US drone warfare faces questions of legitimacy, study of military chaplains shows

US drone warfare faces questions of legitimacy, study of military ...

Are drone strikes legitimate, meaning on sound moral and legal footing? How people perceive the legitimacy of U.S. drone strikes – firing missiles from remotely piloted aircraft at terrorist and insurgent leaders – is central to whether and how the government can continue to use them.

The American public tends not to question military action it perceives as rightful, and U.S. policymakers often reference the legitimacy of U.S. drone strikes. The U.S. military, responsible for conducting most drone strikes globally, has also adopted legitimacy as a principle of counterterrorism operations.

Yet what shapes perceptions of legitimate drone warfare, how these perceptions vary across audiences, and the implications for the U.S. drone program are not well understood. This gap is surprising, given that “over-the-horizon” drone strikes – firing missiles at targets many miles away – have defined U.S. counterterrorism policy in Afghanistan and elsewhere, despite being routinely criticized.

Drone strikes differ from other uses of force in the remoteness of the operators firing the weapons. Drone operators are typically hundreds or thousands of miles away from their targets, which they view through drone- and satellite-based cameras and sensors. In the worst-case scenario, this can lead to target misidentification and civilian casualties.

Part of the problem is that scholars disagree on what constitutes drone warfare, which has implications for how they understand variations in public perceptions of legitimacy. As military scholars who study the topic, we define drone warfare as a function of strike attributes, meaning how and why they are used abroad.

Using this definition, we have found that how a country uses and constrains the use of drones shapes how people perceive their legitimacy. We’ve also found that perceptions of legitimacy differ between U.S. citizens and soldiers, particularly chaplains, who guide the moral use of force. We are scheduled to present our study of the attitudes of military chaplains on drone strikes at both the U.S. Army’s Institute for Religious Leadership and the American Political Science Association’s annual meeting in September 2024.

A U.S. drone strike in Iraq killed members of an Iranian-backed militia.

Uses and constraints

Countries use drones for different purposes.

Tactical strikes are designed to achieve battlefield objectives, such as destroying an enemy compound.

Strategic strikes destroy terrorist organizations to achieve overall war aims. They are used to remove key terrorist leaders. The goal of such “decapitation operations” is to hasten a terrorist group’s collapse.

Countries also constrain drone use differently. Some use self-imposed constraints. These include targeting standards, which are calibrated to balance effectiveness against anticipated civilian casualties. Others use externally imposed…

Access the original article

Don't miss the best news ! Subscribe to our free newsletter :