The Drone War: A Winning Weapon and an Unwinnable Strategy?

Stefan Ellender


Predator Drone – US Airforce via Wikimedia Commons


The campaign against Islamic State may be dominated the news cycles but the so-called ‘drone war’ against the worldwide network of Islamist terrorist groups is far from over, with strikes launched against known or suspected Islamist ‘terrorists’ all over the world.

Perhaps more than any other part of the ‘War on Terror’ the ‘drone war’ divides opinion. To some it represents a natural technological evolution of the precision air strike and an excellent strategy to damage and degrade terrorist organisations without placing western personnel in harm’s way. To others it represents the very pinnacle of ‘American Imperialism’ in which individuals around the world are assassinated at the whim of the President. These two positions represent opposing ends of the spectrum of debate, so there are of course many more nuanced positions on the ‘drone war’. Rather than debating the morality of assassinating terrorists this piece will seek to assess the tactical and strategic effectiveness of the ‘drone war’, or to put it simply; does the ‘drone war’ work?

The origins of the ‘drone war’ as a significant part of the War on Terror lies in the debates held by the cabinet of the newly elected President Obama: debates over how to resolve the situation in Afghanistan. Vice-President Joe Biden was a strong advocate of what came to be called “counter-terrorism plus”, a policy of using Unmanned Arial Vehicles (UAVs or ‘drones’), air-strikes and special forces to ‘go after’ the Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters in the Afghan-Pakistan border regions. Although this policy of “counter-terrorism plus” was officially rejected in favour of an Iraq style surge, the use of UAVs to ‘take out’ known and suspected ‘terrorists’ has increased exponentially under the Obama administration. The drone programme has expanded beyond its origins in the Afghan-Pakistan border area; officially the American government has deployed armed drones in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, Yemen and Somalia. Unofficially it is highly likely that drones have been deployed in other countries and conflicts.

Although it has been argued that air-power is simply inferior as a tool in targeting terrorists compared to the deployment of troops, the use of drones specifically and air power more generally has strong advocates. One of the main arguments for the use of air-power in the War on Terror and for the use of armed drones more specifically is that it removes the necessity of deploying ‘Western’ ground forces and therefore negates the negative reaction to these foreign forces. However the violent reaction to the deployment of western forces is not so much due to the presence of foreign forces, although this does impact, but due to the impact of their actions. Drone strikes are easily identifiable, helped by the distinct sound of the Predator Drone’s engine, and the damage and casualties, not to mention the climate of fear, caused by these strikes has been blamed on the USA. Therefore it is somewhat inaccurate to argue that the use of air-strikes as opposed to ground operations somehow reduces the negative reaction from targeted areas, especially as it is known where the air strike originated from. The second main argument in support of drones, is that they are a more precise and humane form of aerial bombardment compared to the deploying of high-power ordinance from conventional bombers. This is somewhat a fallacious argument, to argue that the civilian casualties or general destruction to a village, ‘could have been worse’ serves little purpose in reducing the anti-American backlash.

Furthermore the methods used in the ‘drone war’, across all theatres, do not seem designed to reduce casualties. The “Double Tap” method involves targeting rescuers who come to aid the victims of the initial strike, on the assumption that they are somehow guilty. Morally this tactic is obviously questionable however strategically it is even more questionable. Targeting the general population of an area in which a terrorist lives is simply going to create more enemies. The second question method is the “Signature Strike,” based on an assumption of guilt if suspicious behaviour is observed by the drone operator. The standard used for this is not made public, and seems almost inevitably will result in civilian casualties. Furthermore while the activities of a group of armed men may be suspicious by the standards of a drone operator it is somewhat hard to judge from aerial surveillance whether these men are in fact affiliated to a terrorist group or not.

The backlash to the deployment of heavy ordinance upon a region or village would perhaps be an acceptable negative if the drone programme was having a positive impact, but unfortunately it is not. Firstly, as with much of the War on Terror, the analytical basis for the “decapitation” of terrorist organisations is flawed. Jenna Jordan, in the journal Security Studies, argued convincingly that current theories advocating leadership decapitation overstate the importance of individual leaders to the continual existence of established groups, especially large ones. Although cases have been made for the efficiency of ‘leadership decapitation’ in degrading terrorist networks there is no real evidence for its utility in attacking non-hierarchical loosely connected organisations.

The in depth statistical analysis of terrorist groups since 1945 carried out by Jordan appears to show that “leadership decapitation” of decentralised, religiously inspired groups appears to statistically prolong their active life rather than reduce it. But it must be noted that, although an excellent work Jordan’s study appears to be somewhat too statistically based, focusing on quantitative data and categorising of terrorist groups rather than qualitative data; in counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency it is generally better to focus on qualitative intelligence.  Nevertheless, Jordan’s exhaustive research can be taken as strong evidence that the ‘drone war’ is likely to prove highly counterproductive in its aim of critically degrading the international jihadist movement.

While it would be inaccurate to deny that drones have utility in an offensive and intelligence gathering capacity, the current ‘drone war’ carried out by the Obama administration has become a more technologically advanced version of the ‘Search and Destroy’ missions of the Vietnam War. There may be some tactical advantage to killing high value targets but the use of signature strikes and the backlash caused by these strikes has negated this tactical advantage at a strategic level. It is widely recognised by the US Military, in the Counterinsurgency handbook Field Manual 3-24, and by former American commanders that a counterinsurgency operation aimed at the killing of insurgents should only proceed if it will kill more insurgents than it will create. The backlash against the USA created in the areas under siege from American drones suggests that the ‘drone war’ is making new enemies quicker than they can be killed. Indeed attempted domestic terrorists have cited the ‘drone war’ as a motivating factor. Furthermore even if attacks by drones did not cause civilian casualties the strategic effectiveness of a leadership decapitation approach to counterinsurgency is negligible. The killing of terrorist leaders, while headline grabbing, has no strategic impact as long as there are individuals who are willing to fill the vacant position. In its current form the ‘drone war’ is at best having minimal strategic impact and at worst is creating more enemies than it is killing.



Michael J. Boyle.  “The Cost and Consequences of Drone Warfare” International Affairs 89, no. 1 (2013)

Daniel Byman, “Do Targeted Killings Work?” Foreign Affairs 85, no.2 (2006)

Charles J. Dunlop, “Operational Aspects: Airpower” in Understanding Counterinsurgency: Doctrine, Operations and challenges, ed. Thomas Rid and Thomas Keaney (London: Routledge, 2010)

Fred Kaplan. The Insurgents. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013.

David Kilcullen. The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Middle of Big One. London: Hurst& Company, 2009.

David Kilcullen, “Operational Aspects: Intelligence” in Understanding Counterinsurgency: Doctrine, Operations and challenges, ed. Thomas Rid and Thomas Keaney (London: Routledge, 2010)

Headquarters of the Army, Field Manual: Counterinsurgency, FM 3-24, 2005

Jenna Jordan, “When Heads Roll: Assessing the Effectiveness of Leadership Decapitation,” Security Studies 18, no. 4 (2009)

David Strachan-Morris, “The Irreducible Minimum,” The RUSI Journal 155, no.4 (2010)

Bob Woodward. Obama’s Wars: The Inside Story. London: Simon & Schuster UK Ltd, 2010.

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