A New U.S. Drone Policy?

Opinion
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Forum on the Arms Trade

A New U.S. Drone Policy?

U.S. drone policy under President Donald Trump is slowly coming into focus, despite the absence of any new executive orders or regulations.  However, we can begin to assess the ways in which President Trump plans to utilize drones in his administration. The Trump administration’s approach seems to be based on undoing the limits put in place by the Obama administration.

Trump has not been shy about using drones in operations around the world. In the first three months of the administration, U.S. drone strikes averaged about one strike per day, as compared to an estimated one strike per 5.4 days under President Obama, according to analysis from the Council on Foreign Relations.

The Trump Administration has also granted a new authority to the CIA that restores the CIA’s role in lethal strikes and has seemingly lowered the threshold on the level of acceptable civilian casualties for drone strikes. This is in direct contravention of the Obama administration approach in which the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Department of Defense (DoD) largely shared responsibility. Under Obama, the CIA gathered intelligence and identified suspected terrorists, and then provided information to the military, which was responsible for the actual strikes. 

Moreover, recent actions in Yemen and Somalia have altered the designation of certain provinces to be identified as “areas of active hostilities,” allowing for less stringent battlefield rules and potentially less protections for civilians on the ground than what was required during the Obama administration. Trump’s actions call into question the status of the Presidential Policy Guidance put in place by Obama to guide the United States’ use of armed drones – as these steps appear to mark a reversal of Obama-era policies – and bring to focus repeated concerns about the lack of information on the legal framework underpinning the U.S. drone program.

The Trump Administration thus far has accepted a higher risk to civilian life in determining when to undertake drone strikes and seems undeterred by concerns about secrecy and a lack of accountability. Allies and partners are watching the ways in which U.S. drone strikes unfold under the Trump administration, particularly as they look to conduct their own drone operations and develop relevant national legislation and policies to support such operations. Yet, the apparent disregard for developing international standards on drones undermines U.S. efforts to continue work on the development of international drone standards that were begun under the Obama administration. 

Trump’s reversals in his approach to U.S. drone policy appear to walk back some of the previous efforts (however limited such efforts may have been) to establish an appropriate standard for armed drone use. As such, Trump risks instituting a dangerous precedent for lethal drone use marked by secrecy, limited accountability, and legal ambiguity.

This article originally appeared in Forum on the Arms Trade on April 24, 2017.