The Case for Drones

Commentary, Vol. 135, No. 6, pp. 14-23 (June 2013)

American University, WCL Research Paper No. 2014-12

11 Pages Posted: 24 Oct 2013 Last revised: 25 May 2014

See all articles by Kenneth Anderson

Kenneth Anderson

American University - Washington College of Law

Date Written: June 1, 2013


This cover story in Commentary magazine (7500 words) offers a defense of drone warfare and targeted killing against legal and ethical claims made by both the American libertarian right and the American and international left. It addresses empirical claims of "excessive" civilian casualties, as well as ethical arguments that drones make the resort to force not just easier, but "too easy," and that in order to deter "overuse" of armed force, soldiers (and implicitly civilians) need to be exposed to otherwise unnecessary risk. It explains how drone technology and targeted killing fit together in a process that is often mistakenly seen as merely "push-button," "Playstation" killing, rather than an elaborate intelligence operation, relying on a web of sources ranging from human intelligence networks on the ground to lengthy surveillance by drones and signals intelligence from above, in which the decision to fire a weapon is the product of a chain of intelligence decisions. The article further distinguishes targeted killing of this kind from drones uses as a weapons platform in conventional conflicts - civil wars in which the US government is supporting a government against an Islamist insurgency, by providing drones as, in effect, an unacknowledged air force - against groups of hostile forces, rather than the targeted killing of individuals. It defends that drone attack that killed the Yemeni-American and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula operational commander Anwar Al-Awlaki, and criticizes American libertarian-right characterizations of that attack as illegitimate or illegal. The article argues that much of the criticism against drone warfare is implicitly not about drones as a weapons platform, nor about targeted killing as such - but instead an unstated rejection of the use of force, or its extension through new technologies, in "counterterrorism-on-offense." But the real world choice, the article argues, is not between the use of force or no use of force in counterterrorism, but instead whether to use the weapon system and associated tactics that accomplish the counterterrorism mission with the fewest risks and least amount of harm.

Keywords: armed conflict, war, drones, drone warfare, targeted killing, counterterrorism, CIA, Al-Qaeda, Awlaki, personality strikes, signature strikes, Yemen, AQAP, war on terror, UAV, Playstation mentality, kill list, special operations, JSOC, Islamist, insurgency, counterinsurgency

JEL Classification: K33

Suggested Citation

Anderson, Kenneth, The Case for Drones (June 1, 2013). Commentary, Vol. 135, No. 6, pp. 14-23 (June 2013), American University, WCL Research Paper No. 2014-12, Available at SSRN:

Kenneth Anderson (Contact Author)

American University - Washington College of Law ( email )

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