by Evan Kean
At a speech on Thursday, April 23, President Obama claimed “full responsibility” for the death of two civilian hostages, American Warren Weinstein and Italian Giovanni Lo Porto, at the hands of an American drone strike.
The fatal strike was carried out in January in an area of Pakistan with strong Al-Qaeda influence. Even though the strike was preceded with weeks of intelligence gathering, the CIA failed to learn that the Al-Qaeda targets had two hostages.
In his Thursday speech, Obama chose to focus more on the lives and legacies of the killed civilians and less on the drone strike itself. Obama’s deliberate avoidance of the subject of drone warfare underlines the growing legal and ethical controversy over the use of drones.
The widespread use of UAVs, commonly referred to as drones, began about two years ago when Obama’s administration promised to reduce the amount of troops deployed overseas. Drones were introduced as an alternative to boots on the ground that allowed the US to continue its influence in dangerous areas without putting American lives in jeopardy.
Ever since the first drone strikes were authorized, controversy has plagued their use. Critics claim that drone strikes make it easier for civilian casualties to occur, as with the hostages in January. They also claim that drones only further push the cost of war up through their use and development, and that their use creates more enemies than they defeat by enraging locals.
In reality, the use of UAVs for intelligence gathering, reconnaissance and attacks, including the dreaded drone strike, has reduced the amount of innocent deaths over the multiple years of their use.
Due to their high accuracy, drone strikes allow forces to select targets with much more precision and control than could be done with bombs, mortars or troops. It has been shown that the use of drones has a lower proportion of innocent killings than traditional weapons. According to A Meta-Study of Drone Strike Casualties by Lawfare, the total amount of civilian casualties in Pakistan and Yemen since the start of the War on Terror are estimated to be anywhere from 6% to 35% with most agreeing the figure to be around 12%.
Besides the lower toll on life, the use of drones is shown to also have a significantly lower cost compared to the use of jets, tanks or infantry. It is a well-known fact that the US has an enormous defense budget; according to data from the International Institute for Strategic Studies, the US’ military spending in 2014 was $581 billion, making it the top spender in the world. When comparing cost to effect, drones afford much more bang for their buck. In 2014, the US spent roughly $4 billion on drone programs, including research, maintenance and deployment – less than one percent of the year’s budget. This lower cost compared to other weapons is due primarily to drones’ lighter weight and smaller size where other vehicles like bombers and tanks must sacrifice space and weight, and overall efficiency, for personnel to operate them. This equates to drones using less materials to construct, as well as requiring less fuel to operate.
But drones also save something that doesn’t have a price tag: American lives. Since the start of the War on Terror, a 2013 Congressional Research Service Report puts the American death toll at around 6,640 with recent reports putting the figure around 6,700 dead. The use of drones helps prevent this number from growing any further by keeping service members out of harm’s way, which should always be the first goal of anyone who chooses to put them in harm’s way in the first place.