Drones: Legitimacy and Anti-Americanism

By Kennedy, Greg | Parameters, Winter-Spring 2013 | Go to article overview

Drones: Legitimacy and Anti-Americanism


Kennedy, Greg, Parameters


The appearance of new weapons technologies often gives rise to questions of legitimacy. The use of missile weapons against armored knights was considered illegitimate and unchivalrous by some, as well as a destabilizing influence on the conduct of civilized warfare. An acknowledged and accepted set of rules, designed to limit the vulnerability of the ruling elite in combat, made longbow and crossbow technology illegitimate in the eyes of that warrior-class. (1) German U-boat actions against commerce in World War I, the use of aerial bombardment against civilian populations, and defoliation agents in Vietnam, are modern examples of new technologies whose legitimacy was contested in times of conflict. (2)

Questions of legitimacy, however, have not always been linked to the condition of war or to a specific technology. British concentration camps curing the Boer War were examples of illegitimate policies related to warfare devoid of any specific technological change. Their illegitimacy came not from technology but from the legal and ethical questions raised by the implementation of those methods of waging war. (3) Throughout these debates over technology and policies, the term legitimacy seldom meant the same thing. Legitimacy has been used in such circumstances interchangeably with concepts such as proportional, moral, ethical, lawful, appropriate, reasonable, legal, justifiable, righteous, valid, recognized, and logical.

The recent phenomena of using unmanned vehicles, or drones, to deliver lethality in situations of conflict is yet another instance in which a type of technology has proliferated before considerations of its legitimacy have been agreed upon:

   The exponential rise in the use of drone technology in a variety of
   military and non-military contexts represents a real challenge to
   the framework of established international law and it is both right
   as a matter of principle, and inevitable as a matter of political
   reality, that the international community should now be focusing
   attention on the standards applicable to this technological
   development, particularly its deployment in counterterrorism and
   counter-insurgency initiatives, and attempt to reach a consensus on
   the legality, of its use, and the standards and safeguards which
   should apply to it. (4)

The current debate over the legitimacy of America's use of drones to deliver deadly force is taking place in both public and official domains in the United States and many other countries. (5) The four key features at the heart of the debate revolve around: who is controlling the weapon system; does the system of control and oversight violate international law governing the use of force; are the drone strikes proportionate acts that provide military effectiveness given the circumstances of the conflict they are being used in; and does their use violate the sovereignty of other nations and allow the United States to disregard formal national boundaries? Unless these four questions are dealt with in the near future the impact of the unresolved legitimacy issues will have a number of repercussions for American foreign and military policies: "Without a new doctrine for the use of drones that is understandable to friends and foes, the United States risks achieving near-term tactical benefits in killing terrorists while incurring potentially significant longer-term costs to its alliances, global public opinion, the war on terrorism and international stability."(6) This article will address only the first three critical questions.

The question of who controls the drones during their missions is attracting a great deal of attention. The use of drones by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to conduct "signature strikes" is the most problematic factor in this matter. Between 2004 and 2013, CIA drone attacks in Pakistan killed up to 3,461--up to 891 of them civilians. (7) Not only is the use of drones by the CIA the issue, but subcontracting operational control of drones to other civilian agencies is also causing great concern. …

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