Drones have become a mainstay of U.S. counterterrorism operations and national security policy writ large. The Obama administration popularized the use of armed drones — or what are more technically referred to as unmanned aerial systems, unmanned aerial vehicles, or remotely piloted aircraft — and thereby contributed to increased interest in acquiring unmanned systems as well as stirring significant debate over the legality, utility, and efficacy of drone strikes to achieve U.S. strategic objectives. Drones remain a controversial issue. Many of the details surrounding the U.S. drone program remain shrouded in secrecy, and concerns regarding U.S. drone policy have only become more salient during the Trump administration.
In the first year of the Trump administration, President Donald Trump demonstrated a continued commitment to the U.S. use of armed drones in military and counterterrorism operations worldwide. Administration officials have reportedly undertaken or considered several changes to the U.S. drone program, including increasing the tempo of strikes, expanding the geographic scope for drone operations in areas the U.S. government considers “outside of areas of active hostilities,” delegating more strike-decision authority from the White House to military operators, lowering the decision-making thresholds required to take lethal action against terrorism suspects outside of war zones, and broadening the CIA’s role in conducting lethal strikes. In short, the Trump administration’s approach to U.S. drone policy has thus far revealed a desire to roll back some of the principles, procedures, and guidelines put in place by the Obama administration — measures established to balance concerns about the use of drones in lethal operations with a greater degree of transparency and accountability. Indeed, U.S. drone policy under the Trump administration has thus far been defined by uncertainty coupled with less oversight and less transparency.
In this environment of uncertainty, the Stimson Center sees an opportunity to advance the common-sense approach taken by the 2014 Stimson Task Force on U.S. Drone Policy. A comprehensive policy on drones would align U.S. national security priorities and commercial interests with American foreign policy ideals.