Plenty of digital ink has been spilled over concern for the future of warfare and policing now that unmanned aircraft – drones – are becoming the dominant expression of American force abroad. But there is nothing to fear from drones and our gawking at the technological marvels they represent and unfounded concern about the future that technology makes possible hides the real issue underlying the “drone wars.”
One commonly expressed concern about drones is that America is setting a dangerous standard by which other countries will conduct warfare. What if China decides to use drones to eliminate dissidents in neighboring countries? This sort of speculation falls flat for two reasons. First, in countries like Yemen and Pakistan, the United States has permission from those governments to use drones. Unless China secured similar agreements, such an action would be an act of war. Second, China already has manned aircraft that are perfectly capable of targeting dissidents if China so chose. Fear that a foreign power would use drones to attack American soil are even more far-fetched. Foreign drones, just like any other foreign military aircraft, would never be able to enter American airspace without being intercepted or shot down by U.S. air defenses.
Others fear the use of drones in domestic policing for surveillance, or, worse yet, that domestic drones could be armed. They forget that the police have had aircrat such as helicopters for decades but have yet to arm them. Moreover, police departments have long used manned aircraft for surveillance when appropriate; they are used to enforce speed limits on highways in states like Virginia. You may also recall any aerial footage you've ever seen of a police car chase. Furthermore, armed U.S. government aircraft flying over the homeland is not a unique phenomenon; see your local Air National Guard base if you are unconvinced.
Drones are merely a tool, and the popular focus on the tool distracts from the policy it implements. The most visible portion of the Obama administration's counterterrorism strategy is its targeted killing policy. This policy is the real issue, not drones, and the United States doesn’t need drones to carry it out. Manned aircraft and cruise missiles are just as capable of carrying out an airstrike. The incessant focus on drones may have started as a lazy shorthand for the targeted killing policy, but the problem is more than semantics. Focus on drones and, more generally, fetishizing technology, distracts us from the real debate at hand.
The targeted killing policy allegedly involves a loose definition determining which victims count as militants, a nominal commitment to detaining suspects when possible, and inevitable civilian casualties. Any security policy involves trade-offs, and a public discussion whether and why these trade-offs should be accepted is sorely needed. Substantive discussion should not be sidelined for overblown alarmism about drones.