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 New research questions the effectiveness of drones in the fight against terrorism and highlights growing opposition to their use

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Date posted: 14/01/2014

Two new papers published in the latest volume of Dynamics of Asymmetric Conflict explore the use of drones in military operations. The articles highlight increasing levels of disapproval of the use of drones in recent U.S. polls and suggest that drone warfare may be leading to an emphasis on tactical wins over long-term strategic victories.

Tom McCauley’s “U.S. Public Support for Drone Strikes against Asymmetric Enemies Abroad: Poll Trends in 2013” shows that, while a strong majority of U.S. citizens are in favor of using drones against terrorists in foreign lands, a small and increasing minority are against their use. In contrast, majorities in most countries are opposed to U.S. drone attacks against terrorists. McCauley notes, ‘Should drones’ unpopularity in the United States continue to increase, and their unpopularity in other countries persist, they may well become politically impractical, no matter how convenient and cost-effective the technology may be’.

Metin Gurcan’s “Drone Warfare and Contemporary Strategy Making: Does the Tail Wag the Dog?” argues that increasing use of drones in asymmetric conflict is reversing the dominance of strategy over tactics and may be undermining civilian control of the military. Gurcan notes that while there are a number of advantages to using drones, such as effectiveness at removing key targets and avoidance of friendly casualties, they may also increase the power of extremists amongst civilian populations by creating a siege mentality. He notes that breaking the power of extremists does not rest on the killing or capture of high-value targets, rather it depends on ‘removing their power to intimidate – something that drone strikes cannot do’. This article also reveals that concerns about military drones are salient not just for civilians, but even for army officers such as Gurcan.

The use of drones in U.S. military operations has increased rapidly in the last decade, with the US annual budget for drones growing from $1.9 billion in 2006 to $5.1 billion in 2011. This development has sparked considerable debate in countries that operate drones and in populaces living with them, and has resulted in a backlash in some audiences. The two papers published in DAC raise issues about military use of drones that will likely grow in years to come.

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