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Ask the experts: Drones

This week’s show raises a number of questions related to how the American drone strategy in Pakistan (and elsewhere) creates potential tensions in the region.

To help sift through these complex issues, we asked leading experts to weigh in on drone warfare.


Our contributors:

Ryan Calo

Ryan Calo is an assistant professor at the University of Washington School of Law and a former research director at CIS. A nationally recognized expert in law and emerging technology, Ryan’s work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, NPR, Wired Magazine, and other news outlets. Ryan serves on several advisory committees, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, and the Future of Privacy Forum. He co-chairs the American Bar Association Committee on Robotics and Artificial Intelligence and serves on the program committee of National Robotics Week.

C. Christine Fair

C. Christine Fair has a PhD from the Department of South Asian Languages and Civilization in 2004 and an MA in the Harris School of Public Policy.Prior to joining the Center for Peace and Security Studies (CPASS), within Georgetown University ‘s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, she has served as a senior political scientist with the RAND Corporation, a political officer to the United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan in Kabul, and as a senior research associate in USIP’s Center for Conflict Analysis and Prevention. Her research focuses upon political and military affairs in South Asia. She has authored, co-authored and co-edited several books.

Joshua Foust is the Asymmetric Operations Fellow at theAmerican Security Project and a correspondent for The Atlantic. His writing, which covers military affairs, geopolitics, and strategic energy issues, has also appeared in the New York Times, Reuters, the Christian Science Monitor, World Politics Review and the Columbia Journalism Review. He blogs at and is the National Security contributor for Need to Know.


Robert Naiman is Policy Director at Just Foreign Policy. Mr. Naiman edits the Just Foreign Policy daily news summary and writes on U.S. foreign policy at Huffington Post. He is president of the board of Truthout. Naiman has worked as a policy analyst and researcher at the Center for Economic and Policy Research and Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch. He has masters degrees in economics and mathematics from the University of Illinois and has studied and worked in the Middle East.


Nathan Wessler is a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project.  He formerly served as a legal fellow with the ACLU National Security Project.  He has been involved in litigation challenging the targeted killing of U.S. citizens without due process, as well as litigation under the Freedom of Information Act seeking information from the government about targeted killing and drones.


Is there any indication of cost effectiveness and / or life preservation by the use of drone strikes?

Ryan Calo: It turns out that the bigger military drones used to deploy missiles are expensive; one government report suggested that the costs associated with owning and maintaining certain drones were comparable to manned aircraft.  But they do lower the risks to American soldiers and, some say, to foreign citizens (by lowering collateral damage).  Smaller scout planes like the Raven are much less expensive and, by most accounts, very useful.

C. Christine Fair: Of course! That’s why we use them! They are cost effective and life preservation effective! Please see The Strategic Context of Lethal Drones by Joshua Foust and Ashley Boyle.

Joshua Foust: Drones are definitely cheaper than manned aircraft, though not by a large margin. Most drones perform Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR), which is very expensive for planes and satellites but fairly cheap for unmanned aircraft. For single strikes against individual targets, drones are also cheaper and use more precise, smaller weaponry — which, combined with the shelter they offer pilots (by not being inside the aircraft) make them a good deal for policymakers. As for life preservation, in Pakistan drone strikes unquestionably case fewer civilian casualties and result in less collateral damage than traditional air strikes or Pakistani boots on the ground (Pakistani military operations have killed several thousand Pakistani civilians, an order of magnitude more than the highest estimates for U.S. drone strikes).

Robert Naiman: Former Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair has argued that U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia are doing more harm than good and should be curtailed because they fueling anti-American sentiment and undermining those government politically. Obviously, a policy which is causing more harm than good cannot be cost effective, because it would be more cost effective simply to stop doing the policy and therefore stop doing the harm, and that would be cheaper.

Does the American use of drones set a precedent within the international community on the acceptability of their use? Or is the international community opposed to the program?

CF: ALL new weapon systems have confronted similar issues. Nothing is new here. It’s akin to those who resisted tanks because they were beholden to mounted calvary. Please see these other pieces: Take Two Drones and Call Me in the Morning by Rosa Brooks, What’s Not Wrong with Drones by Rosa Brooks and The Strategic Effects of a Lethal Drones Policy

RC: The picture is mixed.  Certainly the trend among most sovereign nations is toward greater use of drones and robotics generally in the theater of war.   One interesting thing to note is that, according to a recent study, press coverage of drone strikes varies by market, such that a Pakistani or even European newspaper is more like to cover strikes—and to do so with a measure of skepticism.

JF:The precedent issue is not as simple as mere usage. The U.S. is operating under a series of international laws, including Article 51 of the UN Charter. Both al Qaeda Central in Pakistan and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen have launched attacks against the U.S.; moreover, both the Pakistani and Yemeni governments have explicitly given the U.S. permission to operate lethal drones over their territory. From that perspective, the use of drones actually supports international law by operating within its purview. I think more than a few countries don’t like the U.S.-use of drones, but they also happen to be some of the biggest and most eager customers for drone purchases or development (China, Russia, Venezuela, etc.). So while they bemoan America’s superior drone tech, they are already building their own.

RN: Christof Heyns, the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, summary or arbitrary executions, has set that U.S. drone strikes in in Pakistan and Yemen would encourage other states to flout long-established human rights standards, as reported by the Guardian in June 2012.

Nathan Wessler: There is widespread international condemnation of the United States’ use of drones to conduct targeted killings.  A recent Pew Research Center poll of individuals in 20 countries showed that wide majorities in nearly every sampled country disapprove of U.S. drone strikes.  Senior U.N. officials, including the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions, have also repeatedly questioned the legality of the U.S. targeted killing program, as have prominent scholars of international law.  That is because the United States has cobbled together its own legal framework for targeted killing, with standards that are far less stringent than international human rights or humanitarian law permit.

At the same time, however, U.S. targeted killing policy is setting a dangerous international precedent.  The drone program operates on the premise that suspected terrorists far from any battlefield can be killed.  If we don’t want a world in which other countries assume a license to assassinate their citizens and alleged enemies wherever they may be found, we should be very concerned about the precedent the United States is setting by claiming that very authority.  It will be difficult for the United States to credibly criticize other countries that claim identical powers to conduct targeted killings far from active battlefields in the future.

There has been reporting that the number of casualties resulting from drone attacks may in fact be incorrect, is there evidence of this?

CF: The question is- is there proof that civilians have been killed.  This may seem at first blush to be jarring. However, NONE of the allegations that  civilians have been killed by drones have been verified.  Reasons for skepticism include that international journalist cannot go to the tribal areas, very few journalists have bothered sending stringers out to confirm burials and funerals.  In Pakistan, as in other places, it is easy to fabricate deaths for media consumption because there are often no birth certificates- much less death certificates. Even on the cases of alleged injury, no one has bothered to bring forensic analysis to determine whether the kind of injury sustained is consistent with munitions used by drones.  None of these questions can be addressed comprehensively without the CIA and Pakistan’s ISI (the premier intelligence agency of the State of Pakistan) allowing transparency into drone attacks. Both of which have their own reasons for objecting. See the piece I wrote on this issue: The Problems with Studying Civilian Casualties from Drone Usage in Pakistan: What We Can’t Know

JF: There is some evidence that the government is not transparent enough about the victims of drone strikes. But there is also extreme difficulty in collecting information about who gets killed- it is often impossible to count the number of burial sites, which is a key metric for determining the casualties. The social desirability bias limits the ability of polling to determine the real civilian cost. And there is a lack of forensic investigators examining the aftermath of drone strikes.

RN:There is no exact count – neither of overall casualties, nor of civilian casualties – and there has been significant dispute over U.S. claims that the level of civilian casualties is low. In particular, it has been reported that the U.S. counts as a “militant” every “military age male” killed by a U.S. drone strike unless there is evidence that proves the contrary. Obviously, any U.S. estimate, or any other estimate that follows the same usage, is going to produce a lower estimate of civilian deaths than an estimate that does not use such an expansive definition of the term “militant.”

NW: The best source of information about the number of drone strike casualties – the U.S. government – refuses to provide it.  Despite repeated efforts by the ACLU and others to obtain accurate and complete information about casualties, including deaths of civilian bystanders, the government continues to claim that basic and accurate information about its targeted killing program must remain secret.  Several independent organizations, including the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism, provide estimates of casualties from drone strikes based on reputable media sources and independent reporting and research.  These estimates show that many hundreds of civilian bystanders have died.  Even the best estimates are flawed, however, because the public lacks accurate information about U.S. drone strike casualties.

How precise are drone attacks?

RC: Pretty precise is my understanding.  If you think about it, a drone pilot first sits outside of a structure doing surveillance for a long time.  Upon getting the order, he or she delivers the missile from relatively nearby.  That is why some experts (for instance, American University’s Kenneth Anderson) argue that drones strikes may be more consistent with limits on collateral damage.  It may also explain higher observed rates of PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) in drone pilots.  Of course, even manned missile attacks are often preceded by on-the-ground reconnaissance that paints a specific target.

CF: This depends upon the kind of drone attack. In Pakistan’s FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas) they are all intelligence-led (as opposed to “troops in contact”). On this, please see the other pieces I have written on this: Drone Wars  and Drones Over Pakistan – Menace or Best Viable Option?

JF: Drones are extremely precise. The debate over their use has been whether they are accurate: whether they target the right people. In terms of precision, they do hit the targets we give them very consistently, we just don’t always know who that target is.

RN: Since the answer to this question depends on how many civilians are killed or injured for each targeted “militant” who has been killed, it can’t be answered without answering the question of how many civilian casualties there have been.

NW: Although missiles launched from drones may be more precise than some other weapons systems, they are known to have caused the deaths of hundreds of civilian bystanders.  The issue is less one of technical precision than it is the standards under which the U.S. government decides who may be targeted and how it protects civilian bystanders from death or injury, as it is required to do under international law.  Outside the context of armed conflict, the use of lethal force is illegal unless it is a last resort to avert a concrete, specific, and imminent threat.  Further, the government is obligated to take all feasible precautions to protect civilian bystanders from harm.  But those aren’t the standards that the government is using.  The New York Times has reported that the U.S. “counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.”  Regardless of the theoretical precision of drone attacks, when the government uses such flawed reasoning it will inevitably cause civilian bystander deaths, in violation of international law.

Why has the U.S. and Pakistan remained so quiet on the drone strikes? Would more transparency hurt or help justify the attacks?

RC: The U.S. should be more transparent around the use of drones, both abroad and domestically.  At some point (likely, after the election) the Administration should also offer a full-throated defense of its program.

CF: Transparency would likely help the case for drones. BUT the ISI and the Pakistani military is apprehensive about revealing to Pakistanis that they need drones to deal with the militants after they have hogged the state’s resources. They argue that they alone can protect Pakistan. The CIA wants to protect their assets, obfuscate technical capabilities and likely to be free of greater public scrutiny about the program.

JF: Both the U.S. and Pakistan benefit greatly from remaining quiet on drone strikes. The U.S. wants to keep its freedom of action and Pakistan wants to avoid taking responsibility for the strikes due to some anger among the urban elites. In this sense, more transparency would make strikes more difficult, politically, for all parties… but in the long run that might be an acceptable price to pay if we get more data and more access to affected areas in return.

RN: Pakistan hasn’t remained quiet. The Pakistani parliament has denounced the attacks and called for them to stop. Democratically elected Pakistani officials have also called for the attacks to stop. The Pakistani military has played a different game, reportedly endorsing at least some strikes in private, while publicly criticizing the strikes. It appears that the Pakistani military’s position is due to 1) trying to maintain good relations with the U.S. 2) trying not to run afoul of Pakistani public opinion, 3) the fact that they don’t object to drone strikes per se, but to the fact that they don’t have more control over the targeting, and believe that U.S. targeting is misguided and excessive.

NW: Senior U.S. officials, including President Obama and former CIA director Leon Panetta, have repeatedly spoken publicly in defense of the drone program.  Countless unnamed government officials have also discussed the program in the press.  Yet, when the ACLU and others have sought transparency about the legal basis for drone strikes, the number and identity of casualties, and other crucial issues through Freedom of Information Act requests, the government has stonewalled.  The United States even persists with the incredible claim that it cannot confirm or deny whether the CIA operates a drone program, despite numerous statements by government officials confirming CIA drone strikes.  The U.S. government is trying to have it both ways—publicity about drone strikes when it is politically advantageous, but secrecy when the drone program is subject to criticism.  That is simply untenable in a democracy.

David Rohde of the New York Times reported after being held captive in Afghanistan that subsequent to drone attacks there, “[His] captors expressed more hatred for President Obama than for President Bush.”  A drone ‘war’ has indeed been set in motion under the Obama Administration in both Afghanistan and Pakistan; do you believe collateral damage could increase hatred toward the U.S.?

JF: That’s certainly a danger in the drone strikes. Though with all deference to Mr. Rohde, I really don’t mind if the Haqqanis hate America or President Obama. They have made themselves enemies of both Afghanistan and the U.S. by deliberately murdering countless civilians, they should not expect to be able to do that without consequence or response.

RN: I don’t think there can be any reasonable dispute about this; it is certain that drone strikes have increased hatred toward the U.S. The only point of dispute is whether the claimed benefits of drone strikes outweigh the damage caused by increased hatred of the U.S. and by the destabilization of at least somewhat friendly governments. According to reports in the U.S. press, many current and former U.S. officials, especially political and diplomatic officials, believe that political costs of the drone strikes outweigh the claimed benefits, and therefore that the drone strikes should be stopped or be sharply curtailed. But the military and the CIA assert otherwise, and so far it is mainly the military and the CIA that are running the policy, while the diplomats and the political people have been largely marginalized on the drone strike policy.

NW: The drone program has resulted in mistakes, and the deaths of a high number of civilian bystanders, both of which are fueling anti-U.S. sentiment in the countries in which the U.S. is conducting targeted killing operations.  Robert Grenier, the head of the CIA’s counterterrorism center during the Bush administration, said recently that “we have been seduced” by drones, and that drone killings “are creating more enemies than we are removing from the battlefield.”  Whatever short-term gain there might be from targeted killing is outweighed by long-term damage to our national security.  As Ibrahim Mothana, a Yemeni pro-democracy activist recently wrote, “Drone strikes are causing more and more Yemenis to hate America and join radical militants; they are not driven by ideology but rather by a sense of revenge and despair.”