices but also ground control stations and other supporting equipment. There are other names that may be used instead of the popular term “drone”. Those are “remotely piloted vehicle” (RPV), “pilotless aircraft”, or “robot plane”. However, such appellations may be sometimes misleading. The Department of Defense (DOD) defines drones as: “powered aerial vehicles that do not carry a human operator use aerodynamic forces to provide vehicle lift, can fly autonomously or be piloted remotely, can be expendable or recoverable, and can carry a lethal or nonlethal payload.” (Bone et al, 2003: 1).

Drones that come under the competence of the DOD can be divided into several groups based on their size, payload, endurance and cost. Another criterion could be the military branch that is in charge of their deployment and this is exact standard that we choose.

The Air Force

  • RQ-4A/RQ-4B Global Hawk – These drones have been produced in San Diego since 2001. They are equipped with advanced communication systems, high resolution sensors and radars.
  • RQ-1/MQ-1/MQ-9 Reaper Predator: They are high-performance devices used mainly for surveillance and reconnaissance missions. They are based on the GPS communication that enables them to localize targets precisely. They are constructed so that they can carry missiles.

The Navy and Marine Corps

  • RQ-2A Pioneer: This drone played a key role during the Operation Desert Storm in 1991. However, its operational status expired in 2007.

The Army

  • RQ-5A/ MQ-5B Hunter: Drones active since 1996 that use real-time video recordings shared with appropriate monitoring stations. The biggest advantage of these drones is their long endurance.
  • RB-7B Shadow 200 – This drone substituted the RQ-2A Pioneer. It carries an advanced sensors and high resolution cameras (military.com, n.d.). 
It is important to understand why drones became so discussed issue related to the U.S. foreign policy and why they were put into practice in the first place. U.S. authorities were certainly aware that drones would bring many benefits to ongoing operations abroad. However, it was clear from the start that drones would also call debates related to legitimacy, accountability and humanity into question.

Advantages and disadvantages of drones would be best compared in a table:

The table above explains both theoretical and practical characteristics of drones. Mentioned advantages and disadvantages of drones usually come in pairs regarding the perspective, from which we look at them. Real time awareness provided by remotely controlled devices is definitely a very useful tool when evaluating the situation during the operation while not putting human pilots in danger. On the other side, it can be perceived as a device causing unnecessary suffering to the community living in the target area and putting civilian lives in danger. The usage of drones limits the aperture view that would definitely be better provided by real pilots. This goes hand in hand with the operational maneuverability, meaning that drones may not adequately react to random or unexpected situations during the given operation.

Drones are built to collect large amounts of data, which may lead to their misuse by opponent. This could negatively affect the work of intelligence services that would basically give away certain information that shall remain secret to the enemy including terrorists and their networks.

Drones present valued tools capable of recording high resolution videos, monitoring territories via radars or different types of sensors, including night-vision sensors. However, drones are unable to conduct the operation by themselves without the ground support. First of all, drones must be directed from the ground control stations and then they are usually accompanied by ground forces that continue with the given operation while using the information provided by the drone. But again, drones are not yet able to conduct whole operation by themselves as they need to be remotely controlled and directed in order to monitor, gather information, or conduct strikes. Nevertheless, up to present, drones are not capable of tactical judgment or quick operational response to unforeseen issues that may appear. Therefore, there still needs to be someone behind the control of drones and so their usage resembles deadly video game.

The use of drones: Bush versus Obama

Deployment of drones by the U.S. administration has escalated during conflicts in the 1990s. However, their most important contributions then were related to monitoring and obtaining digital information. Drones functioned mainly as aerial support to ground forces giving them information of capital importance, such as in the case of Bosnian war.

There were Predator over-flights across Afghanistan before 9/11, which even managed to photograph Osama bin Laden with his bodyguards. However, it was not until October 2001 that these drones were armed and reached Afghanistan and early 2002 that they were finally used as armed airborne devices with clear objective. Massive use of drones began in relation to terrorist attacks on the U.S. on 9/11 and subsequent proclamation of “War on Terror” by the then President of the U.S. George W. Bush. The first targeted killing by drone occurred in February 2002 in Afghanistan and was held by the CIA. This operation didn’t come off as there was a mistake made in identification of target and the strike hit innocent people instead of Osama bin Laden. During George W. Bush era, drones were deployed also in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia and became an important component of the U.S. military arsenal being used against foreign suspect combatants. However, the number of civilians killed was rather low when compared to his successor Barack Obama as there were 52 drone attacks launched during the time of Bush presidency and “only” 167 civilians were killed out of overall 416 people (Serle 2015, n.p.).

During the first term of Barack Obama the number of drone attacks increased significantly. It was a crucial instrument for the U.S. used in various military campaigns abroad. Tables below prove that year casualties caused by drones hit all-time high between 2009 and 2012. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism counted casualties caused by the U.S. drones from January 2009 until the end of 2015 and estimated the total number in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. The result ranged between 380 and 801 deaths (see graph 1). On the other hand, the U.S. officials estimated the number of deaths during the same time range only 64 to 116. It is not easy to work with factual numbers of casualties as official statistics provided by the U.S. officials always differ from figures presented by investigative journalists or media in general. For instance, the peak of drone strikes in Pakistan between 2010 and 2011 preceded the discrepancy in casualties’ calculations counted by the U.S. officials and by investigative organizations. Whereas the CIA director John Brennan assured the public that no civilians would get hurt during drone attacks in Pakistan through 2010 and 2011, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism stated that there were over 40 civilians killed by these strikes (Shaw 2003: 7-8). Regarding Somalia, there was a lethal drone attack at Somalian Raso Camp, which served as a training camp for al-Ahabaab, a terrorist group affiliated with al-Qaeda. Obama’s administration launched a drone attack because terrorists leaving the camp could eventually pose a threat to the U.S. and the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), which is a peace keeping mission active in the area. The U.S. administration assured the public that the camp had been monitored for many weeks prior the attack and that no civilians would be in danger (Cook: 2016, n.p.).

When we compare casualties in Pakistan during the George W. Bush era and both terms of his successor Barack Obama, we may ascertain that the highest figures appear in 2010 (see Graph 2), which means during Obama’s first term. Similar score can be found in relation to drone attacks in Afghanistan, this time Obama “winning” unambiguously with the peak in 2012, when the number of drone attacks exceeded 200 (see Graph 3). The Bureau of Investigative Journalism came up with calculation that there were about nine times more strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia under Obama’s administration then there were under Bush (Serle 2015, n.p.). This clearly points out to the fact that Barack Obama considers drones to be one of the most useful tools in military affairs. The total number of drone attacks under Obama’s administration reached over 500 (Zenko, 2016, n.p.).

Obama’s justification of the use of drones in respect to human security

Both Obama’s speeches are very important when it comes to justification of drone strikes with respect to human security. An hour long speech given by the President at the National Defense University at the end of his first term in 2013 has been the most detailed speech delivered on counterterrorism policy of the United States since Obama took office in 2009. We have primarily focused on this speech as it is a prepared and thought-through speech in contrast to the second one, which was chosen despite and also because of its different character. In the last months of his second presidency in April 2016, Obama gave a speech on the Supreme Court Nomination at the University of Chicago Law School. During the conversation, Obama was surprised by the question from the audience regarding the justification of the drone strikes in respect to human security. The following speech of Obama provides very detailed explanations of how his administration justifies the use of drone technology with regard to human security.

In the speeches, Obama articulated American identity as constituted by founding laws and principles; as open and democratic society with its aim to spread peace and protect lives of individuals. By contrast, he constructs the identity of terrorists as bad, evil hearted group that does not follow any rules and has no values and whose main goal is to kill as many people as possible. He therefore constructs United States as powerful hegemony (defender of good), whose knowledge and needs are superior to others.

Obama presents that America’s main interest is to protect the loss of innocent life while terrorists are by contrast interested in the destruction of human life. While he says that America is “choosing the course of action least likely to result in the loss of innocent life”, terrorist organization “right now would kill as many Americans as they could if we did not stop them first” (Obama 2013).

Obama has used the “continuing and imminent threat” to the United States as his primary justification of drone strikes. He refers to drones as an effective tool that saves lives: “Our actions are effective […] Plots have been disrupted that would have targeted international aviation, U.S. transit systems, European cities and our troops in Afghanistan. Simply put, these strikes have saved lives” (Obama 2013). Large part of the justification of drone strikes in relation to human security is based on the technological benefit and the very precision of drone strikes and thus their advantage over conventional warfare in overall number of civilian casualties. As he states that “Conventional airpower or missiles are far less precise than drones, and are likely to cause more civilian casualties and more local outrage” (Obama 2013). According to Obama, drones are preferable in contrast to alternative weaponry and as it can be seen, he presents drone strikes as the ‘lesser evil’ comparing it against military invasions: „[…] the number of civilians who were killed in normal military operations. We talk about the number of U.S. troops that were killed in Iraq. The number of Iraqis that were killed — primarily by AQI and those we were fighting, but also by U.S. military that was trying to be as careful as possible in chaotic situations, like Fallujah or Ramadi — were in the tens of thousands” (Obama 2016). While he assumes that “putting boots on the ground is less likely to result in civilian deaths or less likely to create enemies in the Muslim world” (Obama 2013), he states that there is no other option, except doing nothing, but to continue using targeted airstrikes as the only effective tool that is able to kill the terrorists who pose an imminent threat to American people while at the same time minimizing the number of civilian casualties (Obama 2013, 2016).

Overall, we can observe three general pro-drone justifications with regard to human security:

  • Using drones is efficient – because of the very precision of drone strikes causing civilian casualties to be minimal if any,
  • Using drones is preferable in contrast to alternative weaponry – because they produce less civilian casualties and local outrage than conventional warfare, and
  • Drones are effective – because they save lives.

Obama constructs drones as a tool not only respectful to human security but also contributing to human security in their ability of saving lives. He constructs drones as ethically required because of their low casualty rate. Obama creates a frame that is constructed on the premise of unipolar hegemony. The United States is the hegemon, whose security needs are superior to others. We can observe that he refers mostly to saving lives of American troops and citizens while security of people under drone strikes are most of the time ignored. Obama considers the use of drones as only option in the fight against the “Others”, who are represented by terrorists. And no other possibility exists. ,,And I don’t have the luxury of just not doing anything and then being able to stand back and feel as my conscience is completely clear” (Obama 2016). According to latest public opinion poll in 2015 by Pew Research Center (PRC), over half of the U.S. citizens support the use of drones on foreign soil (Graph 4). It is therefore obvious that the population of the United States have accepted and legitimized the use of drones to target enemies on foreign soil.

Graph 1: Civilian deaths from air and drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Libya: Jan 20 2009 – Dec 31 2015


Graph 2: Estimated casualties in Pakistan 2004-2014

Graph 3: U.S. drone strikes under George Bush and Barack Obama

Graph 4: Widespread opposition to drones

Authors: Adriána Oboňová, Jana Bandurová, Gréta Krutá