Over three administrations and 16 years, there has been nothing as iconic in the United States’ forever war on terror as the matchstick-with-wings silhouette of the modern drone. Understanding the drone program has never been easy; the covert nature of some of the program, as well as a strong executive emphasis on the needs of national security, meant that even at its most transparent, the drone war was largely opaque. In its third report on drone policy, the Stimson Center finds that after a gradual movement towards more transparency by the end of President Obama’s second term, the Trump administration has fully reversed course.
“We have now seen in the last 18 months a Trump administration take the U.S. drone program and employ less transparency and less restraint at the same time that we’ve seen an increase in the frequency of strikes as well as geographic scope of those strikes,” says Rachel Stohl, managing director of the Stimson Study Group on U.S. Drone Policy. “We have more happening with less information and we’re seeing is an environment where we have not only far less transparency but less accountability and responsibility for the strikes that we are undertaking. My fear is that we have inadvertently set an international precedent which does not do the United States any service in both the short and the long term.”
Consider the strikes against people and targets in countries where the United States is not presently at war. President Trump is reported to have already authored at least 80 drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, which nearly twice as many as President Bush authored in his entire administration, and at a pace that would in seven years total more strikes than the Obama administration authored in eight years. And these are just the strikes happening in places outside of formal combat operations; as the report notes an agreement signed by the Trump administration to base drones in Niger could lead to drone strikes across the Sahel as well.
When historians attempt to tally the final totals of drone strikes for respective administrations, they may have access to hidden records, but for people trying to make or analyze policy in the present, a gradual shift towards transparency in the Obama administration was quickly reverse by the Trump administration, denying the public and everyone outside government of official documents on airstrikes conducted, casualty estimates, and the nature of the aircraft conducted the strikes.
“I do think the Obama administration did try at the end of his term to make a good-faith effort to address issues really (and in some cases they were taken to court to do so) but there was an increase in transparency, there were protections for civilians put into policy,” Stohl said. “The problem, and what I argued at the time, is that none of these were codified in law, they were all just sort of good ideas and practices that were undertaken by civil service and were in some cases directed by an executive order. What has happened now is that even that substandard or insufficient amount of information is no longer available. We’re having to rely on, before I could get some primary source data, now I’m relying on organizations like Airwars”
A failure to codify transparency and oversight into law is something that Congress could remedy, should it be so moved. After offering actions the Trump administration could adopt on its own in the name of transparency and accountability, the Stimson report ends with five policy recommendations for Congress. These range from public hearings on U.S. drone policy to annual reports on drone activity outside combat zones to investigations into civilian casualties. While these moves are worthy in their own right, Congress could frame them as matters of national security imperatives, as the negative consequences from a trigger happy drone war can actively undermine any chance at achieving a long-term resolution to a conflict.
“There is blowback in a traditional sense, are we creating an environment in which we are creating more enemies of the United States than existed before?,” Stohl said. “If we look at what drives terrorist recruitment, what foments discord, the environment, the poverty, the conflict, the lack of opportunities, all of that is exacerbated when you have drone strikes.”
There is also the danger that the United States is, apart from creating problems for itself in the wars it actively fights, giving tacit permission for other countries to use drones in the exact same ways as the United States, despite any attempts at prohibiting such action under international law. Drones are a fairly accessible technology for countries, and have a particular relevance in counter-insurgencies or irregular wars waged by regional powers on behalf of proxy forces.
“We could see blowback as countries using drones in ways that are counter to U.S. interests justified under the framework that we’ve established, using our words against us. The blowback could be an inability to set international norms and standards, because why would other countries sign up for a standard that we’re not willing to adhere to ourselves?”
And it is worth looking specifically at what present norms and practices for the United States have enabled. By the Stimson report’s count, it’s at least 679 drone strikes in 16 years, conducted outside countries where the U.S. was formally engaged in war. We know that for at least part of the Obama administration, those strikes were conducted under standards meant to mitigate civilian harm, including a “near certainty” that the strike would not result in civilian casualties, that the threat be imminent, and that the strikes be authored by senior officials. Reportedly, the first two of those standards have been relaxed somewhat, and the authority for strikes delegated downward, though without official statements on the matter it’s hard to conclusively say if this has taken place.
As a maddening coda to the change, it’s unclear if there is even a new objective that this is designed to meet. If we are looking for some guiding ethos, perhaps the closest we can find is candidate Trump’s suggestion in December 2015 that when fighting terrorists, “you have to take out their families,” a suggestion he followed with criticism of the United States for “fighting a very politically correct war.” Reports from the fight against ISIS in 2017 suggest this may have been intentional policy, but without any statement from the administration into its aims or possibly relaxed targeting rules, it’s impossible to safe if it is policy, neglect, or simply unintended consequences of war.
Similarly, the Stimson report notes that while the Trump administration left in place case-by-case review of drone exports, it may have loosened standards or consequences for countries that purchase U.S. drones and violate the agreed-upon principles of proper use. Again, the obscurity of the controls (which dates back to the Obama administration) makes it hard to say what has changed, and harder still to evaluate the potential consequences from the policy.
“What I have been struck with in the past five years of working on this issue is that often drones are seen as the ends, rather than the means to a particular strategic objective,” says Stohl. “The system is a tool, one of many tools we should be using to achieve our security objectives and our foreign policy objectives, and what we’re seeing is that in some cases they seem to be the objective themselves. That has never made sense to me.”
Kelsey Atherton blogs about military technology for C4ISRNET, Fifth Domain, Defense News, and Military Times. He previously wrote for Popular Science, and also created, solicited, and edited content for a group blog on political science fiction and international security.