Drone Warfare

War and Conflict in the Modern World

L. Brock, H. Holm, G. Sørensen & M. Stohl, Fragile States

Feargal Cochrane, Ending Wars

Paul Diehl and Alexandru Balas, Peace Operations, second edn

Matthew Evangelista, Law, Ethics and the War on Terror

J. Michael Grieg and Paul Diehl, International Mediation

Janie Leatherman, Sexual Violence and Armed Conflict

Andrew Mumford, Proxy Warfare

Dennis Sandole, Peacebuilding

Eric Shibuya, Demobilizing Irregular Forces

Timothy Sisk, Statebuilding

Rachel Stohl & Suzette Grillot, The International Arms Trade

Paul Viotti, American Foreign Policy

Thomas G. Weiss, Humanitarian Intervention, second edn

Drone Warfare


Copyright © John Kaag and Sarah Kreps 2014
The right of John Kaag and Sarah Kreps to be identified as Authors of this Work has been asserted in accordance with the UK Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
First published in 2014 by Polity Press
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ISBN-13: 978-0-7456-8535-9
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Tables and Figures
1  Introduction: The Rise of Drones
2  The Nuts and Bolts of Drones
3  Drones and Democracy
4  Drones and International Law
5  The Ethics of Drone Warfare
6  Conclusion: The Way Ahead

Tables and Figures

2.1  Key features of Predator and Reaper drones
2.2  Casualties as a result of drone strikes, 2002–2013
3.1  Public opinion data on support for drone strikes (polls taken between 2011 and 2013)
3.2  Concern with the possibility that drones are harming innocent civilians
3.3  Support for drone strikes given different citizen and territory status
2.1  Total coalition drone strikes in Afghanistan between 2008 and 2012
2.2  Number of American drone strikes by country
2.3  Number of drone strikes by the British military between 2008 and 2011 (Afghanistan)
2.4  International approval and disapproval of US drone strikes, 2013
4.1  Number of international humanitarian law-related treaties per decade


In writing Drone Warfare, we hope to provide a comprehensive, timely, rigorous, accessible analysis of the use of combat drones in modern warfare. The book’s comprehensiveness required two scholars from very different fields – philosophy and political science – to work together on a single study. Its timeliness depended on working together quickly and carefully to identify the political, legal, and moral implications of this transformational technology. Its rigor meant that shortcuts were to be avoided. Its accessibility meant that certain shortcuts had to be taken.

In short, the writing of the book was immensely frustrating. So an obvious question remains: why did we endure this frustration?

For the last ten years, we watched, with growing alarm, a shift in military affairs that was defined by the use of semi-autonomous weapon systems. Our alarm was elicited not by the technology itself, but by the way that the research and development of this technology outpaced the studied consideration of its implications. These implications had nothing to do with technology and everything to do with human beings: the human beings using these unmanned technologies in asymmetric warfare and the human beings being targeted or harmed by them. In our machine era, it is tempting to think that difficult human judgments – political, legal, and moral – can be farmed out to bots that can do a better job than us. We should resist this temptation. Drone Warfare is a reminder that human judgment will be an inescapable part of the drone age. While it is necessary to understand how drones are currently used (as outlined in chapter 2), it is even more important to get a handle on the way that they should be used in the future. And this is why we happily faced the frustration of writing the rest of the book.

In truth, there are many other reasons that this book finally came to press and they have nothing to do with its authors. Much of what is elegant and accurate about this volume can be credited to a large number of individuals who assisted with the editing and revision of its various parts. We would like to thank David Blair, Robert Chesney, Neta Crawford, Janina Dill, Matthew Evangelista, Gustavo Flores-Macías, Carol Hay, Peter Katzenstein, Mary Ellen O’Connell, David O’Hara, Jens Ohlin, Capt. Bill Parker, Scott Pratt, Klem Ryan, Judith Reppy, Bassam Romaya, Henry Shue, Colonel Rob Spalding, Geoff Wallace, Matthew Waxman, Micah Zenko, and, not least, we thank Kyle Ezzedine and Rebecca Friedman for valuable research assistance. We would especially like to thank Whitley Kaufman for his help in revising chapters 4 and 5 of the book.

In the case of Kaag’s contribution to this volume, much of the research was accomplished during a fellowship at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Kreps completed the manuscript while she was a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. Members of these organizations have given daily feedback and encouragement in the course of the project.

Drone Warfare is the product of a long-standing collaboration between its authors. The ideas presented in this volume were first hatched in a number of articles in both peer-reviewed and public venues. This book presented us with the opportunity to unify our arguments into a single cohesive narrative about the reality and future of drone warfare. We are pragmatists and as pragmatists we believe that theory needs to impact practice. Writing for a wider public is not ancillary to our work as scholars, and short, self-contained articles are often the one way to effect real-world change. In many cases, our public writings on drone warfare have had real and immediate traction in policy debates. This being said, each argument, presented over the course of nearly four years, has been situated in a broader, systematic treatment of drones. In addition to presenting new arguments concerning drones, this volume gave us the opportunity to explain the way that our previous work on the subject over the last four years fits together and it is greater than the sum of its parts.

Practical, systematic, careful thinking is what is needed when it comes to drone warfare. At this point, we do not need better weapon systems. We need better judgment in using the ones at our disposal. There is a complex relationship between the politics, the law, and the morality of drone strikes and it is a relationship that remains largely overlooked in the current debates about modern asymmetric warfare. Understanding this relationship will not be easy. It will require consulting experts who seem to have nothing to do with military tactics: political theorists, applied psychologists, legal theorists, and the occasional ethicist. Drone Warfare is an initial attempt to begin this difficult debate.


Introduction: The Rise of Drones

In October 2009, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton traveled to Pakistan in support of the Obama Administration’s efforts to convince Islamabad to crack down on terrorists.1 A day before her arrival, however, a US drone strike killed more than one hundred Pakistanis in that country’s tribal region. Thus, when Clinton stood in front of a press conference in Islamabad, she faced two questions that inverted the very premise of her trip. First, Clinton was asked to define terrorism. Then came the follow-up: “Is it [terrorism] the killing of people in drone attacks?”2 That question – volleyed by a woman from the back of the audience – perfectly encapsulates the moral, legal, and political ambiguities that prompted us to write this book.

Of course, Clinton’s response was as simple as it was emphatic: No, drone strikes are not acts of terrorism. The Obama Administration’s spokesperson Jay Carney recently stated even more clearly: “Drone strikes are legal, they are ethical, and they are wise.”3 But as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), drones are qualitatively different than previous military technologies: they allow lethal action at virtually no risk to the perpetrator. As such, it is a mistake to take their legality, morality, and prudence for granted. This book seeks neither to excoriate nor to vindicate contemporary drone policy. Instead, we examine the political, legal, and moral dimensions of the policy and provide a synthetic assessment of the dangers of its current trajectory.

Drones represent the intersection of two important trends in military technology: the increasingly precise nature of weapons and the rise of robotics. Taken together, these evermore-sophisticated capabilities produced a drone aircraft, flown remotely at no risk to the pilot and capable of delivering a lethal payload. On the surface, drone technology seems to offer great benefits: it allows the United States to take the fight to terrorists, wherever they may hide, without risking the lives of American service members. Often lost in that seductive proposition, however, are the second-order effects created by this capability. It is precisely the novelty of drone capabilities that creates new challenges.

Our engagement with US drone policy turns on three mutually supportive pillars: politics, law, and morality. Politically, the costs of war are no longer distributed throughout a democratic society; thus, the costliness of war in blood and treasure, which has historically reined in military adventurism, is greatly diminished. We worry that this dynamic risks enabling a state of perpetual, low-level conflict underneath the public’s radar. Legally, drones seem to alleviate confusion over important points of international law, such as distinction and proportionality, but this appearance only further entrenches dangerous ambiguities. Indeed, the legal edifice supporting the United States’ drone policy goes beyond reasonable interpretation of the principles of jus ad bellum as well as jus in bello by expanding the battlefield to in-clude individuals and spaces considered outside legally recognized combat zones. Morally, drones create a “moral hazard” by shielding US citizens, politicians, and soldiers from the risks associated with targeted killings; unfortunately, these same individuals lack the ethical training to consider the normative dangers of drones. Consequently, drones are becoming banal – leaving their ethical implications unexamined and their ease of use celebrated as intrinsically good. Cumulatively, these arguments comprise a call to action, not necessarily to resist drones as an instrument of warfare, but rather to employ them only if the international community is cognizant of, and comfortable with, their manifold implications.

As the title suggests, this is a book about drones. We take drones as our subject because we believe that the speed of technological development in this area has far outpaced our understanding of how that technology interacts with politics, international law, and ethics. This is not a book about the evolution of airpower, or weapons technology, over time. Consequently, our reservations about drones are not tantamount to endorsements of previous, less precise technologies like carpet-bombing. We see the US military’s commitment to minimize civilian casualties as an unequivocally positive development.4 Rather, we seek to elucidate ongoing debates about drone policy by emphasizing, for example, that even a technology that makes discrimination between civilians and combatants easier does not obviate the problem of discrimination, and that minimizing risks to American pilots may save lives in the short term but it also undermines the accountability linkages that keep wars short and bounded in the long term. Moreover, while accepting the tactical effectiveness of drones, we contend that they are not strategically effective – suggesting that there are practical as well as normative reasons to question extant drone policy. Consistent with our pragmatic approach, after exploring the complexities of drones throughout the book, we conclude with recommendations for how drones policy can change to allay some of our normative concerns.

The turn to drones

The use of drones in combat has increased considerably over the last decade. Having authorized just nine strikes outside the context of combat between 2004 and 2007, the Bush Administration authorized thirty-six such strikes in its last year of office. President Obama dramatically increased the use of drones, primarily in the tribal regions of Pakistan and to a lesser extent in Yemen and Somalia. Between 2009 and 2012, there were 295 strikes in Pakistan alone, resulting in about 2,221 casualties, of which about 1,800 were suspected militants, 153 were civilians, and 205 were of unknown identity. While the rate of strikes in Pakistan has declined from its peak in 2010, the number in Yemen has increased, as the United States battles the increasingly powerful al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.5 The United States has also conducted a handful of drone strikes in Somalia against al-Shabab, an al-Qaeda affiliate.6

As recently as the 1990s, drones were not armed at all. They took the form of sensor aircraft, with Predators operating in Bosnia, Kosovo, and the no-fly zone in Iraq.7 Inevitably, however, debates about combat capability arose. Whereas the air force demanded fast, “jet-like” drones, the CIA preferred smaller, surveillance drones. Both the air force and the CIA expressed interest in going beyond gathering intelligence and acquiring an aircraft that could both track and kill suspected targets, although there was considerable debate about how or whether to do so. At the time, CIA Counterterrorist Center Director Cofer Black argued that the United States should not deploy Predators over Afghanistan until they were weaponized, saying “I do not believe the possible recon value outweighs the risk of possible program termination when the stakes are raised by the Taliban parading a charred Predator in front of CNN.”8 Yet the armed version of the Predator also had its dissenters prior to 9/11. Former CIA Director George Tenet suggested that it would be “a terrible mistake” for “the Director of Central Intelligence to fire a weapon like this.”9

After 9/11, the “gloves came off” and the CIA sent Predators to Afghanistan on September 16, and armed Predators followed on October 7.10 It was in the post-9/11 threat environment that the United States began undertaking targeted killings by drones, deploying the MQ-1B Predator and the MQ-9 Reaper, armed with precision-guided munitions, to match their adversaries’ flexible tactics. The first CIA drone attack occurred in November 2001, when a Predator killed Mohammed Atef, the “number three” in al-Qaeda.11 A year later, on November 4, 2002, the Agency launched an attack in Yemen, its “first targeted killing outside of a declared war zone using the ‘sweeping authority’ given to the spy agency by Bush in September 2001.”12 The target was al-Harethi, the terrorist leader responsible for the USS Cole bombing. Yemeni President Saleh claimed responsibility for the attack on al-Harethi, but, after it was leaked that the United States was behind the strike, drones were not used in the country until 2009. However, in 2004, because of the rise of the Pakistani Taliban and the failure of the Pakistani military, the CIA was granted access to conduct surveillance and targeted killing across Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas. It has since conducted hundreds of such strikes.13 The government claims to have approximately 7,500 drones, up from just a few dozen a decade ago.14

Thus, what began as an engineering experiment to fit Hellfire missiles onto a surveillance drone in 2001 has turned into a transformation of how the United States uses military force, and, by many accounts, a tactically successful one. Even those who question whether the strategy is effective – -wondering whether the use of drones is ultimately recruiting more terrorists than it kills – concede that the use of drones has eliminated key al-Qaeda leaders.15 Underlining the basis for drones is that the drone policy makes for good domestic politics. The United States has killed leaders of al-Qaeda and its affiliates while reducing its own casualties and reducing the domestic blowback that comes from body bags returning from war. To the extent that increased casualties reduce the popularity of a conflict and in turn reduce a leader’s strategic options,16 drones have given leaders greater freedom of action to carry out wars without domestic scrutiny or meaningful constraints.

Indeed, poll data suggest that the American public is widely accepting – while at the same time somewhat ignorant – of US drone strikes abroad. A large majority (65 percent) of Americans claim that they have heard a lot about the US drone program, but when asked where most strikes are occurring, most Americans either cite the wrong country or do not know where those strikes are carried out.17 More broadly, an astounding majority of people (75 percent) report that they nevertheless approve of these targeting practices, even though their knowledge of the policy is dubious.18 Yet, in the very same poll, only a quarter of respondents aver that drone strikes are legal.

One thing is clear from the politics surrounding the drone program: Americans express significantly greater concern about drone strikes when the policy seems to affect them directly. As we suggest in chapter 3, Americans are more agitated about the prospect of being spied on by drones than they are by the targeting of individuals in other countries. Moreover, the revelation that the US government has used drones to kill its own citizens and under some circumstances would be willing to do so again in the future caused a public outcry. By bringing the drone issue “home,” an impression furthered by substantial media and Congressional attention to the possibility of lethal drone strikes on US soil, the program finally captured the public imagination. Indeed, out of more than three thousand casualties resulting from US drone strikes,19 the killing of four Americans dominated the 2013 nomination hearings for CIA Director John Brennan. Despite the increased public attention, most of the populace remains ill-equipped to explain the basic “when and where” of drone strikes as they currently take place.

We should note from the outset that, while this is a book about drones, it tends to focus on the use of drones by the United States. The United States has been the country to conduct the most drone strikes – far more than either Israel or the United Kingdom – providing a useful case study into how drones are used, the domestic politics around the use of drones by a democracy, and the diplomatic consequences of their use. This case study also provides insight into how domestic politics might affect the interpretation of international law and the way that this interpretation might not coincide with some basic ethical arguments that underpin modern liberal societies. It is with this case-study approach in mind that many of the examples we cite feature the United States, but we suspect that they are likely instructive in terms of other countries using drones, especially democracies where the domestic imperatives of minimizing casualties may be especially salient. We do, however, highlight the proliferation of drones internationally. While just forty-one countries had drones in 2005, that number had increased to seventy-six by 2011.20 Most of these are not combat drones, but every major regional actor – friend and foe alike – has either combat drones or plans to acquire them. The second and concluding chapters review the proliferation trends and propose measures to deal respectively with the control and regulation of drone use.

Existing accounts of drone warfare

Prior to 1980, drone warfare was largely the province of science fiction such as Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965) and Isaac Asimov’s Robot series.21 The first books to discuss it as a reality typically addressed the practical and technical challenges that faced designers and engineers. The second wave of drone literature began to provide instructions on how best to use these new devices in a variety of military theaters. “Best” in this sense simply referred to the practical questions of efficiency and strategic advantage. Peter Singer’s Wired for War (2009) may not have been the first but it became the most popular book-length treatment of unmanned aerial vehicles. Singer, for the most part, avoids the theoretical work that we take up in the coming chapters and concentrates his energies on providing a comprehensive analysis of the design, capabilities, and strategy of unmanned aerial vehicles. In other words, Singer concentrates on bringing together the insights of the first two waves of drone literature, and he does this very effectively. He briefly addresses the impact that drones will have on political processes and international law, but, for the most part, questions concerning the legal, political, and moral implications of drones and other semiautonomous weapon systems are generally left for another day. That day has come and we are faced with the rather difficult task of thinking through the implications of a technology that is being implemented at unprecedented speed.

The capabilities of these new technologies have radically expanded in the last decade, and scholars of warfare have struggled to keep up. As Micah Zenko writes:

Five-pound backpack drones are now used by infantry soldiers for tactical surveillance and will soon be deployed for what their manufacture calls “magic bullet” kamikaze missions. Special operations forces have developed a warhead fired from a Predator drone that can knock down doors. K-Max helicopter drones transport supplies to troops at forward operating bases in Afghanistan. Balloons unleash Tempest drones, which then send out smaller surveillance drones – called Cicadas – that glide to the ground to collect data. And now the US State Department is flying a small fleet of surveillance drones over Iraq to protect the US Embassy there. Bottom line: More and more drones have been rushed into service, and their use and application by the US military is seemingly infinite.22

As the technology has expanded, a growing number of books, primarily anthologies, have taken on the normative implications of drone technologies. Theorists – legal, political, and moral – often find themselves scrambling to explain, defend, and criticize technologies that have already been developed, and, in most cases, have already been used. This “shoot first and ask questions later” mentality recurs in the history of modern military technology. For example, in 1954, President Harry Truman pleaded with an international community that was just beginning to witness an unprecedented nuclear arms race: “We must catch up morally and internationally with the machine age. We must catch up with it, and we must catch up with it in such a way as to create peace in the world, or it will destroy us and everybody else. And that we don’t dare to contemplate.”23

The danger of technology outpacing well-reasoned scholarship is as present in the age of drone warfare as it was in the age of thermonuclear weapons. Journalists and experts in international law, political science, and moral theory have each made a run at catching up with this potentially transformational military technology.24 But recent attempts have only been partially successful because they have hewn too closely to disciplinary divides. Save for the fact that multidisciplinary arguments appeared in the same anthologies, it has remained unclear how the legal, political, and moral arguments concerning drones are interrelated. We maintain that they are inextricable and only an account of unmanned aerial systems that takes seriously the relationship between politics, law, and morality will be rich enough to address the complexities of our drone age adequately. In this respect, the division of the book into three discrete sections – politics, law, and morality – is an artificial one that is analytically useful but potentially misleading. Ultimately, our argument is synthetic and interdisciplinary, reflecting the fact that in the real world, where individuals face the effects of drone warfare with bone-jarring clarity, such distinctions lack relevance.

This volume, co-authored by a political scientist and a philosopher, undertakes a unified moral reckoning of combat drone technologies, but does so with a mind to the political, legal, and ethical realities that define modern international relations. The scope of our book, however, is limited to the use of unmanned aerial vehicles in military strikes, and more specifically to targeted killings. We address the issue of UAV intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance only tangentially. Most military drones are not directly involved in targeted killings, but in this book we do not address the question of UAVs for nonlethal missions, both domestic and international, which present qualitatively different challenges. Instead, we focus on the way that combat drones stand to transform how wars are fought, and, perhaps more importantly, on the way that we understand the very definitions of war and peace. How exactly do drones change military strategy or the ethics of war and peace? Does a drone strike constitute an act of war? Does the use of drones make war more or less likely? What standards – political, legal, and ethical – might effectively limit their use? Should there even be a limit? As strategists, policy makers, and scholars begin to think through the use of these pivotal technologies, they will need to answer these questions.

Confronting “dirty hands”

This book explicates how the speed of drone technologies outstrips our understanding of their implications for politics, law, and moral theory. There are, we believe, two reasons for this: the rapid pace of technological advancement, and widespread faith in technological “progress.” First, modern technological life is always in process – research and development is currently generating new technological innovations – so achieving intellectual mastery of technology is an ever-elusive goal. From this perspective, this book is a project of theoretical catch-up. As such, it explores the normatively charged emergence of drones within a particular constellation of economic interests, geopolitical concerns, legal norms, and ethical ideals. The value-laden background conditions of today’s technologies, and specifically drones, however, are often overlooked in their rapid developmental stages. Part of theoretical catch-up involves going back – looking at the reasons why drones have increased and how they have been used. However, the ultimate objective is to move forward. The fundamental aim of this book is to inform a reader of the most pivotal issues in the coming drone debate. How do leading countries set up systems in which drones proliferated? What should the rules of the road look like for the use of drones? What is the legal or institutional vehicle by which these rules operate? We hope that scholars, politicians, military planners, and most importantly, citizens will be part of this debate. If this is going to happen, there is some catching up to do.

The second reason why our technological capabilities outpace our understanding of them is the widespread belief that technological advancement is itself synonymous with “progress” and therefore does not need to be regulated. Simply put, it is the assumption that technological advancement is necessarily good. This is a dangerous assumption. On this note, we agree, in principle, with former legal advisor to the State Department Harold Koh that “advanced technologies have helped to make our targeting more precise.” We, however, would observe that this statement is far from complete (since advanced technologies could in fact be used in highly questionable targeting practices), and we suggest that technological precision should not be conflated with choices that are legal or ethical, even if they offer sound political options for electoral-minded leaders. In particular, the questions of where and whom we target are inherently fraught, complicated by subjective views of combatant status, for example. We should not be seduced into thinking that technology can help us out of these legal and ethical dilemmas. In many cases, greater technological capability coincides with a greater difficulty in making responsible decisions. Our main worry is that the US government’s attempts to neutralize terrorist threats may reproduce the very tactics that we find most objectionable about these non-state actors whereby: our goal of satisfying one norm of just war theory stands to vitiate others; liberal democracies develop technologies that insulate their citizens from harm but in doing so they may undercut democracy itself; and our rhetoric about being free and being just may allow us to be anything but.

This last concern raises the problem of “dirty hands” – an issue that philosophers since Machiavelli have discussed with increasing urgency. Most famously in the contemporary era, Michael Walzer articulates the idea that the correct political action might involve the violation of particular moral and legal norms in extreme situations; hence a political leader must, in certain extreme cases, “dirty” his or her hands in order to avoid certain disastrous outcomes. We are not naive about this moral and practical difficulty. While we suspect that increasingly dirty hands will define our age of international terrorism, there are three salient questions that we must ask about these moral dilemmas.25

The first is one of degree and probability: how grave and how likely must the risks to a citizenry be in order for a leader to adopt a policy such as targeted killing? When Walzer formulated the problem in the 1970s, he suggested that moral wrongdoing (such as torture or causing the death of a limited number of innocent civilians) might be the appropriate action in cases where hundreds of innocent people could be spared in the process. Since then, he has suggested that the threat must be even starker and jeopardize an entire people or a way of life.26

The second question concerning “dirty hands” is about whether the morally dubious action is actually effective in neutralizing the threat. If the “dirtying” action is not effective in bringing about the desired result, it is quite obvious that it would be morally and politically impermissible. We will address both the immediate and long-term effectiveness of targeted killing in the early chapters of this book.

Finally, there is the question of how we are to describe the moral and legal dirt that accumulates on the hands of leaders who turn to drone technologies in targeted killings. Surely this moral messiness should not be swept under the political carpet by blandly asserting that such strikes are “legal, ethical, and wise.” They aren’t, at least in any unproblematic way. Perhaps they are a necessary evil, but part of this book is meant to determine how necessary and how evil.

Behind the advancement of drone technology over the last decade is also the unspoken belief that the values and liberties of modern democracy are worth defending and that the populace is averse to expending the lives of its own citizen soldiers in the process. This belief surfaces when the drone debate hits too close to home, when politicians and citizens object to the idea of targeting American citizens and to the mere prospect of domestic drone surveillance. This protest against certain drone capabilities indicates that democratic values are still worth protecting. But if this is the case, then the rest of the drone program – the part that involves targeting foreign nationals without transparency or adequate oversight – needs to be assessed carefully and critically in order to see whether it compromises the political, legal, and ethical foundations upon which liberal democracies are grounded. This is not an age of simple answers.


This book proceeds in six chapters. Following the introduction, the second chapter presents a “nuts and bolts” discussion of what drones are, what they do, and the growing prevalence of drones, particularly in the context of the “war on terror.” As we show through data for drone strikes over the last decade, these strikes have increased considerably, with more strikes used for the purposes of counterterrorism in President Obama’s first term than in the entire Bush Administration.27 We outline the intragovernmental decision-making process that produces drone strikes, particularly questions of agency jurisdiction, targeting decisions, and transparency. In this chapter, we also preview the state of proliferation: which countries are acquiring drones and which already have drones in their arsenals. We also assess the military effectiveness of drones. Individuals such as former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta have said that drones are “the only game in town.”28 To be sure, drones offer a low-risk way to decapitate terrorist organizations, but they also create visceral opposition that lends itself to recruiting new terrorists. We explore that dynamic – the long-term adverse strategic consequences versus the short-term tactical gains – in chapter 2.

Having set the stage for our analysis of drone warfare, we turn to the political, legal, and ethical implications of drones in military operations. In addressing these implications, we gesture toward a particular relationship between politics, law – both domestic and international – and morality. Politics, at its most basic, is a social organization whereby individuals pursue interests and secure resources that they could not pursue or secure independently. This is at the core of all modern social contracts that underpin the majority of today’s states. Politics, in turn, provides the normative force to laws, both domestic and international. Laws require a certain amount of “buy-in” by political leaders and administrators in order to be practically legitimate. Of course, domestic, constitutional law can influence the shape of politics once this “buy-in” occurs, but this is less often the case with international law that tends not to be as binding as constitutional law on political processes. The case of unmanned aerial systems demonstrates this clearly to the extent that their domestic use for surveillance has been met with a firestorm of opposition from the US public on the basis of constitutional concerns, but their use internationally has not generated similar concerns on the basis of international law. The place of ethics in this discussion is a difficult one to define and is often left out of analyses of drone warfare. Ideally, the interpretation and execution of laws reflect what is regarded as moral conduct in a given culture within the context of a given polity. Ethical reflection is required in cases where the interpretation and execution of laws is out of sync with moral intuitions, and, more specifically, with the moral arguments that have purchase in a given culture. (We can see this in the case of the Jim Crow laws and the ethical appeal of the civil rights movement.) We offer a selection of moral arguments that stand to affect the use of combat drones within the current legal and political setting.

In the third chapter, on politics, we turn our attention to the way that the drones debate has played out in the US political sphere and suggest that certain forms of drone warfare