These questions emerged Tuesday as I listened to a Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing devoted to the constitutional and counterterrorism implications of targeted killings by drones — unmanned aircraft. The countries mentioned were Yemen, Pakistan and to some degree Afghanistan.
Syria never became a focus because President Bashar al-Assad’s military has advanced Russian fighter planes and air defense weapons. They make it impossible to use slow-flying drones, which can easily be shot down by relatively low-tech anti-aircraft weapons.
The hearing did focus on civilians killed by remotely piloted aircraft and the resultant fear and anger.
But the testimony drew distinctions between the use of manned aircraft, which would have to be the case in Syria, and the drones that have drawn so much criticism as used in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere.
Martha McSally, a retired Air Force colonel, testified based on her service in Afghanistan as commander of an A-10 fighter-bomber squadron providing close air support to troops on the ground and her later job directing plans and targeting oversight for remotely piloted aircraft in Africa.
McSally said the remotely piloted aircraft “has the advantage that it is an ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) and strike platform and can loiter overhead around the clock to ensure all strike criteria are met.” Collateral damage is minimized because normal miss distances are “less than 10 feet.”
Once the drone is chosen for a legal strike, McSally said, unlike manned aircraft, commanders, intelligence analysts and legal experts monitor the operation and provide the “ability to abort the strike if the target moves or civilians enter the area.” Another benefit she cited: immediate post-strike assessments.
Without mentioning Syria, McSally drew comparisons between the use of drones and fighter-bombers. Manned fighter-bomber strikes need actionable intelligence and “the lead time required to plan, brief and travel to-and-from the target area.” In the case of Syria, there would be a potential requirement for diplomatic overflight clearances, air refueling support and airborne command and control, which she said are necessary “to provide real-time updates, clearance to strike and abort decisions.” If there is no real-time intelligence, McSally said, the final strike decision for fighter-bombers “is made by the pilot in command.”
Legal authority for the use of drones in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere — but not Syria — was another focus of the hearing. The Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), a joint resolution passed by Congress on Sept. 14, 2001, was first used by the George W. Bush administration and now by President Obama to authorize the use of drones in counterterrorism operations.