Drone Warfare and Christian Ethics Pt. 1

On October 15, 2015, The Intercept—a website that has primarily focused upon the publication of classified materials, especially those leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden—released a cache of previously secret and top-secret documents concerning America’s utilization of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), commonly referred to as “aerial drones.” Originally produced for a Pentagon study in early 2013, the documents offer a frank assessment of the use and effectiveness of drones in two regions, the first in Afghanistan and the second comprising the Horn of Africa and Arabian Peninsula (especially Somalia and Yemen).

Although initially clouded by the kind of jargon, abbreviations, and highly detailed references typical of such reports, the documents nevertheless ultimately yield a clear picture of highly technological weapons killing in an indiscriminate fashion that undermines the common description of drone strikes as “targeted killings.”

This post details the process, as well as the problems, of the drone program. In diagnosing these problems, I adopt a just-war perspective and focus upon the principle of discrimination. I do this, despite the fact that I have significant qualms with the notion of just war, because it is the most widely accepted framework within Christianity and also because it is diagnostically helpful. In subsequent posts, I hope to analyze other dimensions of the drone program.

The Process
The source documents detail the use of aerial drones by the military, which operates one of the two arms of the US drone program, the other of which is controlled by the CIA. According to the documents, the military has a well-defined, though highly secretive, process for authorizing and undertaking drone strikes.

This process begins with intelligence agencies compiling incriminating evidence against a target. After condensing this information into a brief case for action referred to as a “baseball card,” the agencies send the card up through a chain of command that includes the Joint Staff, the Secretary of Defense, and concludes with the President. If the case for action contained on the baseball card receives approval at every step—which, according to White House policy standards will only be granted if there is a legal basis for the use of force and the target poses a “continuing, imminent threat to US persons” —authorization is given for a 60-day period in which the suspect may be targeted with lethal force.

In the targeting phase, summed up by the acronym F3 for “find, fix, finish,” the military uses a variety of means, including aerial surveillance, human intelligence, and geospatial imaging, to find and fix upon the target. Nevertheless, the documents and subsequent interviews by The Intercept reveal that the work of “finding” and “fixing” is heavily dependent upon signals intelligence (SIGINT), above all the signals produced by mobile phones. Once a fix is made, the final step is to “finish” the target through the use of missiles fired either from aerial drones or from manned aircraft. As specified by White House policy and the standards outlined in the military documents, a strike is only to be initiated when there is near certainty that the terrorist is present and that non-combatants will not be killed or injured.

Despite such assurances, this process must be regarded as potentially morally problematic in a number of respects. For one, it amounts to a secretive procedure by which persons are condemned to death apart from trial. Viewed through the lens of just war theory, secrecy does not necessitate that such killings are inherently objectionable—provided that the conflict fits within the parameters that would authorize use of force, such as a declared war. And yet, do drone strikes in places like Yemen and Somalia fit such criteria? Dealing with that question requires more space than I can devote here and thus must await a subsequent post. At the very least, however, the fact that the US is neither in a declared war with these countries nor acting as an authorized law enforcement agent within them presents significant obstacles to establishing the legitimacy of such uses of lethal force.

Even more problematic, the very secrecy of this process thwarts honest assessment of the drone program, obscuring the answers to two questions that are crucial to determining whether drone strikes satisfy the just war criterion of discrimination. First, are America’s drones being fixed upon the “right” people, that is, those who in fact pose the kind of continuing and imminent threat that might justify lethal violence? Second, are they successful in limiting their destruction solely to those targets?

Together with other sources, the now-public military assessment of “Operation Haymaker,” a joint military-CIA campaign that targeted militants in Afghanistan between 2011-2013, suggests that the answer to the first is far from a straightforward “yes” and the answer to the second is far too frequently “no.”

Targeting “Street Thugs”?
Among the documents from Operation Haymaker are a number of slides that offer an “Effects Update” that records the fate of purportedly high-value individuals killed or detained. Combining this information with other open-source reports, The Intercept has generated a list of persons marked for death or capture. Rather than a who’s who of prominent al Qaeda operatives, the list shows a surprisingly wide range of those targeted for assassination.

The Haymaker documents are far from damning on their own. Nevertheless, they lend further credence to claims that many who find themselves in the crosshairs of US missiles are at best functionaries and at worst have no links to al Qaeda. For instance, in 2013, McClatchy reported on the contents of a top-secret intelligence study that found that 43 of the 95 drone strikes under review targeted groups that were not on the US list of international terrorist organizations. Rather, most had only limited, local objectives. Meanwhile, one member of the Navy’s elite SEAL Team 6 bemoaned the fact that even these highly valued troops were being deployed in Afghanistan to chase down inconsequential targets that he dismissed as mere “street thugs.”

The danger of striking street thugs or even noncombatants is especially high outside of Afghanistan. In such regions, the US has been peculiarly dependent upon intelligence provided by foreign governments. But, as a study by retired General John Abizaid and Rosa Brooks recently noted, this creates the grave possibility that US forces will be used to strike not legitimate targets against whom lethal force might be justified but “domestic political enemies of the host state leadership.” Risks of this sort are elevated by the remote nature of drone strikes.

Given the curtain of secrecy that has veiled the drone program from congressional—let alone public—oversight, these realities should occasion grave doubts that the US is deploying its drone arsenal solely against legitimate targets.

Non-Combatant Casualties
From the perspective of Christian just war thinking, the most disturbing aspect of the leaked documents is the imprecise character of drone warfare that they portray. The analysis of Operation Haymaker includes a breakdown comparing the success of “enabled ops”—raids utilizing ground forces—with “kinetic strikes”—attacks initiated from aircraft, most often aerial drones. In the five-month period under review, there were 27 attacks of each type. Whereas ground raids resulted in 13 “jackpots,” in which the suspected target was either captured or killed, aerial assaults netted 19 jackpots. Despite their slightly higher jackpot-per-mission ratio, the kinetic strikes were horrendously more destructive, killing an astounding 136 deaths of persons who were not specifically targeted over against a mere two non-target deaths in ground raids.

Nor is the problem limited to Afghanistan. Slides from an assessment of operations in Yemen and Somalia note that there were “relatively few, high-level terrorists [who] meet criteria for targeting.” That dearth notwithstanding, as The Intercept vividly illustrates with charts derived from an exhaustive study of drone strokes conducted by the Bureau for Investigative Journalism, between 2002 and 2015 at least 713 persons were killed, including at least 140 civilians and many whose identities were not known. While those numbers encompass many years when the US drone program was all but dormant in the region, ramped up activity has brought with it increased civilian casualties. In 2011-2012, the US carried out 54 drone strikes, killing 293 people, among which were 55 civilians, a rate of more than one non-combatant killed per mission.

Two further revelations collude to make the high rate of non-target and civilian casualties even more troubling. First, it is incredibly likely that these numbers, particularly those from Operation Haymaker, drastically underestimate the number of civilian deaths. Of the 136 non-targeted persons who were killed in the operation, every single one was classified as “EKIA,” enemy killed in action. This hints at an underlying, tautological presumption that being killed by a US missile is sufficient to establish one’s identity as an enemy of the US. As The Intercept’s source put it, “if there is no evidence that proves a person killed in a strike was either not a MAM [military-age male], or was a MAM but not an unlawful enemy combatant, then there is no question. They label them EKIA.” While some militants were surely among those killed, without positive identification such a presumption must be regarded not only as presumptuous but also profoundly dangerous and potentially unjust.

Second, the high rate of non-target casualties is not a mere coincidence but the result of structural deficiencies in the US drone program. Reporting on counterterrorism operations in Yemen and Somalia, another of the leaked documents identifies “critical shortfalls” in the ability to provide positive identification of high-value individuals. Some of these are the result of remediable technological shortages, such as a limited number of drones that can convey high-definition video. But others are the result of the nature of drone attacks themselves. Most of all, because the use of missiles destroys vital documents and ends the lives of targets who might otherwise be interrogated, the drone program is peculiarly dependent upon signals intelligence. And yet, not only must much of this intelligence originate with the host government, but signals intelligence is “an easy system to fool,” as Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, the former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, put it in an interview with The Intercept. Even in Operation Haymaker, which combined signals intelligence with the human intelligence network enabled by the robust presence of American “boots on the ground,” nearly 90% of those killed in drone strikes were not the intended targets.

Apart from greater transparency about the drone program, all of this suggests that non-target—and indeed civilian—casualties are so exceedingly likely that they amount to a de facto operating assumption of drone warfare. But it is precisely this assumption that Christians must interrogate, for the Christian just war tradition, particularly its criterion of discrimination, warns against the blithe acceptance of such casualties. Even if we accept that the US has a legitimate right to utilize lethal force—a matter that in the case of Yemen and Somalia deserves further consideration—it is far from clear that the tactical use of drones accords with the discrimination that should characterize the just application of such force.

Of course, Christian ethicists are by no means agreed upon what is demanded by the principle of discrimination. But let us for the moment adopt Paul Ramsey’s argument, which maintains that Christian love entails “the prohibition of the direct killing of any person not directly or closely cooperating in the force that should be repelled.”1 If we do, then a number of questions press upon us. Above all, do drone strikes constitute a “direct killing” of non-combatants? Drone defenders will surely maintain that the strikes are directed at legitimate targets; others deaths are thus unintended. And yet, what these papers reveal—most especially that in a crucial period nearly nine out of every ten persons who died from a drone strike was not the intended target—this defense appears flimsy at best and duplicitous at worst.

The central place of drone warfare in US foreign policy should also prompt us to ask whether and at what point this indiscriminate character would discredit what might otherwise be legitimate military interventions. In his recent In Defence of War, Nigel Biggar has defended the justice of the war in Iraq, holding that it is not invalidated by excesses like the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison. Yes, he admits, these “morally blemished” the invasion; and yet, instances of negligence or malice only render a collective action unjust when they are “symptoms of a basic flaw.” And one way to tell that a flaw is accidental rather than basic is that “upon discovery, it is publicly renounced and rooted out.”2 With the release of the drone papers, I would judge that we now have discovered a profound vice that appears so deeply rooted in a central piece of US war policy as to be basic to it. To the extent that it continues to employ drones in this fashion, must we regard the war in Afghanistan as unjust, as well as US ventures in Yemen and Somalia?

To be sure, it appears unlikely that drones will be banned from the active arsenal of the US any time soon. A Pew survey from May 2015 showed that 58% of Americans strongly favor drone strikes throughout the Middle East. And the defense establishment appears even more enamored. As The Intercept’s source put it, the military “is addicted to this machine,” which will make it “harder and harder to pull them away from it.” And yet, given their indiscriminate character, Christians cannot allow the likelihood of drones’ continuance to drive us to acquiescence. Instead, we might pray, in the words of Fosdick’s hymn, that God would “save us from weak resignation to the evils we deplore.” 3

  1. Paul Ramsey, War and the Christian Conscience: How Shall Modern War Be Conducted Justly? (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1961), 190.
  2. Nigel Biggar, In Defence of War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 314.
  3. Header image “Drone Warfare Decoration” is licensed by John Johnston under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Bradley Burroughs

About Bradley Burroughs

A native of western New York, Bradley Burroughs earned his Ph.D. in Christian Ethics from Emory University. He lives in Dayton, Ohio, and teaches at United Theological Seminary.

Bradley Burroughs

Bradley Burroughs

A native of western New York, Dr. Bradley Burroughs earned his Ph.D. in Christian Ethics from Emory University. Integrating his research in contemporary Christian ethics, modern social theory, and understandings of virtue, his first book project analyzes competing understandings of politics in contemporary Christian ethics. Brad lives in Dayton, Ohio, and teaches at United Theological Seminary.

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