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Drones on the Modern Battlefield and the Rules of Engagement

Does the deployment of Drones on the modern battlefield meet the requirements for the rules of engagement and is the deployment of these drone’s moral?
This essay will evaluate whether or not the deployment of drones on the modern battlefield in countries such as Libya, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan alongside their usage domestically in countries such as the United States not only meets the requirements of the rules of engagement (ROE) for each of these theatres (with regard to the domestic theatre federal laws) but if their usage is moral. This essay will primarily focus on the use of drones by the United States; however, in some instances, I will make reference to allies of the United States that utilize the same technology and the ways in which enemies of the United States are harnessing it. With regard to the agencies and portions of the military that currently use drones/UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles), it is very far-ranging, from the US military (Army and Air Force) to organizations such as NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency) who use drones to monitor weather patterns. The CIA initially pushed for drones to be used in theatres of war and they still operate in that capacity; however, at present, there are also several state/local agencies such as police forces are beginning to use drones as well.

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The United States Rules of Engagement with regard to the usage of drones states, when the use of lethal action is deemed necessary the presidential policy guidance for direct action against terrorist targets outside the U.S. says, “Departments and agencies of the United States Government must employ all reasonably available resources”[1]they must do this in order to ascertain identities before action can be taken against these high-value targets.
Drones are used in several different ways on the modern battlefield. Their two leading roles are that of direct engagement (use of deadly force) and a passive role which is primarily focused around the gathering of intelligence for ground forces. In this essay, I will mainly investigate whether or not the use of deadly force via a drone is both moral and meets the ROE. I will also evaluate not only the effects of the use of deadly force on the target of the strike but also the effect on the operators of the drones, mainly manifested by PTSD in drone operators.
With regard to the passive role that drones play, their original purpose was to provide ground troops with the ability to evaluate the battlefield in real time. In conflicts previous to the second invasion of Iraq and the invasion of Afghanistan, there was no way for troops to successfully gain an interpretation of the battlefield from a higher angle than ground level, and the only aerial footage that ground troops had access to came in the form of aerial photography which could only provide a rough estimate of troop size and equipment available to the opposition force (OPFOR). With advances in technology in the form of video footage and photos alike, troops during conflicts within densely populated areas such as Ramadi in 2006 and Baghdad in 2003 were better able to assess the situation within these cities and therefore make more tactically astute decisions. The aforementioned methods of gathering intelligence can then be transferred to the ground troops in real time in order to update them regarding the shifting battlefield, including enemy tactics, weaponry, and transport that the enemy may have procured. This passive role also allows ground troops to identify their targets better and therefore potentially cut down on civilian casualties. The US, however, does not employ many dedicated passive drones on the battlefield, in fact of the eight drones currently used by the United States military only two (RQ-7B Shadow and the RQ-11B Raven) cannot be weaponized. The only reason as to why they are not weaponized is primarily due to their size; they are used on long-range patrols by special forces units. These units work outside of the range, most often of the other drones that the United States military utilizes. The primary function of the drone with regard to the US military is to destroy high-value targets (HVTs) and other enemy combatants that the ground troops and/or the chain of command (COC) deem to be a hindrance to operations to the point that resources such as a drones needs to be utilized. In the configuration of a passive role I believe that drones not only provide a method for troops to gain information about the battlefield which is well inside regulations of the ROE but also provides a moral way for the US military to prevent putting pilots in harm’s way and to keep overwatch assistance for these infantry units on the ground.
With regard to the direct combat role that drones play, it is the US military’s primary function for drones to assist other aerial weapons platforms such as the Apache, Specter gunship and fighter aircraft in providing fire support to the troops on the ground. We can see that in iterations such as the RQ-4 global hawk, MQ-9 reaper and the MQ-1B predator they are all equipped to provide fire support to the ground troop and also provide a way for the COC to take out an HVT without exposing a pilot and his crew to unnecessary risk. With regard to armament that these drones carry an example of one of the more heavily armed drones is the MQ-9 Reaper which carries a variety of weapons including the GBU-12 Paveway II laser-guided bomb, the AGM-114 Hellfire II air-to-ground missiles, the AIM-9 Sidewinder and recently, the GBU-38 JDAM (Joint Direct Attack Munition). All of the above are used in order to provide the largest payload delivery to the target with the highest amount of precision in order to generally remove the threat of civilian casualties entirely. The first major issue with the use of drones in a combat role is that if a drone is used to take out an HVT that they could instantly be considered an assassination in the sense that they are done with the sole purpose of killing the individual on the ground who has been targeted, especially if they themselves are not in direct combat at that time meaning a passive target is being taken out by a drone team. The aforementioned is in my opinion not in the slightest moral due to the fact that a drone team and its COC are judge, jury, and executioner, especially when it comes to passive targets who are not engaged in direct combat with any coalition ground unit. However, these killings are supported by the ROE and so must be considered a necessary evil by the United States government and those within the military who create these rules for drone operators. With regard to where drone bases are located, in the United States, there are currently 64 bases that are operational around the country with a projected 22 more to be built by 2025.
In regard to PTSD, it is not only ground troops that are affected by this disease, but it is also prevalent in drone operators. This is due to the fact that they have a clear view of the violence that they commit because of the high caliber of cameras that they use in order to carry out these missions. This is where we can see that the concept of ‘removal from war’ becomes apparent. Removal from war is the concept that the farther away from the battlefield that we are we become more inclined to carry out immoral actions as we feel that there will be no immediate consequences as they do not have the emotional and moral connection to the situation. Through interviews from sources such as MSNBC and FOX, these drone operators experience symptoms very similar to those troops engaged in direct combat with the enemy. In 2014 a survey of 1000 drone operators in the Air Force who had flown combat missions found that 4.3 percent of them experienced moderate to severe PTSD. In comparison, between 10 and 18 percent of military personnel returning from deployment typically are diagnosed with PTSD //
. “Although drone operators are not on the actual battlefield, they operate aircraft that still affect battlefield operations; therefore, it is important that we maintain airmen who are healthy, who are fit and that we are able to identify those airmen that may be struggling with some psychological or physical condition that could, in fact, impair their performance or reduce longevity. Part of the reason as to why the drone operators are more prone to PTSD than regular pilots is because of the fact that Remotely piloted aircraft pilots may stare at the same piece of ground for days,” said Jean Lin Otto, an epidemiologist who was a co-author of the study. “They witness the carnage. Manned aircraft pilots don’t do that. They get out of there as soon as possible.”
We can also see that there is the view of those within the countries that drones operate in, that drones are the ultimate scourge of their skies. This is because drone use has led to the killing of innocent civilians within these conflict zones. Though it is true that the use of drones on the modern battlefield has helped to kill terrorists, there is certainly enormous amounts of collateral damage. There is no sense of balance between the murder of an innocent mother or child and the protection that comes from this type of national security. Whilst drone pilots do their best to limit the civilian deaths; they are almost inevitable with the technology that we currently have, especially considering that the technology is not completely finished and can still be much improved upon. According to individual reports, up to 17% of all deaths as a result of drone attacks are civilians. These deaths are unnecessary, they tear apart families, and in some cases, entire towns. There are some estimates that the United States alone has killed more than 1,000 civilians in countries such as Yemen, Somalia, and Syria.
Another reason as to why the use of drones is immoral is because of the fact that these drone strikes have a tendency to be inaccurate and therefore in and of doing this they may kill more civilians/non-combatants therefore creating more terrorists than they kill. Advocates of the drone program suggest that they work because they are able to catch terrorists in the act of committing such a crime and so therefore the operator has the opportunity to observe the target and therefore gain a much better insight into the intentions of that individual(s). Despite this however, it is clear that a traumatic event such as watching a loved one/family member being killed by a coalition or U.S. backed drone means that, that individual(s) begins to harbor ill will against those that perpetrated the attack on their family. It provides ample motivation for them to join one of these heinous terrorist organizations such as ISIS or Al Qaeda. The journalist Jeremy Scahill who writes for the publication ‘The Nation’ (a left of center publication with articles that bash both the drone program that the United States employs and the wars that the United States has been involved in for the past decade plus). Scahill states that “the majority of those who turn to militantism within Yemen have been in one way or another the victim of a U.S. backed drone strike”[2]. It can be seen that the reasoning’s behind the transfer over to a militant lifestyle are generally similar, loss of life, limb or possession as a result of a drone strike which thereby encourages them to engage with terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeda. Scahill provides data which suggests that “in the same period of time that the drone program in Yemen was beginning to ramp up there was a spike in the numbers of high level Al Qaeda members with their numbers swelling by hundreds from the period of time between 2009 and 2012.”[3].
Another reason for the United States to stop utilizing drones in their war machine is because of the fact that often these drone strikes do not either hit their intended target or hit a target that is not an enemy combatant at all. In the last administration there was a policy which was known as ‘signature strikes’[4] these were strikes that were allowed by the administration and gave both the Special forces and the CIA the option to target anyone who they felt was engaging in behavior that classified them to be a member of a terrorist organization. This means that without any prior knowledge of an individual(s) being members of a terrorist group the two aforementioned government agencies would have the ability to order a drone strike on them. This is potentially one of the most morally bankrupt ways in which the United States utilizes their drone program as it portrays those people within these government organizations as Judge, Jury and Executioner.
The final reason to encourage the statement that the United States should stop their use of drones, it can be seen that the use of a drone over a foreign nation inherently violates that nations sovereignty. The United States drone program often carries out operations over countries all over the world without permission from their governments. An example of this being when the Pakistani Prime Minister stated that the use of drones over Pakistan was a “continued violation of our national integrity,”[5]. This quote shows how foreign nations sovereignty, especially those within the Middle East are being trampled on in the name of freedom. However, the irony of this is that the use of drones over these territories directly impinges upon the freedom of those nations. With regard to the success of drones over these countries it is clear from the above paragraph that these drone strikes can often hit the wrong target and/or engage a target that is much lower with the hierarchy of these terrorist organizations thus begging the question as to why they are being targeted as presumably they are themselves not as much of a threat to Western nations as those who are much higher in the hierarchy of these terrorist groups.
Despite this, there are potential moral pros to the utilization of drones in the American war machine. They ensure that coalition nations such as the United States and her allies do not have to employ large amounts of ground troops in order to remove the threat as they had to in conflicts such as the Gulf War in which technology like drones was not available at all and therefore they needed to employ what we now know to be conventional weapons of war, those being soldiers, bombers, tanks and fighters. However, with the implementation of drone’s, nations that send their militaries to fight do not have to put their troops in enormous amounts of danger as they have the ability to deploy less and less and bolster the ranks with these unmanned vehicles.
Further to this drone strikes that take place all across the Middle East and Africa have been shown to have killed aloft of “3500 active terrorists,”[6]. Within this we can see that there must be those higher up within these organizations that have been killed which in turn potentially allows the United States to be much more proactive in ensuring that they do not kill innocent civilians in attacks such as 9/11 and 7/7. An example of this is when the Taliban commander Hakimullah Mehsud was killed by a U.S. drone, this impacted the Pakistani division of the Taliban immensely. “dozens of highly skilled al Qaeda commanders, trainers, bomb makers, and operatives have been taken off the battlefield. Plots have been disrupted that would have targeted international aviation, US transit systems, European cities, and our troops in Afghanistan. Simply put, these strikes have saved lives.”[7] (This quote is from the former President Barack Obama when referencing the drone program and its impact on terrorist organizations around the world and how it has helped to disrupt these heinous acts) this quote serves to show the people of the United States and the world how effective drones have been on the modern battlefield in ensuring the safety of Western nations.
Under international law drone strikes are legal, this therefore voids the question of
Drone strikes are legal under international law thus making the question of legality under the rule of engagement void. Article 51 of the UN Charter provides for a nation’s inherent right to self-defense when it has been attacked.  Countries such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia have officially consented to US drone strikes within their countries, and this is primarily because they are unable to control terrorist groups such as ISIS, the Taliban, Al Qaeda or Boko Haram within their own borders. The former US State Department Legal Adviser Harold Koh says that a state engaged in an “armed conflict or in legitimate self-defense” is ‘not required to provide targets with legal processing before using lethal force. A country may target individuals in foreign countries if they are directly participating in hostilities or posing an imminent threat that only the deployment of lethal force can prevent’. The United States does also have the right under international law to “anticipatory self-defense,” which states the right to use force against a genuine and imminent threat when the necessity of that self-defense is “instant, overwhelming, and leaving no choice of means.
Drone strikes are in fact legal under the United States law thus further endorsing the point that under the rule of engagement these strikes are legal. The Presidential powers under Article II of the US Constitution allow for the use of force against an imminent threat without congressional approval. Additionally, in 2001 Congress passed the Authorization for the use of Military Force,  this authorized armed conflict with al Qaeda and forces associated with it for an indefinite period of time. The act states that the President like a  is “authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.” The Authorization for the use of Military Force does not have a geographic boundary, and the Obama administration noted that al Qaeda militants far from the battlefield in Afghanistan were still engaged in armed conflict with the United States and were therefore covered under the law.
Drones themselves limit the scale and scope of military action. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the main threats to US security have been those decentralized terrorist networks which operate in destabilized countries around the world such as Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, these are not large countries or armies fighting with massive air, ground, and sea warfare capabilities. In the attempt by the United States to destroy al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan by invading and occupying the country, has resulted in a war that has dragged on for over 12 years. The use of drone strikes against terrorists in foreign countries allows the United States to achieve its goals at a fraction of the cost of an invasion in money, manpower, and lives. Drone strikes are carried out within certain circumstances the collaboration and encouragement of local governments and because of this make those countries safer.
It has been found that U.S. drone strikes help specific countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq fight terrorist organizations who threaten their own domestic peace and stability. The president of Yemen, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, has openly praised drone strikes in his country, stating at one time that the “electronic brain’s precision is unmatched by the human brain.” In a 2008 State Department cable which was made public by Wikileaks showed that, the Pakistani Chief of Army Staff, General Ashfaq Kayani had asked US officials for further drone strikes, and in April of 2013 the former Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf acknowledged to CNN that his government had in fact secretly signed off on the U.S. led drone strikes.
Overall it is apparent to me that despite the fact that drones and drone strikes to cut down on military casualties, limit scope and scale of military action, are legal under international law do in fact provide many moral and legal complications such as the fact that they turn local populous’ against the country utilizing the drones, they also offer a way for locals in conflict areas to justify their allegiance to terrorist organizations which drones target. Therefore, through the weight of the evidence, I must conclude that the use of drones (in a combat role) is neither moral nor legal as they provide to many complications with regard to both international and domestic law (United States).

  • Anderson, D. (2018). 10 Reasons the U.S. Should Stop Using Drones in Warfare. [online] Available at: // [Accessed 23 Jul. 2018].
  • Benjamin, M. (2013). Drone warfare. London: Verso.
  • Dao, J. (2018). Drone Pilots Found to Get Stress Disorders Much as Those in Combat Do. [online] Available at: // [Accessed 24 Aug. 2018].
  • (2018). Drones – [online] Available at: // [Accessed 7 Aug. 2018].
  • Fox News. (2018). Drone pilots suffer PTSD just like those in combat. [online] Available at: // [Accessed 9 Jun. 2018].
  • (2018). [online] Available at: // [Accessed 8 Jul. 2018].
  • Lawfare. (2018). Drones and the Standing Rules of Engagement Regarding Self-Defense. [online] Available at: // [Accessed 14 Jun. 2018].
  • Peterson, M. (2018). Is Obama’s Drone War Moral?. [online] The Atlantic. Available at: // [Accessed 6 May 2018].
  • Scotti, C. (2018). Who Can Be Killed by a Drone? US Reveals the Rules of Engagement. [online] The Fiscal Times. Available at: // [Accessed 19 Aug. 2018].

Annotated Bibliography:

Remember to use ‘RAVEN’ as a way to approach your source evaluation. Reputation, Ability to See, Vested Interest, Expertise, Neutrality/Bias.
Anderson, D. (2018). 10 Reasons the U.S. Should Stop Using Drones in Warfare. [online] Available at: // [Accessed 23 Jul. 2018].
This source is very limited in in scope, due to the fact that the source is simply a website listing the reasons for and against. However, it does provide some fairly unbiased content and it addresses both sides of the argument.
Dao, J. (2018). Drone Pilots Found to Get Stress Disorders Much as Those in Combat Do. [online] Available at: // [Accessed 24 Aug. 2018].
Being that this is a piece from the New York Times (a notoriously liberal news outlet) we can ascertain that they would be biased against the use of drones in warfare altogether. However, there is excellent analysis and data points
WEBSITE (2018). Drones – [online] Available at: // [Accessed 7 Aug. 2018].
This is another list based website and it suffers the same downfall as the above in that it does not give potentially enough detail on the topic. However, because it is a list based source it does assess both sides of the argument
Fox News. (2018). Drone pilots suffer PTSD just like those in combat. [online] Available at: // [Accessed 9 Jun. 2018].
Fox news is a right wing media outlet, meaning that they could have a bias toward encouraging the use of drones. In spite of this the author is uncharacteristically negative when assessing the drone program and so therefore this is an extremely useful source.
Lawfare. (2018). Drones and the Standing Rules of Engagement Regarding Self-Defense. [online] Available at: // [Accessed 14 Jun. 2018].
This website states the rules of engagement regarding the use of drones, it has little bias rather its purpose it to state the rules that apply to drones, its drawback is that it does not contain the government document and so therefore has little reputability as you cannot cross check the document
Peterson, M. (2018). Is Obama’s Drone War Moral?. [online] The Atlantic. Available at: // [Accessed 6 May 2018].
The Atlantic is a generally left of center bias, making this document criticizing the Obama administrations use of drones a good piece as it is out of character for the publication making it very useful
Scotti, C. (2018). Who Can Be Killed by a Drone? US Reveals the Rules of Engagement. [online] The Fiscal Times. Available at: // [Accessed 19 Aug. 2018].
The fiscal times is a generally right of center publication, this article details the rules of engagement for drones as is based much more in fact than opinion
WEBSITE (2018). [online] Available at: // [Accessed 8 Jul. 2018].
This source is the government document on the rules of engagement and has no opinion on the topic it simply serves to state the rules and regulations
Benjamin, M. (2013). Drone warfare. London: Verso.
Benjamin Madeo is a well-respected author and this book was the first of its kind analyzing the concept of drone warfare

[1] //
[2] Anderson, D. (2018). 10 Reasons the U.S. Should Stop Using Drones in Warfare. [online] Available at: // [Accessed 23 Jul. 2018].
[3] Anderson, D. (2018). 10 Reasons the U.S. Should Stop Using Drones in Warfare. [online] Available at: // [Accessed 23 Jul. 2018].
[4] Anderson, D. (2018). 10 Reasons the U.S. Should Stop Using Drones in Warfare. [online] Available at: // [Accessed 23 Jul. 2018].
[5] Anderson, D. (2018). 10 Reasons the U.S. Should Stop Using Drones in Warfare. [online] Available at: // [Accessed 23 Jul. 2018].
[6] (2018). Drones – [online] Available at: // [Accessed 7 Aug. 2018].
[7] (2018). Drones – [online] Available at: // [Accessed 7 Aug. 2018].


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