Although a comprehensive US drone policy has yet to be developed, President Trump’s approach to drone export and use is coming into focus. In short, the Trump administration seems intent on undoing many of the policies, procedures, and restraints put in place by the Obama administration.
Current US drone policy rests on policies established during the Obama administration, perhaps most notably a 2013 Presidential Policy Guidance (PPG) that:
- Outlines parameters of drone use in counterterrorism operations;
- Establishes a standard of “near certainty” that no civilians will be injured or killed in counterterrorism strikes; and
- Establishes a standard that targets of drone strikes must pose a “continuing and imminent threat.”
From a use standpoint, the Trump administration has increased the use of armed drones, averaging one drone strike every 1.5 days versus every 5.4 days during the Obama administration, according to data compiled by the Council on Foreign Relations. These strikes have occurred in a growing number of theaters. The Trump administration has also demonstrated a willingness to increase the number of places in which drones can be used with relatively fewer restraints. Previously, these areas only included Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, but may now include certain provinces in Yemen and Somalia as well.
Reports also indicate that the Trump administration has reestablished Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) authority to conduct lethal strikes, perhaps reflecting an inclination toward a more hands-on CIA role in Yemen, Libya, Somalia, and other areas where counter terrorism operations are priorities.
In addition, the Trump administration seems to be on track to rescind or relax certain standards for drone strikes as detailed in the 2013 PPG including the necessity for targets to pose a “continuing and imminent threat” and for there to be “near certainty” that no civilians be injured or killed in a given strike. Such relaxation could put civilians at heightened risk should the threshold for conducting lethal strikes be lowered.
Less than a year into the Trump administration, we are seeing an acceptance of greater civilian casualties – and risk to civilians – and a lower threshold for lethal strikes. As a result, the United States could see greater opposition to its drone programme by partners and allies, as well as countries targeted by American strikes.
The Trump administration does seem to be committed to the Obama-era effort of developing global norms and standards however. The October 2016 launch of the Joint Declaration for the export and subsequent use of armed or strike-enabled unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) established a process for the future development of these global norms.
The Trump administration decided in June 2016 that the United States would remain a co-leader of this process and engaged in its development. The Trump administration’s current actions on US drone policy, however, could undermine its leadership on multilateral efforts to develop international standards to guide drone transfer and use. Governments will question American motivations if US actions are in direct contravention of the proposed global framework that it is pushing simultaneously.