The U.S. Drone Program is Fatally Flawed

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Illustration by Thomas James

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Remotely piloted aircraft, or drones, have been the centerpiece of America’s counterterrorism toolkit since the start of the Obama presidency, and the benefits have been clear.  Their use has significantly weakened al Qaeda and the Taliban while keeping American troops out of harm’s way.  But critics of drone strikes argue that the short-term gains do not outweigh the long-term consequences—among them, radicalization of a public outraged over civilian deaths.  Is our drone program hurting, or helping, in the fight against terrorism?

  • Ahemd Rashid official 90


    Ahmed Rashid

    Pakistan-based Journalist & Author

  • JKWeston 90


    John Kael Weston

    Fmr. State Dept. Political Adviser to Marine Units, Iraq & Afghanistan

  • Dennis Blair hi res 90 px


    Admiral Dennis Blair (USN, Ret.)

    Former Director of National Intelligence

  • Norty Schwartz 90PX


    General Norton Schwartz (USAF, Ret.)

    Former Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force

    • Moderator Image


      John Donvan

      Author & Correspondent for ABC News

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Ahemd Rashid official 90

For The Motion

Ahmed Rashid

Pakistan-based Journalist & Author

Ahmed Rashid is a Pakistani journalist based in Lahore. He presently writes for Financial Times, International Herald Tribune, The New York Review of Books, BBC Online, The National Interest, and several other academic and foreign affairs journals. Previously, Rashid was the Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review for 22 years. He is also the author of four books, including the recently updated second edition of the bestselling Taliban (2000, 2010). He appears regularly on NPR, CNN, and the BBC World Service. Rashid was educated at Malvern College in England, Government College in Lahore, and at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge University. His latest book is Pakistan on the Brink: The Future of America, Pakistan, and Afghanistan (2013).

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JKWeston 90

For The Motion

John Kael Weston

Fmr. State Dept. Political Adviser to Marine Units, Iraq & Afghanistan

John Kael Weston represented the United States for over a decade as a State Department official and political adviser. Prior to his war-time service—seven consecutive years in Iraq and Afghanistan (2003-2010) alongside U.S. Marines and soldiers in Fallujah, Khost, Sadr City, and Helmand—Weston led American efforts in the UN Security Council to freeze and block al Qaida-linked assets. Washington acknowledged his multi-year service in Fallujah with the marines by awarding him one of its highest honors, the Secretary of State’s Medal for Heroism. He has worked closely with a dozen general officers, one-star to four-star in rank. Since leaving government service in 2010, Weston has been a regular contributor to The Daily Beast. He is writing a book on his experience in both wars, including a section on drone warfare, scheduled to be published by Knopf in 2014.

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Dennis Blair hi res 90 px

Against The Motion

Admiral Dennis Blair (USN, Ret.)

Former Director of National Intelligence

Dennis Blair was Director of National Intelligence from January 2009 to May 2010, leading sixteen national intelligence agencies and administering a budget of $50 billion. From 2003 to 2006, he was the president and chief executive officer of the Institute for Defense Analyses. During his 34-year Navy career, Admiral Blair served as Commander in Chief, U.S. Pacific Command, served on guided missile destroyers in both the Atlantic and Pacific fleets, and commanded the Kitty Hawk Battle Group. Ashore, he served as Director of the Joint Staff and held budget and policy positions on the National Security Council. Blair is a member of the Energy Security Leadership Council of Securing America's Future Energy and of the Aspen Homeland Security Council. His latest book is Military Engagement: Influencing Armed Forces Worldwide to Support Democratic Transitions (2013).

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Norty Schwartz 90PX

Against The Motion

General Norton Schwartz (USAF, Ret.)

Former Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force

Norton ("Norty") Schwartz retired as the Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force (CSAF) in 2012, after serving for over 39 years in the Air Force. Schwartz began his service as a pilot with the airlift out of Vietnam in 1975. He helped lead a joint special operations task force during the Gulf War in 1991 and served as the strategic planner for the Air Force, the second-in-command of the U.S. Special Operations Command and the senior operations officer for the U.S. Armed Forces. He was head of U.S. Transportation Command, and was appointed CSAF in 2008. Schwartz made a number of innovations as Chief, including shifting emphasis from traditional aircraft to remotely piloted vehicle missions, strengthening execution and oversight of nuclear deterrence activities, as well as a range of still classified efforts. Schwartz is the president and CEO of Business Executives for National Security.

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Declared Winner: Against The Motion

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Voting Breakdown:

51% voted the same way in BOTH pre- and post-debate votes (10% voted FOR twice, 31% voted AGAINST twice, 9% voted UNDECIDED twice). 49% changed their minds (10% voted FOR then changed to AGAINST, 4% voted FOR then changed to UNDECIDED, 2% voted AGAINST then changed to FOR, 1% voted AGAINST then changed to UNDECIDED, 8% voted UNDECIDED then changed to FOR, 24% voted UNDECIDED then changed to AGAINST)*breakdown for those voting the same way twice does not add up to 51% due to rounding | Breakdown Graphic

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    • Comment Link Evan Wednesday, 14 May 2014 22:44 posted by Evan

      A great debate, but I felt like the Against side conflated the close air support and strike/assassination roles of drones for their benefit. Close air support is when there are already troops on the ground who may be in combat. This use of drones, I think, is not controversial. We already use helicopters and planes to do this job, and replacing those with drones doesn't change much. Against made a good point in that replacing manned aircraft may even reduce civilian casualties in this case. Drones would be used in this way only in countries with US ground troops deployed: Afghanistan and formerly Iraq.

      What IS controversial, and something I wish For would have pressed harder on, is the use of drones to assassinate people on a kill list. Drones are typically used because these assassinations are carried out in politically-inconvenient areas, like Pakistan and Yemen. They are typically used against civilian targets. While close air support often involves killing people who are actively shooting at American troops, assassination strikes involve killing people who are going about their lives. Some of them may be on the kill list, most of them are not, and all of them will be alleged to be "militants" after the fact.

      The side against brought out the former several times in order to defend the latter. I wish the side For had forced their opponents to make the distinction clear.

    • Comment Link Student Wednesday, 11 December 2013 10:01 posted by Student

      I have a friend online, he lives in Iran, he has seen first hand the terrifying effects of the UAVs on the civilian population. I may be young, but I know when my country screws up. We need to take the drones out NOW. On occasions our own men and women have been wounded with the UAVs after close air support bombings. I am not saying carpet bombings World War TWo style is the answer but we should NOT use the drones in populated areas.

      I may be young, but I know when my country has screwed up.

    • Comment Link Patrick Monday, 07 October 2013 20:24 posted by Patrick

      Our foreign policy is fatally flawed... and drones have become an extension of that.

      If we really believe that to be "safe" we must live in a constant state of war, using our military and drones to monitor (and attack) all over the world, we will continue create an downward spiraling self fulfilling prophecy of creating more enemies by killing the current enemies.

      So often, us Americans take this elitist approach to a world view. But what if China was using drones to take out the potential mass murderers within our borders? How would we react? Would we embrace the Chinese for doing these "good deeds"?

      Besides... we can't afford this foreign policy anymore. Time to wake up America. Either now, or when we drone our way to bankruptcy.

    • Comment Link Dan Schwag Tuesday, 01 October 2013 12:52 posted by Dan Schwag

      I have one simple question.

      If another nation used a targeted drone or a missile strike in the US how would our leadership and citizenry respond?

    • Comment Link Imran Jan Wednesday, 18 September 2013 16:10 posted by Imran Jan

      I think it was a fatally flawed argument by the side in favor of motion. I am from Peshawar, Pakistan and have enormous knowledge about drones, actually I am writing a book about the drone policy. I just wish I was there I would have convinced many minds.

    • Comment Link cj Wednesday, 18 September 2013 14:24 posted by cj

      Question: Are drones fatally flawed?

      Opinion: Are we speaking about technology or the people behind its operation?

      Technology: It is my belief the technology itself is not exactly flawed and extremely accurate if needed to an extent of allowed biased behavior by the operator.

      Operations: The laws (or lack of law) and subjectivity of its operators are flawed and US citizens are not protected against the iniquities of its operation. What can a U.S. citizen do toward the awareness and lawsuit possibilities to alert the mistreatment to your OWN citizens in the US regarding drones. Think about it ... is the US building their own hatred program of defectors?

    • Comment Link bruce k Thursday, 12 September 2013 13:25 posted by bruce k

      The new strategy for winning these debates is to have your "side" register as "uncertain" and then change their minds at the end of the debate. Compared to previous programs and debate formats this "oxford style debating" seems to lend itself to more manipulation that others.

      I think one of the biggest problems with these drones is not what has been done so far, but the system this builds and who may be controlling it in the future. I don't think we can take for granted that it will always be a cool, calm, collected and reasoned military and political leader. Look at what happened in Iraq, we went to war based on what most people now recognize as faulty intelligence. The drone component makes that even more hair-triggered and dangerous. However, with proper control this is a useful, effective technology.

    • Comment Link Richard Davies Wednesday, 11 September 2013 18:45 posted by Richard Davies

      What a fascinating result. When they listened to different points of view many in your audience changed their opinions about US drone policy. So often our elites debate well rehearsed talking points and talk past each other. That didn't happen with this spirited debate, which is encouraging.

    • Comment Link Tom Wednesday, 11 September 2013 16:30 posted by Tom

      Well, they picked apart the use of drones on foreign soil pretty well, perhaps the next debate should be to consider the civilian use of drones.

    • Comment Link Gary Friday, 06 September 2013 17:10 posted by Gary

      Bruce, I would argue that your point about civilian casualties when dealing with Cartels and Mafia is precisely why drones are harmful even in wartime situations. What is the objective difference between killing a bystander in a drug war and killing a bystander in a military conflict? In my humble opinion there is no difference and to claim that there is would be fallacious at best.

    • Comment Link Peter Burgess Wednesday, 04 September 2013 18:08 posted by Peter Burgess

      I am of the opinion that drones are a powerful and useful military weapon, but the USA drone program is fatally flawed because there is a lack of US human civilian presence in the conflict areas to help bring about a meeting of the minds and people to people understanding. Certainly, this is dangerous work, but the stakes are high and it is civil society that needs to be much more actively involved on all sides.

      Peter Burgess TrueValueMetrics

    • Comment Link Bruce Wednesday, 04 September 2013 17:33 posted by Bruce

      The biggest problem I can see is that it would take the human, personal, factor out of combat. As many bomber pilots can attest. Once they actually saw a battle field they had a much different perspective on their missions. It is easy to drop a bomb and fly away never seeing the effect of your actions. The comment about using it against the mafia and drug cartels would be ludicrous as many civilians may be killed without trial or even being implicated in a crime. They are a great tool for the military on military targets such as tanks etc. but entering civilian areas must never be an option.

    • Comment Link By Muhammad Tuesday, 03 September 2013 13:37 posted by By Muhammad

      I (We) most tried to have independently learned from miscellaneous individuals about (Drones) using tecnics particularly its negative aspect.
      General ideology circa (Drones) using where ever is that – despite pales civilians casualties as killing ; psychoneuroses and climbing to mountains area –
      For prevention of modicum said casualties – I (We) respectfully demand from (Drone). Remoter to fix covert target intensively before(Drone) use.
      Flawing to (Drone)using technics

    • Comment Link Ziaullah Safi Monday, 26 August 2013 07:35 posted by Ziaullah Safi

      this is the fact the drone is the latest technology and the most effective weapon in war but it should also be understand that" Men and Nation Falls due to factors on which they rose up". The U.S forces are using drone against Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen but U.S politician should understand that they should beat these states as much as they can afford for themselves. because it will be a history and will be a loan over Pakistan, Afghans and YEMENIS and these states will pay these loans back to US and Allies one day.
      So being positively, US should make a policy that these drone should not be used against the civilians of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and YEMEN ETC. I think If US use the drone against drug dealers and Mafia group inside America, America will save alot than to spend on other security agencies for countering drug dealer and Mafia.

    • Comment Link Utpal Thursday, 22 August 2013 15:08 posted by Utpal

      What's the difference between you and them if you kill innocents? It's only going to increase the terrorism. Also, they will develop the same tool and use it in another 15-20 years. What then?

      Over here US violeted the international rule first.

    • Comment Link Michael Deal Wednesday, 21 August 2013 13:27 posted by Michael Deal

      There is nothing in international law which inherently prohibits the use of unmanned aerial vehicles.

      The problem is not the weapon, the problem is the set of rules of engagement under which they are used.

      The problem with drones is the same as any use of aircraft instead of troops, the difference is only a matter of degree. Airmen since Bomber Brown in WWII have always claimed that that airpower can replace troops, and since the success of Desert Storm and the Balkans air campaigns, many civilian political leaders have looked to airpower as suitable alternative to well trained troops.

      The perfect weapon to take out a target without harming innocent civilians is always going to be a Ranger with a knife, but enemy defenses, distance, terrain, weather, and civilian populations who may either interfere or be in the way often prevent the use of soldiers with contact close enough to eliminate the fear of innocent loss.

      The use of drones actually permits closer, more accurate contact than high altitude bombing, but the rules of engagement must be redrawn to require more definite identification, the warheads used must be small, and better optics must be developed and deployed.

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