The Rules of Drone Warfare

Sometimes what's written down isn't always what happens

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Air Force photo / Senior Airman David Carbajal

Predator and Reaper drones await their marching orders at Kandahar airfield, Afghanistan, in 2011.

Here’s a pair of perspectives on the military utility—and accuracy—of U.S. drone attacks, which have become an increasingly common tool in the war on terror since 9/11. The good news: they don’t put American pilots at risk. The bad news: a lot of people on the ground, some of them innocent, are in danger.

Whenever war is waged from a distance, killing isn’t black and white. The question—for the military, and for Americans in whose name it strikes—is how much gray to tolerate.

The bold-faced comments that follow come from a Sunday column in the Guardian newspaper by Heather Linebaugh, who says she served as a drone-intelligence analyst for U.S. Air Force strikes in Afghanistan and Iraq from 2009 to 2012.

Those in italics come from the NO-STRIKE AND THE COLLATERAL DAMAGE ESTIMATION METHODOLOGY drafted by the Joint Chiefs of Staff last year to guide such drone strikes. The independent Public Intelligence website recently posted the document on its website.

I worked on the US drone program. The public should know what really goes on. Few of the politicians who so brazenly proclaim the benefits of drones have a real clue how it actually works (and doesn’t).

Purpose. The purpose of this instruction is to document the Department of Defense (DoD) policy governing the No-strike process, management of No-strike entities, treatment of collateral objects, and the logic, processes, and procedures of the collateral damage estimation (CDE) methodology (CDM).

Whenever I read comments by politicians defending the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Predator and Reaper program – aka drones – I wish I could ask them some questions.

This instruction is approved for limited release and contains information exempt from mandatory disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act.

I’d start with: “How many women and children have you seen incinerated by a Hellfire missile?”

Prior to striking a target, commands should ensure imagery used to support CDE Analysis is not older than 90 days. This may be waived to 180 days if there are no indications of change in the area of interest.

And: “How many men have you seen crawl across a field, trying to make it to the nearest compound for help while bleeding out from severed legs?”

New Dawn

Army photo / Spc. Nathan Franco

Artwork from an MQ-1 Predator drone unit in Iraq, 2011.

Supported by the IC [intelligence community], geographic CCDRs [Combatant Commanders] are responsible for identifying, developing, maintaining, and distributing to subordinate and supporting commands and supported functional commands a list of No-Strike entities (known as the No-Strike List (NSL)) for operation-specific assigned areas of operation and for those countries within their Unified Command Plan assigned area of responsibility (AOR) for which there is Guidance for Employment of the Force documentation (formerly known as Contingency Planning Guidance) or Joint Strategic Capabilities Plan (JSCP) directed plans and/or operation orders (OPORDs).

Or even more pointedly: “How many soldiers have you seen die on the side of a road in Afghanistan because our ever-so-accurate UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] were unable to detect an IED [improvised explosive device] that awaited their convoy?”

Due to the nature of operations and the potential strategic risk posed to the U.S. Government, due diligence is critical to ensure personnel are trained in the CDM.

Few of these politicians who so brazenly proclaim the benefits of drones have a real clue of what actually goes on. I, on the other hand, have seen these awful sights first hand.

It is an inherent responsibility of all commanders, observers, air battle managers, weapons directors, attack controllers, weapons systems operators, intelligence analysts, and targeting personnel to:

 a. Establish positive identification (PID) and to accurately locate targets consistent with current military objectives and mission specific ROE [rules of engagement]. For purposes of this instruction, “PID” is defined as follows: “The reasonable certainty that a functionally and geospatially defined object of attack is a legitimate military target in accordance with the LOW [law of war] and applicable ROE.”

b. Identify potential collateral (i.e., No-strike) concerns in the vicinity of the valid military target prior to munitions release and target engagement (provide function and geospatial delimitations if able).

c. Apply the CDM with due diligence within the framework of the operational imperatives of accomplishing mission objectives, force protection, and collateral damage mitigation.

I knew the names of some of the young soldiers I saw bleed to death on the side of a road.

No-Strike entities (NSEs) are those designated by the appropriate authority upon which kinetic or non-kinetic operations are prohibited to avoid violating international law, conventions, or agreements, or damaging relations with coalition partners and indigenous populations. NSEs are protected from the effects of military operations (i.e., they have a “protected status”). The infliction of unnecessary suffering or damage to civilian persons or property that is excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated is inconsistent with international law and is contrary to DoD policy outlined in this document…

I watched dozens of military-aged males die in Afghanistan, in empty fields, along riversides, and some right outside the compound where their family was waiting for them to return home from mosque.

Collateral objects are functionally defined NSFs [No-Strike facilities] that have a geospatial relationship to a target and may be affected or potentially affected by target engagement. Knowledge of the location and function of collateral objects is essential to target development, the No-Strike process, and the CDM. Treat collateral objects in accordance with policy and guidance prescribed in this instruction and operational ROE.

The US and British militaries insist that this is such an expert program, but it’s curious that they feel the need to deliver faulty information, few or no statistics about civilian deaths and twisted technology reports on the capabilities of our UAVs.

Dual-use facilities are defined as those valid military targets characterized as serving both a military and civilian (i.e., noncombatant) purpose/function. In many cases, dual-use facilities are associated with senior governmental level command and control; national communications infrastructure; media centers; national power and petroleum, oil, and lubricants infrastructure; industrial facilities, and public utilities providing support to both the civilian population and the military effort. Dual-use facilities may also consist of NSFs occupied by combatants. NSFs occupied by enemy combatants for the purpose of advancing military objectives lose their LOW protection and are not classified as dual-use.

What the public needs to understand is that the video provided by a drone is a far cry from clear enough to detect someone carrying a weapon, even on a crystal-clear day with limited clouds and perfect light. This makes it incredibly difficult for the best analysts to identify if someone has weapons for sure.

Commanders are responsible for determining the predominant function of an NSF, based on current intelligence, and deciding if the target has lost its LOW protected status and is a valid military target, is a dual-use facility, or is an NSF.

One example comes to mind: “The feed is so pixelated, what if it’s a shovel, and not a weapon?” I felt this confusion constantly, as did my fellow UAV analysts.

Human shields are civilian or noncombatant personnel placed in or around a valid military target to hinder attack of that target. In some instances, human shields are willing accomplices who support the belligerent nation and in this case they lose their protected status. In other instances, the belligerent nation may either forcibly place (involuntary) or deceptively encourage (unwitting) civilians or noncombatants to be present at valid military targets, and these personnel are considered protected persons. Involuntary, unwitting, or status unknown human shields must be accounted for in CE [casualty estimation].

We always wonder if we killed the right people, if we endangered the wrong people, if we destroyed an innocent civilian’s life all because of a bad image or angle.

No-Strike entities require the same accuracy in location and geospatial definition as that of lawful military targets.

I know the feeling you experience when you see someone die. Horrifying barely covers it.

Accurate positioning and geospatial development of No-Strike entities and identification of collateral damage/effects concerns is part of both the deliberate and dynamic targeting processes and is a continuous process that does not end when military operations commence.

 And when you are exposed to it over and over again it becomes like a small video, embedded in your head, forever on repeat, causing psychological pain and suffering that many people will hopefully never experience.

The continuous identification and development of NSes, well in advance of and throughout military operations, is critical to campaign success.

UAV troops are victim to not only the haunting memories of this work that they carry with them, but also the guilt of always being a little unsure of how accurate their confirmations of weapons or identification of hostile individuals were.

Deliberate and dynamic targets must be verified against the latest NSL prior to attack.

The number of civilians killed by U.S. drone strikes since 9/11 is difficult to ascertain. Even the locals can’t agree: conflicting reports from Pakistan, where such strikes are secretly carried out by the CIA, put the number as low as 67, and as high as 400, among 2,000-plus killed (although such accounts often cover different timespans). The strikes’ clandestine nature—and isolated targets, many at odds with Islamabad—make such tallies questionable.

The bottom line seems pretty clear: both ex-Senior Airman Linebaugh and the Joint Chiefs are trying to do the right thing. Just in different ways.



A chart from the Pentagon guidelines shows the relationship between collateral damage estimates and their risk to mission success.