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Does U.S. Drone Use Set a New Precedent for War?

October 10, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
The U.S. has dramatically increased its use of unmanned aerial vehicles to go after targets in Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya and especially Pakistan. Jeffrey Brown discusses the use of drones with former Air Force lawyer retired Maj. Gen. Charles Dunlap and David Cortright of the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.


JEFFREY BROWN: And we explore some of the questions about the use of drones now with retired Maj. Gen. Charles Dunlap, executive director of the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security at Duke University Law School. He previously served as a top military lawyer in the Air Force. And David Cortright, director of policy studies at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at Notre Dame, among his many books is “Uniting Against Terror: Cooperative Nonmilitary Responses to the Global Terrorist Threat.”

David Cortright, you and others have raised questions about the use of drones. Why do you think it’s not an effective tool?

DAVID CORTRIGHT, University of Notre Dame: Well, these weapons can destroy targets, but they cannot achieve the political goal of ending the threats from terrorism.

And they have posed many grave dangers in terms of security, legal and moral questions for our country. As you said, the technology is spreading. As many as 50 countries may now be developing or purchasing this technology, including countries like China, Russia, India, Pakistan, Iran. Hezbollah has deployed an Iranian-designed drone aircraft.

Iran is reportedly developing a drone with a 1,000-mile range. These are for surveillance now, but it’s not that difficult to attach missiles and bombs to these weapons — to these drones. What kind of future are we creating for ourselves, for our children, our grandchildren? A world where many states, perhaps all major states, would have this technology, the threats of war striking, of missiles coming out of the sky with no warning would be persuasive.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Let me…

DAVID CORTRIGHT: … a very dangerous development.

JEFFREY BROWN: You have raised a lot of issues there.

So let me get to Gen. Dunlap.

First, what is the general case for the use of drones? Why are they considered effective and why is their use on the rise?

MAJ. GEN. CHARLES DUNLAP, (RET) Duke University: Well, this is a way of using technology in a way that minimizes the threat or the danger not only to the U.S. personnel employing the drones, but also to the people on the ground, because drones give you the opportunity for persistent long-term surveillance before striking a target.

In addition, the technology, the weapons technology, allows for very precise strikes. Do innocent people get killed? Of course they do. But is the nature of war is such that that is inevitable. This is a way of limiting those unnecessary deaths.

JEFFREY BROWN: One of the questions, Gen. Dunlap, that comes up — and Mr. Cortright just raised it — is that by making it easier to strike, to hit targets, it sort of lowers the bar on when military action can and will be used.

MAJ. GEN. CHARLES DUNLAP: Actually, military action can take place by a single individual crossing a border. It’s not particularly new to use long-range strike. David defeated Goliath with a long-range strike with a missile weapon.

At Agincourt, the English bowmen destroyed the flower of the French knighthood with long-range strike. This — and we have long intercontinental ballistic missiles, we have had long-range strike bombers for some time.

This really is not new conceptually. It makes people uncomfortable because, as you point out, it’s unmanned, but from a military perspective, it really isn’t anything new, except a greater capability to be precise and to focus the force on the person or site that you want to focus it on.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, David Cortright, do you — do you find something here that is unique, that is different?

DAVID CORTRIGHT: Yes, I disagree. I think it is new morally and politically.

We are now at a point where it’s possible for political leaders to think that we can make war cheaply and seemingly easily. This is a part of the justification, as the general noted. We can wage war without endangering our troops, at seemingly lower costs.

And any development that makes war seem cheaper or easier is morally troubling. Our principles are based on — an aversion against the use of force. We should use force only in an absolute emergency under strict ethical principles. Now we have a development which will make it easier. It’s very troubling, I think, and also raises many legal issues in terms of where we stand as a country, what our political and legal principles are.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Gen. Dunlap…

DAVID CORTRIGHT: It’s not something that is normal. I think it’s very new and it’s very dangerous in that regard.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Gen. Dunlap, what about — you can pick any — I wanted to ask you to pick up on the proliferation part of that.

What does — what changes once other nations develop and start using — or terror groups, for that matter, start using these kinds of high-tech weapons?

MAJ. GEN. CHARLES DUNLAP: Well, let me just say this. I think that we should be troubled any time we have to kill another human being.

And my experience has been, even at the very senior level, there’s no idea that war is going to be easier or cost-free, no matter how it’s waged. That said, I think that this technology, especially as it — in its present form, is a lot more complicated than people think — may think. And so while it will proliferate among nation states, I think in terms of terrorists, they are going to continue to use their low-tech, easier-to-deploy methodologies to inflict terror.

As to the technology of the drones that we have today, it’s — they’re generally not survivable in a contested environment. So it would take another generation of drones to be able to be used against another nation state that had an air defense system.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, what about — staying with you, general, what about the legal issues? Of course, in the case of Mr. Awlaki, there were some special circumstances because he was an American.

But, generally speaking, with the use of drones, this kind of high-tech weaponry, can it be done, do you think, within international and domestic legal norms?


I think that the Supreme Court, for our domestic concerns, said in 1942 that an American citizen who becomes a belligerent against the United States suffers the consequences of that belligerency. And, so, accordingly, people can be targeted if they are part of the enemy force as any other belligerent.

I do think that international law needs to be scrupulously adhered to. From what we know in the public record, it appears that that was the case. And it is certainly permissible under international law to strike an individual who is part of an armed — organized armed group engaged in violence against the United States.

In fact, the leaders of the United States have an obligation to defend the people against that kind of a threat.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, David Cortright, you started to raise the legal issues. Flesh that out a bit. What’s your concern?

DAVID CORTRIGHT: Well, we do have the right to wage war in Afghanistan under the congressional authorization, that is to say, soldiers, legally defined combatants, do.

But does that authority extend to Pakistan? And the concern also is that these drone attacks are apparently, from the reports, being managed by the CIA, not by military personnel. Soldiers are allowed under the rules of war to engage in combat against those who are belligerents, but does this apply to the CIA?

And how does this authority apply in Yemen or Somalia or other places where we are using this? This broadly stretches any kind of legal justification, and I think goes beyond what is permissible under the rules of war and under our own legal standards and principles.

And, moreover, these weapons are, I think, perpetuating the illusion that we can defeat terrorism with military force. We should know by now that this cannot be done. We need to protect ourselves, yes. Security measures are part of the mix, but ultimately terrorism is a political phenomenon. It must be defeated by political means, through bargaining and negotiation, through police work, law enforcement.


DAVID CORTRIGHT: It will not be defeated through military attacks. And the more we use the drones, the more we increase animosity towards our countries and some…

JEFFREY BROWN: And I want to get a…

DAVID CORTRIGHT: … lead to more recruits.


And a brief last word from you, general? Do you expect this to — all of these issues taken in, do you still expect this technology to continue?

MAJ. GEN. CHARLES DUNLAP: It will. And I just want to say that military force is just one element of defeating terrorism. I agree with that. But if we forego military force, then we leave ourselves vulnerable to people who cannot be otherwise deterred from attacking us.


MAJ. GEN. CHARLES DUNLAP: This is an important step forward.


Charles Dunlap and David Cortright, thank you both very much.