The strongest argument in favour of drones is the simple fact that they work for remarkably little collateral cost. The recent drone strike that killed the deputy commander of the Tehreek-e-Taliban, Wali-ur-Rehman, is the most recent demonstration of the efficacy of drone warfare. Nonetheless, the announcement by President Barack Obama that the United States government will begin to regulate and restrict its use of drones is a welcome sign and will effectively help normalise this revolutionary weapon.
The origins of Mr Obama’s statement lie in the decision of the US, in the aftermath of 9/11, to allow both the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency to run separate drone programmes. While the US military automatically applied to its drones the same rules and conventions that govern its other weapons, the intelligence agency’s drone programme, by most accounts, functioned with minimal legal oversight. This should come as no surprise: historically, a covert agency designed to collect intelligence that moves into the application of violence almost inevitably drifts into a grey ethical area. Mr Obama effectively made the argument that the special circumstances that allowed the CIA to have a drone programme were now over. Drones would now be left to the military and would merely become the latest in a panoply of defence hardware, with their use governed by the same protocols that apply to tanks and torpedoes. Like almost any new weapons system, drones have attracted more than their fair share of controversy. Critics who merely abhor warfare are on sounder ground than those who claim drones are somehow worse than existing airpower options. The best studies on drones are quite clear: compared to strikes by aircraft or ground attacks, drones are more accurate. The collateral damage of drone strikes is a fraction of that of a bomber or even artillery.
Talk of banning drones is just hot air. Some 50 countries are deploying, buying, selling and making drones. They are deployed from handling traffic to looking out for drowning swimmers. The drone is here to stay — its benefits in terms of low casualties, reach, cost and speed are unparalleled. We now only have to debate about the legal and regulatory environment in which they should function.