Lawfare Questions the Effectiveness of America's Drone Program

Jacqueline Hazelton published a report in Lawfare magazine examining the merits of America's use of armed drones through the lens of the American grand strategy of restraint. The study is comprehensive, however it must be noted that due to the secrecy surrounding drone programs and the varying contexts in which drone strikes are carried out, it is difficult to empirically attribute public discontent and radicalization to drone strikes. While this is a limitation of study it is also Hazelton’s chief criticism of the US’ drone program. She argues that:

Analyzing drone strikes in this way determines that they provide little political benefit to the United States. As a tactical use of force against terrorists, attacks by U.S. unmanned aerial vehicles in under-governed spaces without public permission by the state may achieve short-term goals...But the strikes cannot generate significant popular or state support for U.S. interests or policies or do serious political damage to U.S. adversaries.

Though the drone program may fit into the American grand strategy of restraint as a “political tool to support partners against their adversaries.”Furthermore, continued ethical and legal concerns may sap the goodwill of more liberal partners, therefore hindering diplomatic missions in target areas.

While the drone campaign is effective in killing combatants, it fails to address the causal mechanisms that allow terrorist groups to take root and grow. A paper published in Foreign Policy by Micah Zenko points out that:

In Yemen, despite more than 200 JSOC [Joint Special Operations Command] (and occasional CIA) airstrikes over the past eight years, the State Department’s estimated strength for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula grew from “several hundred members” in 2010 to 4,000 fighters now — a force size it has maintained for the past half-dozen years.

Questions of drone programs’ impact on radicalization and counterterrorism aside, their effectiveness at furthering the security of the American homeland--and therefore the program’s merit as a whole--is questionable. Hazelton concludes her piece stating:

Questions about drone strikes must stretch beyond concerns about anti-Americanism, radicalization, and terrorism to consider the strikes' political utility for broader U.S. interests. This analysis finds that whether one identifies anti-Americanisms as a significant threat to U.S. interests or not, and whether one identifies terrorism as a major threat to the United States or not, the role of drone strikes in assuring U.S. security at home and abroad is quite limited and likely to become more so as counter-drone efforts and others' acquisition of drones reduce U.S. air supremacy.