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The Drone Warfare in the Just War Theory

https://global-strategy.org/the-drone-warfare-in-the-just-war-theory/ The Drone Warfare in the Just War Theory 2020-12-29 13:56:08 Juan José De Arriba Muñoz Blog post War Studies Ética Tecnología militar

The terrorist attacks of 9/11 did change the focus of attention and foreign policy of the Bush administration. But the new approach closely related to Drone Warfare is largely in line with long-term trends in American foreign policy, and Barack Obama continued some of the same. The National Security Strategy (NSS) of 2002 highlighted the fact that “Nations that enjoy freedom must actively fight terror”. The US started a war against an enemy that was defined not as a single political regime or person or religion or ideology. The enemy is terrorism.[1] In that way, the US drone war massively expanded under President Obama. Responding to evolving militant threats and the greater availability of remote piloting technology, Obama embraced the US drone program, overseeing more strikes in his first year than Bush carried out during his entire presidency.[2]

The most recent example of Drone Warfare has been seen in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. There are quite a few videos in which unmanned drones can be seen acting against anti-aircraft weapons systems and also against armored cars. In the images captured by the cameras incorporated in these devices, you can see the precision with which the shots are made. Drone strikes have provided a huge advantage for Azerbaijan.[3]

In that context, this paper examines the most relevant Rights and Wrongs of Drone Warfare related to the readings and linked with the warfare that is currently developing. The term “targeted killing”,[4] which is directly associated with drone strikes, provides an interpretation of the preemptive strikes and last resort requirement (jus ad Bellum) and offers more proportionality and discrimination (jus in Bellum) (Rights).

But also, civilians are exposed to unintentional collateral damage and the attacks could be seen as dangerous, unethical, and controversial from the legal point of view. Besides, politically speaking, it could be potentially negative (Wrongs).


The first aspect in favor of Drone Warfare has to do with jus ad Bellum. Here we can consider that drone strikes offer states a method of dealing with terrorism in certain parts of the world where is known that they are preparing or undertaking an imminent terrorist attack. Additionally, the elimination of terrorists who contribute specific and hard-to-replace skills may also impact groups in the short to medium term. If we consider these attacks as preemptive strikes, they meet the conditions imposed by Walzer to justify a preemptive strike: “that an active preparation for an attack that turn that intention into a positive danger”.[5] President Obama said several times that the US conducts strikes only against individuals who pose an “imminent threat to the American people,” when there is a “near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured,” and when capture is not feasible.[6]

However, another point in favor of Drone Warfare and related to jus ad Bellum is the last resort requirement. I consider it as the most controversial, as the last decision rests in the hands of politics. The use of drones is context-specific but leads to almost inevitable “spillover” and the ethical-legal dimension of the strikes become murkier.[7] Nevertheless, the strikes provide a way of keeping up the war against, for example, al Qaeda while avoiding costly “feet-on-the-ground” wars in the Middle East. As we see previously, both Bush and Obama stated several times that drone strikes are conducted when there is no other reasonable way of acting against them. Drone Warfare has given new tools of acting relying on the last resort. As we run out of chances of achieving a just aim, drone strikes represent the use of strategic and surgical violence as a last resort. As an example, on October 1, 2011, the US successfully targeted and killed a US citizen called Anwar al-Awlaki, who was a prominent figure in Al Qaeda’s most dangerous branch. The shock of US drones striking US citizens sooner exploded and included several conservatives and Republicans.[8] This was the first time that the US government force itself to use drone strikes against US citizens as a last resort.

Under Just War theory, one of the requirements of a just war is that it must be a proportionate response to the injustice that the belligerent is suffering or is about to suffer. Besides, regarding the jus in Bello, drone strikes meet the requirements of proportionality and discrimination better than any other weapon platform. I fully agree with Kenneth Anderson in his description of the process of “targeted killing” and how drones enhance the ability of states to be more proportional and discriminate better. He states that the “targeted killing” of high-value terrorist targets is the result of a long, independent intelligence process. The drones add to that intelligence its surveillance capabilities. Drone’s contribution will be tactical, providing intelligence that assists in the planning and execution of the strike itself, to pick the moment when there might be the fewest civilian casualties.[9] In conclusion, Drone Warfare can reduce collateral damage in this process.


The first ethical objection to drone warfare is that it involves civilian casualties. We already see that drone warfare offers discrimination in time, manner, and targeting not offered via any other weapon platform. As such, it lends civilians in the path of hostilities vastly greater protection than does any other fighting tool. Drone warfare is an honorable attempt to seek out terrorists and insurgents who hide among civilians.[10] But according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ), the total number of casualties ranged between 910 and 2200 civilians.[11]

Regarding the casualties, the term “blowback” used by Kenneth Anderson is one of the biggest consequences of this warfare. It refers to the question that if civilians, women, and children especially, are being killed by drones in such numbers – because collateral damage is a fact- they make these local communities even more fertile ground for anti-American operations. It is a concern, and, understandably, some of the attacks have repercussions nowadays. For example, investigators of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings found that al-Awlaki had been an important factor in persuading the Tsarnaev brothers of the necessity of violence.[12]

The next ethical question that arises is the compliance of the attacks with the laws of war. We have seen that, as a whole, Drone Warfare complies with Just War theory and principles related, but individual strikes could fall into violations of international law. Human Right Watch has been following closely all the strikes and, for example, in the 102-page report “Between a Drone and Al-Qaeda”, they examine six attacks where civilians were killed indiscriminately, and not military objectives were targeted and killed.[13]

The last “wrong” is the negative political repercussions of carrying attacks outside your territory. The unique nature of terrorism (namely, the likelihood that wanted terrorists may flee beyond the borders of the state) can sometimes mandate that states consider conducting operations out-side their sovereign territory. Due to the potential for overwhelming political fallout, not to mention the possibility of inciting a wider conflict with a neighbor, a state will rarely risk authorizing such operations.[14]


Drone Warfare is a controversial issue. “Targeted Killing” has become a normal, daily tool that will help states to avoid and prevent major wars. For sure that it will be internationally debated if it is considered as preemptive action or if it was a last resort. In the latter, I agree with Ignatieff when he said that “the real question about the violence inflicted by the politics is whether it is truly a last resort or something else”.[15] However, drone strikes have become a way of fighting terrorism when we are unable to find another solution. A way of fighting that is proportional and discriminates better than any other weapon platform as it grants better chances of succeeding and reducing the collateral damage. A resource that allows states to defend their territory against terrorism.

Additionally, precision, discrimination, and the reduction of the collateral damaged are characteristics of drone strikes, but civilian casualties are sometimes inevitable. The repercussions of the strikes that lead to radicalization and recruitment of new terrorists must be observed, and each strike should be carefully planned and executed to comply with international law.

[1] White House Gov, The National Security Strategy, September 2002, p.5.

[2] Jessica Purkiss , Jack Serle, “Obama’s covert drone war in numbers: ten times more strikes than Bush” January 17, 2017, https://www.thebureauinvestigates.com/stories/2017-01-17/obamas-covert-drone-war-in-numbers-ten-times-more-strikes-than-bush

[3] Robyn Dixon, “Azerbaijan’s drones owned the battlefield in Nagorno-Karabakh” November 11, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/nagorno-karabkah-drones-azerbaijan-aremenia/2020/11/11/441bcbd2-193d-11eb-8bda-814ca56e138b_story.html

[4]Targeted Killing is defined as the premeditated, preemptive, and intentional killing of an individual or individuals known or believed to represent a present and/or future threat to the safety and security of a state through affiliation with terrorist groups or individuals”.

Thomas Byron Hunter, Targeted Killing: Self-Defense, Preemption, and the War on Terrorism, May 2009, https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2307/26462958

[5] Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars, 1977, Ch. 5.

[6] President of the US Barack Obama, Remarks by the President at the National Defense University, May 23, 2013. https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2013/05/23/remarks-president-national-defense-university

[7] Kennedy and Rengger: The New Assassination Bureau: On the ‘Robotic Turn’ in Contemporary War, Carnegie Ethics Online Monthly Column, November 6, 2012.


[8] Kenneth Anderson, “The Case for Drones” Commentary, June, 2013.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] The Bureau of Investigation Journalism (TBIJ), Drone Warfare,


[12] Scott Shane, The Enduring Influence of Anwar al-Awlaki in the Age of the Islamic State, July, 2016. https://ctc.usma.edu/the-enduring-influence-of-anwar-al-awlaki-in-the-age-of-the-islamic-state/

[13] Human Right Watch, “Between a Drone and Al-Qaeda” The Civilian Cost of US Targeted Killings in Yemen, October 2013, p. 1.

[14] Thomas Byron Hunter, Targeted Killing: Self-Defense, Preemption, and the War on Terrorism, May 2009, https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2307/26462958

[15] Michael Ignatieff, Human Rights, the Laws of War, and Terrorism, 2002, p.1155.

Juan José De Arriba Muñoz

Piloto de F-18. Profesor Asociado de la Universidad de Navarra. Máster en Relaciones Internacionales por Johns Hopkins School of Advance International Studies

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