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Column: Key Assumptions About Drones Are Based on Misconceptions

At least since Pope Innocent II banned the use of crossbows against Christians in 1139, new military technologies have always created strategic and ethical dilemmas. And armed drones — the weapons of choice for today’s battlefield without boundaries — are no exception. Do drone strikes provide a compelling option when battling terrorist networks, or does the controversy they generate outweigh the benefit? Debates about technology, targeting and transparency have muddled an already complicated matter, so let’s take aim at some of the most common misperceptions.

Drones are immoral.

Drones are neither autonomous killer robots nor sentient beings making life-or-death decisions. Yet, with the Terminator -like connotations of the term, it is easy to forget that these vehicles are flown via remote control by some 1,300 Air Force pilots. Drones are an evolution in military technology, not a revolution in warfare.

From a moral and ethical standpoint, drones are little different from rifles, bombers or tanks. Decisions about how and when to use them are made by people. No doubt, the distance between the human warfighter and the battlefield has never been longer, but the psychological proximity can be closer for drone pilots than for other military personnel. Intense surveillance makes these pilots so familiar with their targets — when they sleep, eat and see their families — that some have reported difficulty reconciling that intimacy after they’ve pulled the trigger.

The toughest moral question is not about technology but about targeting and transparency: When militants plotting against America operate globally, don’t wear uniforms and may even be U.S. citizens, who can be targeted and where?

Drone strikes cause inordinate civilian casualties.

Armed drones are some of the most precise weapons used in conflict; we hit what we aim for. But any lethal force results in some civilian casualties, and the use of drones beyond “hot battlefields” means that the civilian-combatant distinction is harder to make.

The New York Times has reported that the Obama administration counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants — an approach that would underreport civilian casualties. But the New America Foundation’s Peter Bergen argues that, since 2008, the civilian casualty rate from drones has declined dramatically and as of last summer was “at or close to zero.”

While many dispute this figure, civilian casualties in drone strikes are clearly fewer than if massive bombs were used instead.

Armed drones can strike fear in the hearts of America’s adversaries and provide a military edge. But Washington may have to deal with blowback. John Bellinger, a former State Department legal adviser in the George W. Bush administration, worries that drones might “become as internationally maligned as Guantanamo.”

If drones are perceived as unjust, or if the deaths of innocents are attributed to them, correctly or not, America’s larger strategic objective — defeating al-Qaida and the ideology that feeds it — could be at risk.

Drones allow us to fight wars without danger.

The allure is simple: A drone swoops in while its operator is safe, thousands of miles away, and the precision-guided ordnance hits a target, with little risk to our troops.

But drones should not give us a false sense of security. The intelligence required for targeting may require U.S. boots on the ground. And drone attacks will not improve governance in a nation that offers a haven to terrorists.

Yes, drones can attack a target accurately and stealthily while reducing danger to the pilot. But they cannot train foreign troops, engage with tribal leaders or strengthen local governments — the centers of gravity in most U.S. conflicts today. The exaggerated promise of drones risks substituting targeting for strategy.

Drones are technologically complex weapons that only rich nations can afford.

Armed drones are neither as simple as model airplanes nor as complex as high-performance fighter jets. Of course, a remote-controlled helicopter that you can build in your garage is certainly not as capable as the $26.8 million MQ-9 Reaper, the primary U.S. hunter-killer drone. But drones are much less expensive than fighter aircraft, and in an age of increasing austerity, it is tempting for nations to consider replacing jets with drones.

More than 50 countries operate surveillance drones, and armed drones will quickly become standard in military arsenals. The challenge is to consider what international rules, if any, should govern the use of armed drones. The United States is setting the precedent; our approach may define the global rules of engagement. Of course, we cannot expect other nations to adopt the oversight and restrictions we have. What doors are we opening for other nations’ use of drones? What happens when terrorist groups acquire them? The United States must prepare for being the prey, not just the predator.

Obama will be remembered as the drone president.

The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq compelled the United States to boost the speed and accuracy with which it targets terrorists. But it was not until the Obama administration that U.S. technology and intelligence caught up with the need to take down terrorist networks rather than just individual leaders. As a result, there have been three to six times more drone strikes under Obama than under Bush.

While the use of drone warfare has come of age under Obama, whether he comes to be defined by this weapon is a political question. Drone strikes generate enormous controversy. For some, even the nomination of John Brennan — the public face of the administration’s drone program — to run the CIA indicates the centrality of drones to an “Obama Doctrine.”

In his Senate confirmation hearing last week, Brennan emphasized his commitment to Congress’ oversight of overt and covert programs. It will remain critical for him and the White House to continue to articulate their overall approach to combating terrorism, making the case that drones are part of the strategy, not a substitute for it.

Mark R. Jacobson is a senior transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. From 2009 to 2011, he served with NATO’s International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan.