The Great Potential of Drones

It seems as though almost every day, there is news of a new US drone strike in some foreign country. Just recently, one killed 4 al Qaeda terrorists in Yemen.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles have the potential to be extremely beneficial to the United States and the world in general. They enable us to eliminate threats to our security without risking our soldiers’ lives. Indeed, there have been about 400 total drone strikes in US history; each time, US soldiers could have been killed had drones not been used.

Many of past drone strikes have taken place in Pakistani territory. The government of Pakistan has publicly condemned the attacks as a violation of Pakistani sovereignty, while secretly supporting and aiding them.

Some have criticized civilian casualties resulting from the use of drones. But as pointed out by The Atlantic, drones can reduce civilian casualties compared to other forms of warfare. According to the military, 13 percent of those killed in drone strikes have been the intended targets, 81 percent have been other militants, and 6 percent have been civilians.

In such matters, the military designates enemy status to one who is male, of military age, and among militants at the time of the attack, unless there is evidence he is not a militant. Critics who claim this violates presumption of innocence are wrong for the same reason that someone who knowingly rides in a stolen car is considered guilty. If one is knowingly among terrorists at his own choosing and is not fighting against them, he should not be presumed innocent.

Despite all this, to ensure this weaponry is used for good, it is necessary to put in place specific legislation to prevent abuse of this power. And regarding the Obama administration’s drone usage, “abuse” is a titanic understatement.

Even in its sickening depiction, gushing with praise, of Obama’s moral anguish on the matter, the New York Times acknowledges that his administration alone operates a “top secret” Disposition Matrix, which essentially amounts to a “kill list.”  Names on the list are determined at the discretion of the CIA and the Obama administration, often occurring in countries with whom we are not even at war (such as Pakistan). Kills are carried out entirely without congressional or judicial approval.

U.S. Navy drones.

Even more alarmingly, a significant portion of the casualties have been US citizens, according to the Washington Post. Understandably, some of these were hostages in attempted rescue missions. But others were American-born citizens suspected of involvement with terrorist groups. And it is guaranteed in our constitution that, no matter how serious a crime may be, all American citizens have the right to a trial before conviction, let alone execution. Even in the case that an American may be involved with the enemy, and cannot be brought to trial, at the very least, shouldn’t his death sentence warrant some form of approval from congress or the judiciary?

Obviously, some legal procedure for operating lethal drones against known terrorists is needed to protect ourselves and our allies. But the idea that Obama and the CIA can serve as judge, jury, and executioner anywhere in the world without any checks and balances is frightening and entirely un-American. Certainly, as commander and chief, the president should be able to make some of these decisions when at war. But outside these circumstances, the checks and balances in our government clearly and unambiguously withhold this power from the executive.

According to James Madison’s records, the founding fathers endowed the president, as commander-in-chief, with the “power to repel sudden attacks,” although congress alone was allotted the authority to declare war. In history, and particularly since the Korean War, presidents have used the title of commander-in-chief to justify military action of varying degrees without the immediate approval of other branches of government. No recent incidents have been so blatant as Obama’s; even the now much-despised Iraq War was legally approved by congress – and with bipartisan support. And the fact that Obama now has the power to kill whomever he wants at any time for any reason is clear evidence that things have gotten out of hand.

Perhaps this has set the stage for Obama’s notorious abuses of the executive order (which would require another article to discuss fully) and outright illegal approval of the Iran nuclear deal, a foreign treaty, without any manner of advice and consent of congress. Evidently, changes must be made to our legal system. This degree of unchecked executive power is completely Orwellian and violates core American values.

Regardless of the Pakistani government’s ambiguous stance on the matter, it has been well-documented that our current drone activities contribute to anti-American sentiment among Pakistani civilians. Children are growing up learning that the United States is not a land of opportunity but rather the source of a potential unexpected supernal demise at any given moment. It is precisely this type of anti-Americanism that fuels and empowers terrorist groups.

By the Geneva Convention and generally accepted rules of war, if the US is acting within reason, the deaths of civilians in strikes against terrorists hiding amongst them are the responsibility of the terrorists, not the United States. But that doesn’t mean we should pursue the active destruction of the livelihoods of innocents until they feel the need to join the Islamic State, if we can help it.

Thus, what is to be the future of United States drone usage? Certainly, legislative action to explicitly prevent unbridled presidential exploitation ought to be a large part thereof. Likewise, measures need be taken so as not to terrorize Pakistani innocents and do more harm than good.

Additionally, the future will likely see changes in the types of drones we use and the ways we use them. We ought to focus research and development on technologically advanced precision-kill drones that limit unwanted casualties while limiting the use of reckless, hellfire-deploying explosion machines. Clearly, a robot should be advantageous to a human for precision-based tasks.

The main reason we have not already been doing this is that reliable precise shots require stability, and drones are notoriously unstable. The practice of stabilizing an object on a flying robot is an emerging field involving intricate mechanical and electrical systems along with volumes of extremely complicated computer algorithms. A brief visit to Penn’s own GRASP laboratory, which focuses in part on steadying cameras atop flying drones, will convince you of this.

Indeed, the military has developed an Autonomous Rotorcraft Sniper System (ARSS), a flying sniper-robot that was first being tested in 2009. Advanced stabilizing mechanisms were used to attach a high-powered rifle to an unmanned aerial vehicle that could be controlled remotely. Optimized for urban combat, the device was said to be more efficient than a human sniper – especially one shooting out of a flying vehicle – in both speed and accuracy. However, there has not been much information on the ARSS since 2009, nor is it currently being implemented, to the best of public knowledge.

Overall, drones have the potential to bring about more good than harm. We should not allow the borderline-criminal actions of the Obama administration to ruin this amazing, life-saving technology.

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