This is the second blog post in a series looking at an array of issues in 2019 related to weapons use, the arms trade and security assistance, at times offering recommendations.
Although the U.S. drone program in its current form has been active for over 15 years, it remains controversial in large part because of ongoing secrecy surrounding the use of lethal drone strikes outside traditional battlefields and the resulting lack of accountability. Such features have come to define the U.S. drone program and ultimately hinder effective oversight as well as challenge assessments of the legitimacy and efficacy of U.S operations.
The United States has demonstrated its continued reliance on lethal drones to respond to perceived terrorist threats, yet with no overarching strategy to guide such use. And U.S. drone policy appears to be becoming less restrained, less transparent, and less accountable, lacking safeguards and transparency over the legal framework, use, and results of use.
In June 2018, Stimson released a report, An Action Plan on U.S. Drone Policy, that examined worrying trends surrounding the U.S. drone program with a particular view towards the Trump administration’s use of lethal drone strikes outside of traditional battlefields. The report found key concerns regarding changes the Trump administration has made to U.S. drone policy and use:
- U.S. drone policy under the Trump administration has been defined by uncertainty coupled with less oversight and less transparency, reversing course on certain measures designed to make drone use more responsible and bring the drone program out of the shadows.
- The Trump administration has increased the tempo and geographic scope of lethal drone strikes.
- The threshold for strike-decisions has reportedly been lowered, and the administration may have reasserted the CIA’s role in conducting lethal strikes.
The development of international standards through the joint declaration process has raised serious concerns that the U.S.-led process will undermine existing frameworks and result in weak standards guiding drone transfers and use. In August 2018, Stimson released The ATT and Drones to support the discussion on international standards and provide a primer on existing international standards related to drones, cautioning that any international standards should not be lower than what already exists in legally binding law, including international humanitarian and human rights law.
The United States has an opportunity to be a leader on developing appropriate policy frameworks to guide the transfer and use of armed drones and set a responsible international precedent. Such an approach is particularly important as lethal drone technology continues to proliferate, and U.S. policy and practice impacts not only what happens within and to the United States, but how our allies, partners, and even our enemies utilize drones for their own purposes.
Rachel Stohl is Managing Director at the Stimson Center and Shannon Dick is Research Associate with the Conventional Defense Program.