Get Your House in Order: On Drone Exports and US domestic anger about their use

There seems something incongruous about two recent pieces of news about the US and Drones. The first piece of news came in February as the White House announced its new policy regarding the export of military (including, and perhaps particularly armed) drones.

The fact sheet from the White House on the policy amendments notes that the policy governs ‘the international sale, transfer and subsequent use of U.S.-origin military UAS’ and that it is intended to ‘supplement… and build… upon the U.S. Conventional Arms Transfer Policy and is consistent with the requirements of the Arms Export Control Act and the Foreign Assistance Act which govern all U.S. military transfers.’ One of the main conditions on exporting the technology is that the purchaser commits to ‘use these systems in accordance with international law, including international humanitarian law and international human rights law…’.

So far, it all sounds sensible. There is no denying that the UAV industry is continuing to grow and that the use of drones in military contexts is also proving increasingly popular to various governments who want to avoid getting mud (egg) on their faces by putting boots on the ground and ending up with casualties and an unpopular war but who want to be seen to be internationally active in situations of crisis where national interests (or even humanitarian interests) are being endangered.

What tickled me was that the same google search which brought up this new policy also brought up an article in the Guardian newspaper.* This article reported that ‘[f]orty-five former US military personnel, including a retired army colonel, have issued a joint appeal to the pilots of aerial drones operating in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria and elsewhere, calling on them to refuse to carry out the deadly missions’. Why? Because, the appealers claimed, that the US use of drones ‘profoundly violate domestic and international laws… undermining principles of international law and human rights.’ The individuals involved in this call to drone pilots are not a collective of hippie anti- (any) war protestors. They are former members of the US military; their service covers a variety of years from 1958 to 2013, they served in the US Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines, and ranges across the ranks. It seems likely, therefore, that there is something in particular in the Obama administration’s use of drone strikes which has brought them all together. Referring to the drone strikes (one imagines from the phraseology that this means personality and signature strikes rather than force protection) as ‘assassination’ the letter condemns those strikes as against domestic and international law. Strikingly, the letter draws parallels with the ‘atrocities of World War II’ (presumably the holocaust) and the actions of US drone pilots when it reminds them of ‘Principle IV of the Principles of International Law Recognized in the Charter of the Nuremberg Tribunal’ meaning that these pilots have the moral capacity (indeed the moral prerogative) to disobey orders leading to assassination strikes.

Whilst it seems sensible for the Obama administration to require the countries it exports to use armed drones within the remit of international laws of armed conflict and human rights law, it seems that it needs to do some work of its own to ensure that its own public (and indeed military personnel) feel that the drones being used by their home government are also meeting this criteria. Acknowledging that there is a significant domestic concern over US drone strikes is nothing new; however, this recent policy development seems to me to serve to highlight the double standards at work here. The US can require that other countries abide by rules that it does not, itself, care to observe. Or that the way that the Obama administration understands the legality of its strikes, and therefore the strikes which other countries may legally undertake, is at odds with the way that the US domestic audience would have those strikes conducted (whilst presumably not on US soil at in the immediate future, the administration must be cognizant of the possibility in the future and the precedent it is setting). If it’s not double standards, then the Obama administration needs to do a much better job of explaining to the public and military how and why these strikes are legal, and why drone pilots are making a moral and ethically good choice when they show up to work prepared to fly these missions. The US military is already struggling to maintain drone operations, cutting flights from 65 per day to 60 (Drew and Philipps, 2015) . In addition to struggling to recruit new pilots (to a job that is viewed by some as a dead end), the Air Force is having to face up to the impact of long shifts, a lack of decompression period between home and the theatre of war, endless hours of boredom and the impact of high resolution imagery as large numbers of existing drone pilots are dropping out with diagnoses of stress, depression, anxiety, and PTSD. Clearly, there is some work that needs to be done at home before the US can impose these requirements on other users of its technology without being derided as a hypocrite.

* The entirety of the letter referred to can be found at:

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