Over the past decade, unmanned aerial vehicles—commonly known as drones—have become the centerpiece of US efforts to use technology to keep military personnel away from the battlefield. The growing ability to fight wars even while removing US troops from harm’s way has important consequences for the use of military force. For while these individual tactical advancements may not by themselves represent fundamentally new threats to mankind, the capacity to insulate military personnel from risks to their life can change decision makers’ calculations in important ways, reducing the threshold for the use of force and potentially raising the likelihood of low-level conflict. The consequences of low-intensity strife include not only the possibility of more civilian casualties, but also a higher risk of misunderstandings between states that could result in crisis mismanagement and unintended conflict escalation. Given these potential ramifications of increased drone use, as well as the uncertainty surrounding the upcoming US presidential election, it is worth reviewing the continued popularity of unmanned weaponry among Americans, and considering where this momentum might take the United States and other countries in the future.
Our past research documented the rise in popularity of drones from 2008 onwards, and highlighted the importance of presidents’ personality traits—particularly their willingness to take risks in the use of different types of force. Risk-averse leaders were more likely to use drones to carry out airstrikes, while those more tolerant of risk preferred conventional, manned options. For example, we found that President Obama’s risk-averse tendencies have made drones a linchpin of US foreign policy. Unmanned airstrikes increased rapidly from around 50 strikes during the entire eight years George W. Bush was president from 2001 to 2009, to more than 500 strikes since 2009 in Somalia, Yemen, and Pakistan alone, with an additional 376 strikes in Afghanistan since 2015. Although it is possible that some of this increase is due to a rise in the supply, quality, and public acceptance of drone technology, it is also true that the ability to keep US pilots out of harm’s way while still projecting US airpower overseas made unmanned aircraft a particularly appealing tool for the Obama administration. This emphasis on mitigating risk to US military personnel through the use of unmanned machinery has become a defining legacy of the last eight years; whether to continue with this practice will be an important decision for the next president of the United States.
If either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump is looking to the US public for cues on formulating drone policy, then we can expect to see a continued emphasis on unmanned weapons as part of foreign policy. Americans have registered strong support for the government’s drone program despite concerns about legal authorization and civilian casualties. In 2013, a Fairleigh-Dickinson PublicMind poll showed that 75 percent of the US public approved of their government using drones to carry out attacks overseas on targets deemed a “threat to the United States.” Since then, support has not declined significantly. A May 2015 Pew public opinion poll revealed that just under 60 percent of US respondents approved of the use of drones to carry out missile strikes against extremists in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. The recent spate of terrorist attacks in the United States will have only increased support for unmanned strikes.
Our own public opinion survey of more than 2,000 US residents, conducted in November 2015, showed similarly strong support for drone strikes across political parties. (The results are forthcoming at the Center for a New American Security.) Perhaps unsurprisingly, when asked to choose between manned and unmanned strikes, our survey respondents were on average twice as likely to support unmanned options. This effect was especially pronounced when the survey participants were asked about strikes on nuclear facilities in Iran. In this case, respondents were more than three times as likely to support unmanned strikes than manned ones.
Not only did our survey indicate that the US public prefers unmanned to manned airstrikes, but our results also revealed that the public’s strong desire to insulate US military personnel from battlefield risks reflects a lack of knowledge about the capabilities of drones versus traditional manned aircraft. For example, over 60 percent of respondents believed that drones could fly in the same weather as manned aircraft and survive better in high-threat environments—neither of which is true. This lack of information led respondents to consistently overestimate the capabilities of drones, which they thought were far more capable of carrying out a much wider range of missions than they actually are. This phenomenon was especially strong for Millennials, the demographic that was most likely to support unmanned air strikes but also the least knowledgeable about the capabilities of these aircraft. In general, this may be emblematic of a growing societal belief in the value of technological development and a perception that machines are more capable than humans.
So where is this likely to put US drone policy going forward?
First, our survey indicates that the US public’s support for unmanned warfare is not only strong across political parties, but is also a preference that will grow in strength as Millennials come of political age. Furthermore, the US population’s continued desire to limit harm to US citizens, combined with its general lack of knowledge about military capabilities, means that the US public’s support for drones will likely remain quite stable (as it has over the past decade). These factors also mean that political leaders will have significant leeway in shaping perceptions of the efficacy of new military tools. Indeed, the ability of leaders to “cue” the public to support their policy preferences is likely to increase in the future, given the complex, high-tech nature of new military technologies that are difficult for the public to understand.
Second, and perhaps more important than the future trend in US public opinion, is the preference of US leaders themselves—a particularly salient issue given that we are in the midst of a presidential race. Upon a brief review of their foreign policy statements, it appears that neither Clinton nor Trump is likely to abandon interest in unmanned weaponry. Whether for isolationist reasons or out of a desire to use all available tools of US power, it appears that either candidate’s administration would continue to invest in unmanned platforms.
This elite-public consensus—at least, consensus in the United States at this time—on the promise of drones and other unmanned weapons has important consequences for how Washington manages relations with other countries. As recent research shows, 90 countries now have military drones of some description, and while few come close to matching current US capabilities, the gap is slowly narrowing. As more countries express interest in developing unmanned weaponry, and the domains in which unmanned platforms can be used expands, the greater the likelihood that low-level interaction will generate misperceptions and misunderstandings that could result in unintended but significant consequences. Unmanned underwater vehicles, for example, often require more operational autonomy than unmanned aircraft and can face difficulties communicating while underwater. Greater autonomy and communication problems may generate further uncertainty in the heat of crises and increase the risk of escalation. It will be the role of the future US president to set the norms of behavior for unmanned weaponry and determine what is acceptable in this new world of high-tech, low-intensity conflict. These decisions will not only be important in ensuring US national security, but also in maintaining a peaceful and prosperous international system.