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OpinionOpEd

Are drones constrained?

A model of a drone on display in

A model of a drone on display in Foley Square in New York in October 2014. Photo Credit: Getty Images / TIMOTHY A. CLARY

In the State of the Union address, President Barack Obama made a singular reference to unmanned aerial vehicles, more colloquially referred to as "drones."

During his remarks on American values, Obama said, "As Americans, we respect human dignity, even when we're threatened, which is why I've prohibited torture, and worked to make sure our use of new technology like drones is properly constrained." That sounds good in theory, but is it really true in practice? Does the United States "properly constrain" drones?

Let's review the facts. The United States is now believed to have operational drone bases in 11 countries, including Djibouti, Niger, and Turkey. Since Obama took office, the United States has undertaken at least 450 drone strikes (and counting - as compared to 50 under the Bush administration). The United States has acknowledged drone use in the recent effort against the Islamic State and has used drones in campaigns in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. The Pentagon is committed to the drone program (even with reports of drone pilot shortages and fatigue) requesting $2.4 billion in its fiscal year 2015 budget for drones, including $1.25 billion for research, development, testing and evaluation alone.

While drone use and reliance has increased under Obama, it has done so without clearly articulated policy guidelines or oversight and accountability mechanisms, which only complicates a determination of "proper constraint." A little over a year ago, the Stimson Center convened a nonpartisan task force to consider this issue. Co-chaired by retired Gen. John P. Abizaid, former head of U.S. Central Command, and Rosa Brooks, former counselor to the undersecretary of defense for policy, the task force reviewed current U.S. drone policy, taking into account America's national security goals, foreign policy ideals, and commercial interests.

The report noted that the United States' expanded use of drones is inadvertently creating an international norm and standard for use based on secrecy and unspecified legal rationale and found that increasing use of lethal drones may in fact "create a slippery slope leading to continual or wider wars."

The report also warned that the United States' heavy reliance on drones "risks increasing instability and escalating conflicts." In 2015, we're closer to realizing that slippery slope than ever before as U.S. drone use continues unconstrained and without clear oversight and accountability. The administration's refusal to acknowledge certain aspects of the drone program - such as continued use by the CIA - only fuels more suspicion and confusion. Yet the administration has done little to provide clarification. To date, the clearest explanation of the core values of U.S. drone policy has been enunciated in a series of speeches by Obama and other administration officials, but these talking points have fallen far short on articulating a clear, comprehensive policy in line with long-term U.S. interests.

Much remains to be done for the United States to not only demonstrate constraint, but to be deliberate in the development of its drone policy. To judge whether it has "properly constrained" drone use, the Obama administration should first conduct a rigorous strategic review and cost-benefit analysis of lethal drone strikes, particularly in counter-terrorism operations. Enhancing transparency would also help determine the level of U.S. constraint.

At the very least, the administration could provide historical data on past U.S. strikes that would allow for better understanding of how the drone program has been used and if constraint has in fact been demonstrated. Clarity of the U.S. drone program in general can also facilitate the development of an effective and useful international precedent and norm for drone use, particularly in non-traditional settings outside of traditional battlefields.

The State of the Union address highlighted the key issues on the president's agenda. However, if this administration wants a legacy on drones that is judged beyond a record number of strikes and uses in new theaters, the president will have to clearly articulate a comprehensive U.S. drone policy in the next two years. Without definitive metrics for evaluation, it will be difficult to discern whether the administration's use of drones has truly been properly constrained.

Rachel Stohl is a senior associate with the Managing Across Boundaries Initiative at the nonpartisan Stimson Center and was project director of Stimson's Task Force on U.S. Drone Policy.

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