The weapons systems themselves:
the MQ-1 Predator and the MQ-9 Reaper. The media call them drones, but they are actually remotely piloted aircraft. Rather than being in the cockpit, the pilot is at a ground station, receiving flight data and visual images from the aircraft and sending command signals back to it via a satellite data link. Numerous advanced systems and technologies work together to make this possible, but it is important to remember that most of these technologies have been around in some form for decades, and the U.S. government first integrated them in the 1990s. The Predator carries two Hellfire missiles -- precision-guided munitions that, once locked onto the target by the pilot, guide themselves to the target with a high likelihood of striking it. The larger Reaper carries an even larger payload of ordnance -- up to 14 Hellfire missiles or four Hellfire missiles and two 500-pound bombs. Most airstrikes from these aircraft use Hellfire missiles, which cause less collateral damage.
Unlike a manned aircraft, unmanned aerial vehicles can remain in the air for an extended period of time -- an important capability for engaging targets that may only present a very narrow target window. This ability to loiter, and then strike quickly when a target presents itself, is what has made these weapons systems preferable to fixed wing aircraft and cruise missiles.
The Argument Against Airstrikes
What makes unmanned aerial vehicle strikes controversial is that they are used to deliberately target specific individuals … The modern battlefield -- and the ancient as well -- has been marked by anonymity. The enemy was not a distinct individual but an army, and the killing of soldiers in an enemy army did not carry with it any sense of personal culpability. In general, no individual soldier was selected for special attention, and his death was not an act of punishment. He was killed because of his membership in an army and not because of any specific action he might have carried out. … To put it simply, the critics regard what they call drone strikes as summary executions, not acts of war.
The Argument for Airstrikes
The counterargument is that the United States is engaged in a unique sort of war. Al Qaeda and the allied groups and sympathetic individuals that comprise the international jihadist movement are global, dispersed and sparse…. The primary unit is the individual, and the individuals -- particularly the commanders -- isolate themselves and make themselves as difficult to find as possible. …
In war, the goal is to render the enemy incapable of resisting through the use of force. …
The argument for using strikes from unmanned aerial vehicles is that it is not an attack on an individual any more than an artillery barrage that kills a hundred is an attack on each individual. Rather, the jihadist movement presents a unique case in which the individual jihadist is the military unit….
There is of course a greater complexity to this: attacking targets in countries that are not in a state of war with the United States and that have not consented to these attacks.
[T]he jihadist movement has complicated this problem substantially. The jihadists' strategy is to be dispersed. Part of its strategy is to move from areas where it is under military pressure to places that are more secure. Thus the al Qaeda core group moved its headquarters from Afghanistan to Pakistan. But in truth, jihadists operate wherever military and political advantages take them, from the Maghreb to Mumbai and beyond.
In a method of war where the individual is the prime unit and where lack of identification is a primary defensive method, the conduct of intelligence operations wherever the enemy might be, regardless of borders, follows. So do operations to destroy enemy units -- individuals. If a country harbors such individuals knowingly, it is an enemy. If it is incapable of destroying the enemy units, it forfeits its right to claim sovereignty since part of sovereignty is a responsibility to prevent attacks on other countries.
If we simply follow the logic we laid out here, then the critics of unmanned aerial vehicle strikes have a weak case. …
The Strategic Drawback
There are two points I have been driving toward. The first is that the outrage at targeted killing is not, in my view, justified on moral or legal grounds. The second is that in using these techniques, the United States is on a slippery slope because of the basis on which it has chosen to wage war.
The United States has engaged an enemy that is dispersed across the globe. If the strategy is to go wherever the enemy is, then the war is limitless. It is also endless. The power of the jihadist movement is that it is diffuse. It does not need vast armies to be successful. Therefore, the destruction of some of its units will always result in their replacement. Quality might decline for a while but eventually will recover.
The enemy strategy is to draw the United States into an extended conflict that validates its narrative that the United States is permanently at war with Islam. It wants to force the United States to engage in as many countries as possible. From the U.S. point of view, unmanned aerial vehicles are the perfect weapon because they can attack the jihadist command structure without risk to ground forces. From the jihadist point of view as well, unmanned aerial vehicles are the perfect weapon because their efficiency allows the jihadists to lure the United States into other countries and, with sufficient manipulation, can increase the number of innocents who are killed. …
The problem of unmanned aerial vehicles is that they are so effective from the U.S. point of view that they have become the weapon of first resort. Thus, the United States is being drawn into operations in new areas with what appears to be little cost. In the long run, it is not clear that the cost is so little. A military strategy to defeat the jihadists is impossible. At its root, the real struggle against the jihadists is ideological, and that struggle simply cannot be won with Hellfire missiles. A strategy of mitigation using airstrikes is possible, but such a campaign must not become geographically limitless. Unmanned aerial vehicles lead to geographical limitlessness. That is their charm; that is their danger.