How to improve drone strike policy


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The initial strikes against the Islamic State in Syria included missiles fired from overhead drones by operators who were hundreds or even thousands of miles away. This method of warfare has developed since the first use of armed drones just over 10 years ago to being an integral part of the United States’ arsenal.

In May of 2013, President Obama announced that drone strike operations to be carried out primarily by the military, rather than other government agencies. The analysis of this “military preference” highlights questions about the details of the policy that have not been publicly addressed, and brings out some commonly misconstrued subtleties regarding the military, covert actions and Title 50 of the U.S. Code. The policy may affect operations indirectly, such as through changes to Congressional oversight, with more strikes being overseen by the Congressional Armed Services Committees and fewer by the Intelligence Committees.

Unmanned systems conference 2014 – Israel

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Meanwhile, the high level of secrecy around drone strike operations together with instances of civilian casualties, such as notorious strikes on wedding parties, have resulted in mounting calls for the U.S. to bolster transparency, accountability, and other aspects of legitimacy in its drone strike practices. However, the Department of Defense and the Obama Administration have been slow to make changes to U.S. drone strike policy, perhaps out of a recognition that such changes could have unintended consequences resulting in the strikes being a less effective tool.

Drone strikes are one of few options the U.S. has for preventing terrorist suspects from carrying out attacks that do not require U.S. forces in combat. U.S. ground presence is not necessary for initiating drone strikes. Moreover, drones provide solutions for highly inaccessible areas such as remote mountain ranges. Also, the strikes can be carried out covertly – i.e., without being acknowledged by the government – which can lead to greater political, diplomatic, and even operational flexibility.