In his first two years in office, President Donald Trump has authorised 238 drone strikes against terrorist groups, surpassing his predecessor President Barack Obama. Despite his statements, Obama had been quite aggressive and eager to use armed drones as a foreign policy tool. Between 2009 and 2010, Obama authorised 186 drone strikes. Both presidents’ strikes have been focused in Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan — strikes in Pakistan target the Pakistani Taliban in the country’s Tribal Areas, which are situated in the Northwestern part of the country and borders Afghanistan. For decades that has been a hotbed of terrorism.
Drone strikes were far more numerous in Trump’s first year in office compared to his second. In 2017, 130 targets were destroyed by American drones in Yemen, thrice more from the previous year, and Obama’s last (he authorized 58 strikes during his last months).
The U.S. Air Force, moreover, has increased its spending on the Hellfire missile, which is the staple weapon of armed drones. The 2017 USAF budget had a 63 percent purchases increase on Hellfire missiles; the 2018 budget contained a further 20 percent increase. The above statistics were provided by U.S. Central Command to the Daily Beast. Moreover, the data doesn’t include strikes on active battlefields, such as in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan.
Some are concerned about the standards required before a strike takes place. Under Obama, the standard was “Near Certainty,” under Trump it has been demoted to “Reasonable Certainty.”
“The burden of proof on the target was changed to a lesser burden of proof, and so that automatically opens up the aperture when you’re looking at intelligence and you have a probability factor, or a reasonable one, that your target is there,” said retired Army Brig. Gen. Donald Bolduc, a former commander of Special Operations Command-Africa (SOCAFRICA). “Near certainty was a higher burden of proof. It required more platforms, different types of intelligence, HUMINT [human informants], SIGINT [surveillance intercepts], FMV [full-motion video], a lot more detail and pattern-of-life,” he added.
According to a spokesperson from the U.S. Africa Command, “[drone strikes] generally are opportunistic in nature, so it would be difficult to speculate on the rise and fall of the number of strikes conducted over the last two years.”
On the face of it, terrorist groups in all three countries pose a similar threat to U.S. interests and regional security. But authorisation standards for a strike vary. In Yemen and Somalia, for example, it is easier to strike — the countries’ lack of an effective government could be an explanation. Yemen is currently amid a deadly civil war. The Houthis — an Iranian-backed rebel group — are fighting against the Yemeni government, which is supported by a Saudi-led coalition of Sunni states.
Major Josh Jacques, a spokesperson for CENTCOM, refused to discuss the frequency or trends of drone strikes for operational security reasons. Arguably, however, the concern shouldn’t be with who orders the strikes, but rather why. Drone strikes are an efficient and cheap way to kill people. They are an ideal addition to a counterterrorism campaign — that is, if they retain their support status.
If drones become the main prong of a strategy, then something isn’t right. Leaders and high-value-targets will continue to pop up, and the U.S. military would be stuck in an eternal lethal version of whack-a-mole. A long-term sustainable strategy is required to defeat terrorist groups. One could argue, of course, that the terrorist danger from these groups isn’t high enough to necessitate a broader — and thus more expensive — strategy. A few years ago, however, al-Qaeda also didn’t seem capable of big things.