Boston Bombing: Would Drones Over Boston Have Been Useful?

President of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) Micheal Toscano was recently quoted in an article in U.S. News as claiming drones could have aided first responders and law enforcement in the immediate aftermath of last week's Boston Marathon bombings.

The statement will almost certainly stir up some controversy, as some have equivocated the attacks with the U.S. drone program or assumed it could potentially have been a motivation behind it. Of course, no one can say at this point what the exact motivation was behind the attack, and any equivocation between terrorism and the U.S. drone program focuses exclusively on outcomes and not the targets and intent of these actions. Has the association of unmanned aerial vehicles (or drones) with surveillance and targeted killings made them toxic in the realm of public opinion? This perception could have repercussions both for the private sector use of drones and their future military applications as well.

There are issues surrounding the use of armed drones by the United States in places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Somalia, and Yemen. Counter-terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman called the drone a campaign against Al-Qaeda "a tactic, not a strategy." Although it has been effective in decimating Al-Qaeda Central's leadership and weakening its influence, affiliate groups continue to proliferate and groups continue to nominally connect themselves with Al-Qaeda's ideology, many of whom have only regional or nationalistic aspirations and could care less about establishing some sort of global caliphate. Using drones as a strategy has no clear end game, but policy inertia is a powerful force. Even more concerning are signature strikes, drone strikes targeted at individuals based on certain characteristics. Most of the time, this means armed men in areas likely to contain militants can be targeted without necessarily knowing who they specifically are. This is a slippery slope, even if it has proven to be somewhat successful in the past.

Targeted strikes against specific targets using unmanned aircrafts can be an important tactic for the U.S. military in the future. Not only does it keep U.S. personnel out of harm's way, it is the least destructive option. Collateral damage has rightfully been cited as a major reason to oppose the U.S drone program. This is not something that should be taken lightly, as it's the aversion to civilian casualties that separates the United States from many other nations throughout the world. However, the tactic itself has shown to be less devastating to civilian populations than other forms of kinetic war tactics, regardless of what data you are looking at.

Micheal Toscano's job is not to defend the U.S. drone program or domestic surveillance by the federal government. It is to advocate for the industry for unmanned vehicles. Attaching a stigma to drones could cost the United States down the road in terms of innovation. It is important to remember military technology has led to some of the largest innovations and driven the economy of the United States since the end of World War II. Military programs and federal funding in general has driven the development of computers, the Internet, the aerospace industry, global positioning and satellite technology. Technology is inherently value-neutral: unmanned vehicles of all kinds have a wide range of uses beyond what we know today and could have tremendous value in the future. In this way Toscano’s comments are not necessarily wrong, just maybe a bit early.