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Distinction & Proportionality

By September 3, 2019June 30th, 2020Drones, Isreal, Military, Pakistan, Russia, technology, The Weekly, UAVs

“The death of one man is tragic, but the death of thousands is a statistic.”- Joseph Stalin

“…The act of willfully pinpointing a human being and summarily executing him from afar distills war to a single ghastly act.”  Mark Bowden

“It’s about the datalink, stupid.” James Poss

“The key principles of the laws of war are necessity, distinction and proportionality in the use of force. Drone attacks and targeted killings serve these principles better than any use of force that can be imagined.” Richard Pildes, a professor of constitutional law at New York University’s School of Law.

Drones, more commonly known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) or Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS) have become a known, yet unknown entity for most civilians on the street today in the West. They are known because the use of personally owned drones has exploded over the past decade with somewhere in the neighborhood of 1.3 million flying over our heads each day. Increasingly, the FAA is beginning to make sense out of the situation. They are in the process of developing a host of policies for their safe use in our neighborhoods.

UAV or RPAS are unknown as a result of the secret shroud that exists over the military and intelligence use of drones around the world. What separates the personal drone from the military drone, besides warfare? The differences in their size as well as in their technological sophistication are staggering.

We will take a cursory look at what we think we know about the global use of drones, along with what most of us probably do not know. We will also discuss where the use of drones is headed, since the developments in the field of drone technology may be one of the most significant in the scheme of warfare since the machine-gun.


Is drone warfare new? In practical terms it is not. Soldiers have been trying to get a grander perspective of the battlefield for centuries. Hot air balloons, zeppelins, and airplanes have all been used with various forms of success. So what makes the drone so significant? Isn’t it just an airplane with no pilot? Actually, no. The airframe is not what sets the drone apart. The drone is new only in that it combines known technology in an original way—aircraft, global telecommunications links, optics, digital sensors, supercomputers, etc. It greatly lowers the cost of persistent surveillance.

When armed, it becomes a remarkable, highly specialized tool: a weapon that employs simple physics to launch a missile with lethal force from a distance, a first step into a world where going to war does not mean fielding an army, or putting any of your own soldiers, sailors, or pilots at risk. The aircraft is essentially a conduit, an eye in the sky. Cut off from its back end, from its satellite links and its data processors, its intelligence analysts and its controller, the drone is as useless as an eyeball disconnected from the brain. However, when you add the drone’s ability to see, the amount of time a drone can stay on station with a general’s ability to make decisions faster than the enemy, because of his visibility of the battlefield, it adds an enormous advantage to the owner of these UAV systems. 

As a point of interest, the Iranians recently shot down a U.S. Navy MQ-4C Triton high-altitude drone, with a surface-to-air missile in international airspace over the Strait of Hormuz. The Triton is the U.S. Navy’s version of the Global Hawk. They began an extensive PR campaign to publicize that they had acquired a bevy of advanced U.S. technology. This simply wasn’t true. Though the loss of a Triton/Global Hawk is not insignificant, there is little on board technologically that cannot be found in a local Radio Shack or online. OK, that may have an element of hyperbole in it.  My point is that there is probably nothing earth shattering technologically that they recovered. They were merely attempting to squeeze every bit of PR they could out of their small victory. 

Military drones are probably the primary workhorses of what is called ISR (Intelligence, Reconnaissance and Surveillance) for the U.S. military and intelligence organizations. Certainly there are many others, to review a list click here. I have highlighted three of them below.

The RQ-11 Raven is a lightweight unmanned aircraft system (UAS). It is designed for rapid deployment and high-mobility for military and commercial operations. The Raven meets army requirements for low-altitude reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition. It can be operated manually or programmed for autonomous operation, utilizing the system’s advanced avionics and GPS navigation.

The MQ-9 Reaper,with a wingspan of 84 feet, a takeoff weight of 7,000 pounds, a payload capacity of 3,000 pounds and a flight time of 36 hours is the second largest of the UAV’s in the U.S. arsenal. The drone climbs up to 52,000 feet, and reads a license plate from over two miles away. Capable of carrying 500 pound bombs, air-to-ground, and air-to-air missiles the UAV fleet is poised to perform the lion’s share of American air support.

The RQ-4 Global Hawk is a high-altitude, long-endurance, remotely piloted aircraft with an integrated sensor suite that provides global all-weather, day or night intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capability. Global Hawk’s mission is to provide a broad spectrum of ISR collection capability to support joint combatant forces in worldwide peacetime, contingency and wartime operations. The Global Hawk provides persistent near-real-time coverage using imagery intelligence (IMINT), signals intelligence (SIGINT) and moving target indicator (MTI) sensors.

What are some things we may not know about the use of drones in the world? The death toll from American drone strikes was approximately 2,400 in total from 2009-2014 and has risen to more than 6,000 since 2015. The United States Air Force has used thousands of drones over the last few years. In fact, nearly one in every three USAF aircraft is a UAV. The number of countries using drones has also increased to around 50 in recent years, including China, Pakistan, Russia and Iran.

What are the down-sides to the use of drones? As strikes become easier and more efficient, Americans may be succumbing to the belief that their country isn’t at war at all. Make no mistake, the severity of the drone program ought to be reckoned with as if it is as serious as a manned invasion.

The true danger of drone warfare is that the drones seem to be removed from the rules of war, but this is not the case. They are every bit as lethal and strategic as any other weapon, and they must be treated as such.

The combination of secrecy and remoteness leads us to treat this aspect of our national narrative as if it didn’t exist. Without a well reasoned oversight from elected officials the use of drones as a tool for accomplishing military objectives has the potential to get out of hand. I have been on the supervised end of congressional oversight and it seems bothersome, but I also understand that mankind’s well-meaning intentions can easily spiral out of control when left unattended by oversight.  An additional weakness is that its datalink can be disrupted, jammed, or hijacked. It’s only slightly harder to shoot down than a hot-air balloon.

Strengths of the drone? Any history of how the United States destroyed Osama bin Laden’s organization will feature the drone. Whatever questions it has raised, however uncomfortable it has made us feel, the drone has been an extraordinarily effective weapon for the job. The U.S. faced a stateless, well-funded, highly organized terrorist operation that was sophisticated enough to carry out unprecedented acts of mass murder. The use of drones in the Global War on Terror (GWOT) has been an unassailable success.

There have been considerable complaints about high numbers of civilian casualties in drone attacks over the past decade. From my research and personal experience, the complaints are unfounded. UAV pilots go to incredible lengths to avoid civilian casualties, as much as is possible. These high numbers help drive the anti-drone narrative, in which some critics have tried to equate actions of the U.S. government with acts of terror. In ground operations the civilian casualties are most likely equally as high or higher.

As far as being an act of state-run terrorism? That is a difficult claim to support under just about any modern day definition of terrorism. We’ve got to remember that anytime a powerful country such as the United States conducts a kinetic operation against a smaller less powerful enemy, there will be those who claim it was an act of terrorism.


It is important to understand that the use of drones is not going away in our lifetimes. The impact they have made on our military’s ability to pursue the enemies of our nation is way too critical a technology to cease using. Still, there are serious ramifications to their use, ramifications to which we as citizens need to pay close attention.

Please consider:

  1. Ronald Reagan made famous this statement, “Trust, but verify.” In order for an orderly society to function in a healthy manner, there must be a certain level of trust. I am an avid supporter for the existence of “a need to know” disposition of military actions. You would be surprised to find that there are those who believe that there is no place for secrets in a democracy. This baffles me. Secrets are not the problem. Humans are the problem. We must be held accountable in order to function properly. That is why we have “elected representatives.” Holding our military personnel accountable is part of their job. We must never forget that “all” military action is simply an extension of broken down diplomacy, nothing more. They are there to protect us against all enemies, both foreign and domestic. When trust erodes, the number of problems has no end.
  2. The proliferation of drone technology brings with it a host of new possibilities for both good and evil. On the good side, drone technology is helping agriculture around the world to better evaluate their agro-practices, leading to increased crop yields. On the evil side, just about anybody with a nefarious plan can attack at will, large groups of people gathered in increasingly large spaces. This will require a new sense of situational awareness to which we are not accustomed. For many of us who practice situational awareness, it is usually on a two dimensional level, near and far. With the addition of drones to our life space we must become situationally aware on a three dimensional level: near, far and up.
  3. There is a need for a certain amount of regulation in the use of drones in our airspace. Becoming aware of those policies and regulations is a good place to start for each of us.


When confronted with media reports of drone attacks globally by U.S. UAV’s, take a breath, investigate the facts, hold on to your conclusions until the facts are rolled out completely. I am especially concerned about the fact that many cultures will have no qualms about using women and children as human shields to protect themselves, as well as using them as PR stunts to try to control the narrative of what happens. There have been terrorist groups who have brought in dead bodies of women and children, desecrated the bodies by taking photos and then posted them on social media, reporting that their deaths were the result of U.S. drone attacks. 

Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that U.S drones do not cause civilian casualties, but the U.S. and its ally drone pilots go to great lengths to prevent what is referred to as “collateral damage.” We must be careful not to jump to conclusions. When you have questions, ask your congressman or congresswoman.

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The feed-back.

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