Debate: Does America overuse drones?
File photo of a US Predator UAV armed with a missile. Attacks by such aircraft have risen in recent days in Libya. (Air Force Photo)
August 31st, 2011
05:00 AM ET

Debate: Does America overuse drones?

In trying to make up your mind on whether we use drones too much or too little, check out the following post by's Micah Zenko:

After the al Qaeda bombing of two U.S. embassies in East Africa in August 1998, President Bill Clinton authorized cruise missile strikes against an al Qaeda complex in Khost, Afghanistan, in an attempt to kill Osama bin Laden. When that operation failed, Clinton pushed senior military officials to develop more innovative options.

In late 1999, Vice Admiral Scott Fry, the Joint Staff's director of operations, ordered his unit to produce new ways to find bin Laden. The most promising option was the Predator, an unmanned surveillance drone that provided live video coverage of Afghanistan in fifteen test flights before 9/11. To enable lethal strikes, the Air Force armed the Predator by mating it with a reconfigured Hellfire anti-tank missile.

Though the Bush administration's National Security Council, meeting a week before 9/11, agreed the armed Predator wasn't ready to be deployed, in the ten years since, armed unmanned drones have become the public face of America's military counterterrorism policy. Drones have fired missiles in six countries; been controlled by both the CIA and the Pentagon; seen increases in their lethality, loiter time and overall numbers; and have killed senior al Qaeda officials, mid-level operatives, at least one U.S. citizen, and innocent civilians.  What was developed as a highly specialized covert option has become the default tactic used wherever potential terrorist threats emerge.

In the first prominent use of armed drones, a Predator killed Mohammed Atef, an al Qaeda military commander, in Afghanistan in November 2001. Most recently, America's drone wars have expanded into Somalia, where the first unmanned attack there targeted the militant group al-Shabaab. Over the past decade, drones have been most often used over northwest Pakistan, where a reported 258 CIA-controlled strikes have occurred since 2004 against suspected members of al Qaeda and affiliated groups.

The reliance on drones to mitigate the threat of transnational terrorism will only increase during the Obama administration, since drones have many appealing traits. They have fewer diplomatic costs in terms of assembling coalitions or securing basing rights, keep down the size of the military, create few civilian casualties, do not put U.S. soldiers at risk, and cost less than other military measures. In unveiling the administration's recent National Strategy for Counterterrorism, John Brennan, assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, said: "Our best offense won't always be deploying large armies abroad but delivering targeted, surgical pressure to the groups that threaten us," and noted that with persistent attacks on al Qaeda, "there will come a time when they simply can no longer replenish their ranks."

This is doubtful. Terrorist groups do not disappear due to military force, no matter how surgical its application. It also overlooks the second-order effects - such as turning public opinion within targeted states against the United States - of a drone-heavy counterterrorism policy, as well as the legal and operational precedent that has been set for the inevitable growth of drone strikes by others.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Micah Zenko. Micah Zenko is a fellow for conflict prevention at the Council on Foreign Relations, where he blogs. You can also follow him on TwitterThis is part of the series "Ten Lessons Since the 9/11 Attacks," in which CFR fellows identify the top threats and responses going forward. Read more in the series. The post above was reprinted with the permission of the Council on Foreign Relations.

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Topics: Military

soundoff (218 Responses)
  1. Trip Richert

    Drones, as stated in the article, have advantages and disadvantages. They can take out the leaders of terrorist organizations, temporarily hampering logistical operations of those groups. This advantage is most noted on the international stage, where logistical coordination is most needed relative to grass roots movement. Terrorist groups lose support of they act too locally (people don't like their neighbors being killed). This advantage is temporary as more affiliates can eventually take over logistical operations, but right now skyrocketing food prices are causing severe unrest across the Midddle East and Africa, making this a key turning point, so this temporary advantage could result in important long term progress.

    However, as the article said, drones turn the local population against the US. Collatoral damage and mistakes happen sometimes, so civilian lives will be lost. As the author noted, the civilian loss can be greater with on the ground forces. However, on the ground forces can make connections with the locals and achieve some mutual trust, as seen in the secure and hold strategy that accompanied the surge in Iraq.

    In short, drones, boots on the ground, and staying out all have significant advantages and disadvantages. I am not qualified and do not have the intel to determine what mix of the three that we should be employing.

    September 1, 2011 at 9:37 am | Reply
  2. Realist

    Drones have Al Queda on the run and hiding in tunnels like rodents in a whack-a-mole game.

    The more the better

    September 1, 2011 at 9:39 am | Reply
  3. AutoFlight

    As satellite images are still too fuzzy and too late, situational awareness can only be increased with reconnaissance drones. Whether they need to fire missiles, is yet another question. But in principle: A working farmer has nothing to fear. A gang of kalashnikov-waving bearded guys in a landrover has.

    September 1, 2011 at 9:50 am | Reply
  4. Adil

    You seem to be upset with your former country mate, Fareed Zakaria
    Are you jealous that you don't have an audience like him...
    Sorry to say that you never will. Keep hating and self loathing and don't bother to respond, since I don't have time for hate spewers.

    September 1, 2011 at 10:02 am | Reply
  5. just-me

    They don't need drones, they can perfectly make up there own secret weapon of mass-destruction laboratories.

    September 1, 2011 at 12:03 pm | Reply
  6. jim

    Most of our drones are in Congress.

    September 1, 2011 at 12:18 pm | Reply
  7. please proofread, CNN!

    Q: Does America overuse drones?
    A: No, they are used too much 5.36%
    5.36% picked that. they are not overused, they are simply used too much.

    September 1, 2011 at 1:25 pm | Reply
  8. Frizzo

    And they said all those hours playing video games were a waste of time! Heck no, I am now the best drone pilot of my group!

    September 1, 2011 at 1:43 pm | Reply
  9. GeorgeBos95

    Using robots (drones) in place of live troops ... is a bad idea? Not even worth debating the lunacy of that perspective.

    September 1, 2011 at 1:58 pm | Reply
  10. KRM1007

    It appears that India/Hindu trash are again on the prowl in this forum and polluting the spirit of a good debate by their racist and hatred filled comments. Shame on you! Is this the culture that you have been brought up with in the Indian society?

    September 1, 2011 at 2:17 pm | Reply
    • bikram naharajasteralon

      I have not noticed anyone from India on this forum. Not that I would be able to tell if they were. After all, isn't the internet anonymous?

      September 1, 2011 at 2:28 pm | Reply
  11. s4883

    When it came time to kill the king, the US made it nice and personal.

    September 1, 2011 at 2:24 pm | Reply
  12. Winnipegspawn

    one of these days, were going to all get shot down by one of those seriously, think about it.

    September 1, 2011 at 8:38 pm | Reply
  13. Jon

    America is free to use drones but israel isnt? al qaeda can be droned but hamas cant? edogan can drone kurds but israel cant to hamas?

    screwed up hypocrites and jew haters all around....anyhow, doesn't matter...we JEWS will destroy all comers who oppose us...even obama

    September 3, 2011 at 3:20 pm | Reply
  14. Jon

    America is free to use drones but israel isnt? al qaeda can be droned but hamas cant? erdogan can drone kurds but israel cant to hamas?

    screwed up hypocrites and jew haters all around....anyhow, doesn't matter...we JEWS will destroy all comers who oppose us...even obama. Were no longer in the ghetto on crappy little poland....

    September 3, 2011 at 3:22 pm | Reply
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