By Alejandro Sueldo, POLITICO
Another terrorist overseas dies in a U.S. armed drone strike. This far from uncommon occurrence is an impressive reminder of the U.S. drone program’s remarkable success rate. Washington’s success, however, is proving a double-edged sword.
Drones’ reliability and cost-effectiveness have made them the U.S. weapon of choice. Most notably, drones play a key role in its targeted killing program, which aims to eliminate suspected terrorists overseas.
Their battle-proven success has, however, made drones appealing to other states as well as terrorist groups. This continuing global proliferation of drones presents complex legal and policy challenges, with far-reaching implications for U.S. and global security, international law and the future of warfare.
The United States is now the global leader in development and procurement of drone technology. While this reflects America’s leadership in defense spending and military technology, components like extended surveillance, precision strikes, relatively modest costs and no danger to the human operator far away have also made drones Washington’s counterterrorism tool of choice.
But many others also find drones attractive. Today, a rapidly growing number of states — including China, Russia, Iran and Israel — are using drones for lethal and non-lethal missions. Even Hezbollah, with the help of Iran, has used drones to carry out lethal missions. In time, Hezbollah is likely to develop new drones with new lethal and non-lethal capabilities. Other terrorist groups are likely following its example.
Given the ease with which drones can be armed, the United States or its allies could eventually face a state or terrorist adversary that has drones. Or that countries like China or Russia will use armed drones to kill minorities — including Chechens, Tibetans or Uighur Muslims — it accuses of plotting terrorism.
Of particular concern are the legal and policy challenges posed if other states imitate the U.S. targeted killing program. For Washington is setting a precedent whereby states can send drones, often over sovereign borders, to kill foreigners or their own citizens, who are deemed threats.
Other states may also follow Washington’s example and develop their own criteria to define imminent threats and use drones to counter them.
Washington will find it increasingly difficult to protest other nations’ targeted killing programs — particularly when the United States has helped define this lethal practice. U.S. opposition will prove especially difficult when other states justify targeted killings as a matter of domestic affairs.
Should enough states follow the U.S. example, the practice of preemptively targeting and killing suspected threats may develop into customary international law.
Such a norm, however, which requires consistent state practice arising out of a sense of legal obligation, now looks unlikely. While targeted killing policies are arguably executed by states citing a legal obligation to protect themselves from imminent threats, widespread state practice is still uncommon.
But international law does not forbid drones. And given the lack of an international regime to control drones, state and non-state actors are free to determine their future use.
This lack of international consensus about how to control drones stems from a serious contradiction in incentives. Though drones pose grave challenges, they also offer states lethal and non-lethal capabilities that are of great appeal. Because the potential for drone technology is virtually limitless, states are now unwilling to control how drones evolve.
But the uncertainty posed by granting states unrestricted discretion in development and use of drones presents a dangerous precedent for global security, international law and the future of warfare.
As is often the case, international consensus is unlikely to emerge until the most powerful states want one – for example, if drones somehow threaten their interests. But then it may be too late.
We need leadership now to create an international regime that can limit to states the legitimate use of drones — and perhaps robotic warfare generally. Perhaps drones can be further restricted to specific non-lethal and lethal missions — like combating transnational terrorism.
Evolving threats, like terrorism, also call for a new, perhaps broader, international understanding of what constitutes an imminent threat. A new understanding must also reflect the realities of combating amorphous threats, such as cyberwar, now emerging from the collusion of technology and war.
Though the remarkable success of drones could prove to be a self-fulfilling legal and policy conundrum, mustering the international consensus necessary to control drones and mold international law around the growing role of robotic warfare, will likely prove difficult.