I am currently studying abroad in America, and was witness recently to a lively debate about the use of drone strikes by the American military in the Middle East. The discussion ranged from the drones tactical utility to the moral and ethical dimensions of their deployment, to whether they provide Al Qaeda with more anti-western propaganda. It was an informative and wide ranging experience, and has led me to conclude that the use of drones is not only an important and useful military tool but also a necessity in an age when America is seeking to reduce its forward deployment and presence in the Middle East.

The first point of contention that surrounds the use of drones is the ethical dilemma that results from using remotely operated machines as a killing tool. This argument suggests that other weapons used against people are some how more ‘moral’ than others, as if using machine gun, a grenade or missile is okay because the human contact is more involved. This is a ridiculous assumption to make; remotely operated weapons should not exist in a different ethical sphere than others, especially when the objective, killing militants, is the same. Operatives still fly and control drones, and even with considerable distance between them the controller still has absolute power over when and where it is used. The question that is should be asked, but unfortunately is not, is whether we are willing to deploy troops to target specific individuals instead of using drones. What costs are the US willing to bear to attack one or two people? Drones allow for precise targeting, tracking and surveillance, actions that would require multiple teams of highly skilled people on the ground to provide usable information. These soldiers, if deployed to dangerous areas like the border of Pakistan or Iraq, would be vulnerable to a myriad of dangers. Drones allow America to expend its resources on a weapon that removes the potential for loss of life whilst performing the same functions that boots on the ground would do, removing the chance of losing highly skilled assets.

An ethical argument can certainly be made about the civilian casualties. A recent UN report by Ben Emmerson, the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Counter Terrorism, has shed light on the human cost of drones. An estimated 450 civilian deaths have been reported in the Yemen, Pakistan and Afghanistan since the program began. The CIA has refused to release a number of civilian deaths themselves, though they insist that it is in ‘the single digits’, a statement hotly contested by various human rights groups. Whilst I agree that the deaths of innocent people are a tragedy, we must consider what the cost would be for both sides in a human led operation. With the soldiers, the targeted militants, and their supporters, surely the death toll from collateral damage would be higher in the fog of a firefight? Drone technology is constantly being updated, becoming more precise and in the future we may be able to target individuals with a drastically reduced chance of civilian casualties. However, even now, drones represent a lower risk instrument of force for the US and the communities they are used in than deploying troops. The potential for entrenchment in a conflict, and all the complications that come with it, are drastically reduced if the force used is precise, surgical strikes against specific targets.

A regular argument of the detractors of drones is worryingly true: that drone policy and oversight is not at all wide ranging or concrete enough to allow for confidence in its use. Recent discussion in the US policy forums and governmental oversight committees has highlighted how little is known about the drone program by the people who are supposed to be the most well informed. The CIA operated strategy was instituted post 9/11, and the intense atmosphere at that time meant that the directive of congress to use ‘necessary force against suspected militants’ was not questioned as much as it is now. Policy clearly needs to play catch up to the state of the drone program. Who is being targeted is a closely guarded secret and there are worries that the precedent for which individuals are considered militant is based off biased and filtered information that is not subject to wider scrutiny outside the higher echelons of the intelligence community.

Oversight is an important part of the system of checks and balances on executive power, and as such the US Congress should seek to expand its influence and knowledge aggressively in the future so that the public can have confidence in the drone program as an effective military tool. In terms of sanctioned use, to me, the legality of drones should not be considered separate to the proposed legal use of other weapons. If we consider that their use comes under the ‘just war’ theory of conflict, and that congress has authorized the president to use necessary force, then questions of legal restrictions occupy only the international sphere. Secretive drone bases in Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Pakistan have sparked questions about sovereignty and American use of foreign soil to target non-US citizens, but even in that area laws remain murky about the use of drones, and so a substantive legal case against them remains to be found.

The cost effectiveness of the drone program has also been an underreported aspect of the weapons. With the US government seeking to reduce spending in the face of global financial uncertainty, the secretive and often unchecked spending power of the military is coming under greater scrutiny. The drone programs, whilst expensive, are not astronomical compared to other weapons systems. One drone flight can cost from $3000 to $30 000, depending on the model, and in 2012 the Pentagons research and development sector used $5 billion for drone technology. There are indications that the drone program is expanding, with over 7,000 in use including those in the CIA, the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security. This shift of focus mirrors a desire within the US government to pull back from its ‘boots on the ground’ approach within the Middle East and focus specifically on targeting Al Qaeda and militants to halt the spread of fundamentalism in the region.

Finally, there is no substantive evidence to suggest that America’s use of drone strikes has precipitated a recruiting surge for Al Qaeda. The targeting of individuals within their cells is a vital tool to fracturing their network, especially as it becomes more diffuse and geographically distributed to the horn of Africa and into rural Pakistan. Al Qaeda has always used the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan as cause for a violent jihad against the west, so drone strikes have not offered anything ‘extra’ that they could not use for material before. Even if someone becomes radicalized after a family member is killed, this awful situation still is preferable to one where the US would send troops in, affecting the community in the long term and causing a simmering resentment.

Overall, critics of the US drone program do have many valid points. Congressional oversight needs to be strengthened and expanded, as well as an admittance of actual civilian casualties by the CIA and others in an effort to become more transparent. Policy should emphasize a review of the status of suspected militants, as well as improved technology that seeks to reduce the tragedy of civilian casualties. There is no doubt that drones are targeted killing machines, but the question that must be asked is what other alternative is there? Sending in forces to capture or kill high-level militants and members of Al Qaeda requires an acceptance of the high costs that may result, and the war weary American public is less supportive of the US presence in the Middle East than ever before. If America seeks to reduce resentment of its overbearing policies in the region, surely surgical strikes that reduce collateral damage would be preferred by all societies than deployment? The moral arguments against drones are the same used against war, but unfortunately America’s sustained involvement in the Middle East requires attacking terrorist networks and high-level individuals as a strategy. Drones are a brutal, yet necessary instrument of America’s continuing entanglement with Al Qaeda and radical fundamentalism, a struggle that continues to radiate throughout the wider region and the international system.