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Shameen Khan Taimur Sikander DAWN.Com
See the Bureau's Methodology

Drones: choosing between droning on and understanding

By Ejaz Haider


One of the basic requirements of fighting wars and the many battles that make up a war is to gain asymmetric advantage over the enemy.

Put in English, if you find yourself in a fair fight, you didn’t plan well.

Winning is about unfair advantage at four levels – political, strategic, theatre, and tactical – of any conflict.

When David faced Goliath, a straight contest would have got David killed. His asymmetric advantage lay in deception, speed and surprise.

That’s where the slingshot came in, not only neutralising Goliath’s advantage but felling him. The history of warfare is the story of unfair advantage.

Today’s wars and its battlefields are complex and non-linear, but the basic principles remain unchanged. Non-state actors have introduced the suicide bomber, raising the cost for the state by upending the basic principle of security, i.e., self-preservation.

States, on their part, have learned that superior force in this contest with elusive enemies is not much use.

Corollary: develop and utilise technologies that are accurate, discriminatory and, more crucially, can be embedded in a C4I2 (command, control, communications, computing, intelligence and information) process for greater precision.

The objective: preempt the enemy and strike deftly.

This is where drones, remotely-piloted vehicles, come in. They have become the most controversial platform over the last decade, flying and striking stealthily and, for the most part, cleanly and precisely.

The debate has two extreme ends: the absolutists who oppose their use unconditionally and the proponents who advocate their enhanced use equally unconditionally. The facts of drones use, as always, lie somewhere between these extremes.

The issue – or as some would like to term it, problem – has to be debated at three levels: technology, operations and law. Let’s consider them in that order.

First, drones aren’t just used to kill people. The technology has multiple uses, most of them in fact benign. While Amazon’s Octocopter package delivery project may still be in the future, drones are already being used in agriculture, search and rescue, 3-D mapping, geological surveys et cetera.

Corollary: the technology is here to stay. In 2005, around 40 countries possessed drones of varying capabilities. By 2012, this number had gone up to 75. It includes Pakistan.

Corollary 2: an idea cannot be dis-invented, though it can be controlled. We face the same problem with nuclear, chemical and biological substances.

Corollary 3: control, legal and normative, always succeeds technology. It cannot precede it. That’s an historical fact. Just because some of us don’t like drones is unlikely to reverse the obvious logic of this truism.

The next level is operations and by operations we mean their military-intelligence role, since that’s the only use that seems to make news.

In their military role, armed drones are used for long-duration surveillance, close air support, force protection strikes and ground attack. Funnily, while the use of drones in all these roles is bitterly criticised, all of these functions were performed by conventional aerial platforms which were, and remain, far less accurate and precise than the drones.

Drones can be used for missions round the clock, and their use has several advantages which make them extremely attractive to intelligence operators as well as field commanders.

The cost per flight hour is very low compared to fighter aircraft.

Cost estimates put out by the US Air Force show that the cost per flight hour for an F-15E Strike Eagle is USD 36,343, USD 22,514 for an F-16C Viper and USD 17,716 for an A-10C. Compared with this, the cost per flight hour of Predators and Reapers is USD 3,679 and USD 4,762, respectively.

Drones also have greater loiter time for ground intelligence.

A Reaper can stay up in the air for 14 hours. They are more precise and accurate. Pilots are not exposed to danger through air-to-air and ground-to-air attacks. The platform saves ground troops from entering hostile environments and drones can hit targets in inaccessible areas, making using ground troops irrelevant. That itself is a very tempting factor at various levels: no attack and extrication plans, no logistics headaches and no medevac problems.

Additionally, the inability of the enemy to kill the drones, the stealth with which they can strike multiple times instils fear in an elusive enemy, allows discriminate strikes against targets that are tightly coupled with the population, restricts the enemy’s freedom of movement and action, denies him assembly, makes electronic communications difficult, sows distrust among enemy cadres and degrades leadership, personnel and material through personality and signature strikes.

In short, drones are a dream aerial platform for military commanders fighting elusive enemies in areas where the zones of war and peace cannot be separated.

So, why is their use so controversial?

Part of the answer lies in the fact that the platform has been used very effectively in wars that are looked upon as imperial in nature. The issue at that level has more to do with the legitimacy of America’s war on terror and its narrative than the use of drones per se. However, the newness of the platform and its stealth make it menacing and sinister in an Orwellian way. This description is not entirely wrong but it misses the point that intelligence agencies are now using other technologies (and hacking techniques) that are no less Orwellian.

As for the much-hyped ‘collateral damage’ allegation, while drones can and have killed people other than terrorists, the fact is that all other known aerial and ground weapon systems and platforms are far less accurate than the weapons on the Predator and its advanced cousin, the Reaper.

Finally, we have the legal level. It’s also the most troublesome.

The problems of law relate to consent, self-defence, imminence of threat (the moral hazard of preemption), organisation (what groups or people can be targeted?), intensity of hostilities, targeting rules, transparency et cetera. Each of these problems emanates from legal principles that have become customary practice and are recognized as such in the body of law as it exists (lex lata).

What jurists fear, and this fear has been expressed in multiple high-end reports, is that the US is making an effort to change the practice of existing law in favour of lex ferenda (future law) which does not obtain at this point.

This is, and was, inevitable. In situations where the nature of conflict has changed and remains in a state of flux, there is always tension between law and force.

The existing body of laws dealing with self-defence at one end (Article 51 of the UN Charter) and non-use of force at the other (Article 2 (4) of the Charter) presupposed inter-state conflict. Even the idea of preemption related to a recognised way of fighting and some determination of the principle of imminence.

That situation has changed. Self-defence, incorporating the idea of preemption, now focuses on the highly controversial concept of anticipatory self-defence with all its attendant moral hazard.

As jurists have pointed out, this throws the problem back to the pre-Charter days, to what is termed as the Caroline incident.

The precise threshold for determining imminence is a subject of dispute and will always remain so. And it becomes even more problematic when preemption is conflated with prevention, as happened in the Caroline case or when the Israeli jets struck the reactor in Iraq, to mention just two examples.

This is how Ben Emmerson put it in his report to the UN:


This, then, is the bird’s-eye view of drones and drones use. The technology will only move further, its uses will multiply, in many cases drones will remain the preferred option as a weapon platform and law will have to keep pace with the technological and operational contours of these pilotless birds.

It will become easier to figure out a legal-normative framework for their weaponised use when more states have developed armed drones with beyond-line-of-sight capability.



There has been noteworthy increase in public disapproval of drones since 2013. American’s own disapproval of missile strikes has grown 11 per cent in the past year.

Israel, Kenya and the US are the only nations polled where at least half of the public supports drone strikes.

Women are more likely than men to oppose drone strikes in America whereas young Americans disapprove it more than the older generation.

It is pertinent to mention here that Pakistan was the only country surveyed where the US drone strikes take place, with the other two countries being Yemen and Somalia.



Comments (38) Closed



MUHAMMAD WARIS Aug 20, 2014 03:19pm

Very Good work Shameen and Co...

John T Backer Aug 20, 2014 03:27pm

It is basically the weakness of pakistan government which US is milking from. Can US go and bomb a village in Indian Punjab ? or even in Indian Occupied Kashmir ? If a terrorist slide thro' Indian occupied kashmir will US go behind him and drop a drone missle in IOK ? No right? why ? Indian Govt will rip US off for such activity. But our Pakistan govt only sit and condemn the killing.. What a worst leadership.

sheikh Aug 20, 2014 03:45pm

Good statistic and useful information

asgher Aug 20, 2014 03:51pm

One of the best things i have ever read on DAWN!!

Abdul Hameed Aug 20, 2014 04:08pm

Thanks for this comprehensive article. The survey should have also collected similar data on attacks by piloted aircraft to see if they are less accurate. Both piloted aircraft and drones depend on ground intelligence. Much of the collateral damage is due to problems of intelligence. The article should have discussed this aspect too.

Gollu Aug 20, 2014 04:17pm

Kudos to Dawn for publishing such a informative article. Drones are now national bird of Pakistan. Dawn is best newspaper.

Kenneth Aug 20, 2014 04:26pm

Whatever one thinks of the use of drones, they are here to stay!

Pak Rat Aug 20, 2014 04:45pm

Very nice article. thanks.

hani Aug 20, 2014 04:47pm

The panicking and tearing '' Will I be Next ? ''

tab Aug 20, 2014 05:41pm

A good display of data journalism

Ali Khan Aug 20, 2014 06:27pm

Great piece.

Deep Aug 20, 2014 06:44pm

Very good fact based article. Great work of Journalism.

Silajit Aug 20, 2014 06:48pm

What utter propaganda!!! No mention of the ratio of men, women, militants and non-militants killed in the widely advertised artillery strikes and air strikes that Pakistan (not the CIA) conducted. When you see that information, present it apples to apples and you'll see that the drones are the best means available.

The other aspect of drone strikes is that it is a neon sign of a failure by the Pakistanis to control terrorists on their side. If they could, there would be no need for drones.

shahid Aug 20, 2014 06:54pm

Ejaz Haider, I salute you for this work.

M. Emad Aug 20, 2014 07:16pm

Despite some civilian death, drone is the best 'therapy' against militants in a country like Pakistan-situation.

Malik Achakzai Aug 20, 2014 10:33pm

Great information!

rashid Aug 20, 2014 11:21pm

Nicely done! more work like this needed which is backed by data

raja aziz Aug 21, 2014 12:40am

Overall, a well done job. Useful information and different points of view on the issue. However, the figure of just 2 women killed at the start is totally flawed and absurd. A very large number of entire families were 'incinerated' through drone strikes. This low figure simply makes no sense.

Zoh Aug 21, 2014 01:58am

CIA officials seriously need to find another way to solve this problem instead the use of drones. What if another country drones are to the U.S causalities? oh right? WAKE UP!

By the way, Shameen and Taimur did a GOOD JOB for this article!

waqar Aug 21, 2014 02:50am

only DAWN can be expected to come up with such a fine work. no gimmicks only facts...kudos

Pragmatist Aug 21, 2014 03:22am

Drones may be more effective if flown by Pakistani pilots as they can discern between a terrorist and civilian better than the american flyer.

Mohammad Aug 21, 2014 03:43am

One of the best articles I've read. I am an Indian and our media is just so meaningless. Well done Pakistan and The Dawn!!

Jehan Mir, MD Aug 21, 2014 08:48am

Is this killing of innocent men, women ands children any different than slaying of journalist James Foley by ISIS?

Freeman Aug 21, 2014 09:23am

Welldone Dawn, you are always keeping your quality of work improving when many other institutions are deteriorating. This keeps my hopes alive.

Adnan Aug 21, 2014 09:33am

I see everyone here thanking for being informed of our own destruction. I hope that everyone of would come up with research and character to oppose such strikes with a powerful stance making the US realize that it is our sovereignty and no one would be allowed to break through it.

AAfromUSA Aug 21, 2014 10:15am

@M. Emad

I wish you knew one of those "some civilian deaths" then shrugging their deaths as numbers would not have been so easy for you. When a father get killed by a drone sons and daughters have to live for life with that wound. If that father was not involved in any militancy those wound turned up in the heart. Give these numbers a face of your loved one and you will realize the gravity of 50 percent inaccuracy is a huge failure of this weapon and you would call it a worst weapon.

sharabi Aug 21, 2014 11:10am

And this proves the sovereignty of Pakistan

Muhammad Ali Durrani Aug 21, 2014 11:21am

Excellent Effort. Such kind of articles should be continuous part of the Newspapers for a fact of realization. Thumbs up for Shameen and staff

Suhaib Aug 21, 2014 11:52am

Its a rare occasion, when we get to see precisely formulated info-graphic and thoroughly researched article by Ejaz Haider. Job well done guys! You should also check out this website http://pakistanbodycount.org. they also have complete Drone strikes and Suicide bombings in Pakistan data.

Adnan Aug 21, 2014 11:53am

kindly send a copy of this document to Amnesty International, Red Cross, UN.... this is best we can do at the moment..

John Weinstein Aug 21, 2014 12:16pm

Drones majorly attacks civilian rather then terrorist so it should be stop as soon as possible.

Seriously??? Aug 21, 2014 12:34pm

The article fails to mention how people are determined as militants. Remember the term "innocent until proven guilty"?, these people are only SUSPECTED as militants, bombarded upon without any due trial or process. Last time i remember, U.S deemed any man with a gun as a militant, also a man attending the same congregation (wedding, funeral) alongside the suspected militant is also deemed as an accomplice and thus a militant too. So please don't give me hypocritical statements like "Drones are controversial because they only violate the sovereignty..." and try to justify the violation of basic Human Rights.

Muhibullah Aug 21, 2014 12:37pm

This is a misdirection of the debate. In Pakistan, when we oppose "drone strikes", it's not the fact that those vehicles are unmanned that we have an issue with. Our issue is with the fact that some other country invaded our airspace and killed some of innocent people (who are presumed to be innocent until proven guilty. Whether the flights are manned or unmanned is completely irrelevant.

alamgirian Aug 21, 2014 02:14pm

thorough and to the point. job well done.

Ikbal buland Aug 21, 2014 06:16pm

Drones have destroyed the myth of Pak sovereignty.

Ragu Aug 22, 2014 06:01am

Drones have become a necessity because some nation states are both unable to and unwilling to control the killers inside its borders, mostly hiding behind civilians. In some cases these nation states also use non-state militants to wage proxy wars; why not probe a little about the fundamental reasons which brought about Drones? If one uses conventional air-crafts with Pilots, their capture or death is a major political risk. With drones you do not have this. We are likely to have more Drones as militancy that hides behind civilians increases. The big protest against Drones is because it takes away the advantage of militants. Also there is nothing new in warfare in using machines to kill enemies from a distance- bow-and-arrow, spears, catapults, cannons, rockets, etc. Drones are merely the progression of such machines.

Kala Ingrez Aug 23, 2014 12:55pm

Another interesting set of stats can be found at aljazeera dot com.

Lillian C. Powell Aug 24, 2014 09:43pm

Seems like bombing Muslims is a top priority for Israelis... 65% approval ? Wow ... and this represents sentiments of Israelis in general i.e. general people of Israel, not Government or Military personals.