Drones

President Trump + Military Drones = What, Exactly?

The president-elect has said he wants to continue with strikes against terrorists, but to what degree?

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Drone
Gaetano Lo Porto/Ropi/ZUMA Press/Newscom

We have an incoming president who claims he will be less interventionist in foreign policy than President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, but also promises he will "bomb the shit out of" the Islamic State in order to fight terrorism.

It would be logical to conclude that this would mean Donald Trump might be a supporter of the use of armed drones to take out suspected terrorists in foreign countries as a way of fighting ISIS without committing more troops. In other words: We would see Trump continue Obama's current drone strike policies.

But, in perhaps an example of how little concern about executive authority played in this election, Trump is not on the record for saying a whole lot about drones. The ISideWith site has Trump saying he supports drone strikes because he believes in using any tool to fight terrorism, but the story and video clip the site links to as a source does not actually have Trump declaring support for drones. The Center of the Study for Drones at Bard College examined what Trump and Clinton have said about drone use on the campaign trail. Here's what they published on Trump in October:

The Republican candidate and his advisers have made fewer direct references to military drone use than the Clinton team. Unlike Clinton, Trump has had no direct experience in coordinating drone strikes. Furthermore, and also unlike Clinton, Trump has only one known adviser—Gen. Michael Flynn—who has played a direct role in U.S. military drone operations in the past two decades. That being said, it is possible to extrapolate the rough contours of a Trump administration's policies governing drone use. Generally speaking, Trump has advocated a broad aerial campaign against ISIS that contrasts with the precision-centric targeted killing operations conducted by the current administration and advocated for by Hillary Clinton and many of her advisers. Trump's advisers hold mixed views on drones. Three Trump advisers—Rudy Giuliani, Michael Woolsey, and Gen. Flynn—have publicly criticized the use of drones for targeted killing. Trump supports the expanded use of military drones to patrol U.S land borders, and has called for an increase in military spending that would likely impact drone acquisition programs, though the plan largely focuses on the procurement of fighter jets and ships, and an increase in personnel.

Trump did, in a foreign policy speech in August, say he wanted to keep drones as part of his military strategy, but also wanted to capture "high-value targets," something that drone strikes often preclude.

Today CNN noted that Flynn, now Trump's pick for National Security Adviser, had previously criticized drone strikes because they "cause more damage than [they're] gonna cause good." But he's also criticized waterboarding as torture, a tool that Trump is openly embracing.

Now that Trump has won, there's a cascade of "What will Trump do with these drones?" stories, and this is because Obama implemented his drone procedures completely through executive branch policies, unchallenged and unsupported by Congress. "Unsupported" is probably the wrong word because silence can be seen as support. We had Sen. Rand Paul engage in a filibuster in order to get assurances that the administration wouldn't use drone strikes against U.S. citizens on American soil, and that's about the extent of it.

There has been very little interest otherwise in oversight of the administration's use of drones to kill suspected terrorists in foreign countries—particularly in countries like Yemen and Somalia where we aren't engaged in authorized military activity. The fact that drones have killed many civilians not involved in terrorism doesn't seem to have affected interest in using them.

It's difficult to speculate what Trump might do here. He may be less involved in some countries like Syria, but his call for more strikes against terrorists does make it seem as though drones would have to be on the table. Drones poll well with Americans undoubtedly because it looks as though we're fighting against terrorism without putting our own troops at risk. That seems to fit with the way Trump talks about foreign engagement. He is critical of direct military interventions that have put troops at risk without getting good results, like in Iraq and Syria. But he wants military strikes against terrorists. That seems to lead toward not only using drones but maybe even expanding them.

Post-election, Reason's Damon Root warned that Trump was going to inherit all the expansion of executive authority under Obama that Democrats allowed to happen. It seems likely that extrajudicial use of drones to assassinate suspected terrorists will fall within that category.

Also relevant, my review of The Assassination Complex: Inside the Government's Secret Drone Warfare Program, from our December issue of Reason magazine, is now readable online.

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39 responses to “President Trump + Military Drones = What, Exactly?

  1. The Center of the Study for Drones at Bard College

    I thought Bard was only a breeding ground for music and art.

  2. Brown SJW: The choice between Hillary and Trump is bombing Muslims over there or bombing them over here.

    The freakout continues

  3. Trump has advocated a broad aerial campaign against ISIS that contrasts with the precision-centric targeted killing operations conducted by the current administration

    Well if it’s any comfort, the current administration’s operations haven’t really been all that precise.

    1. They will change some words around, the results will not vary, the same people will be in charge, but Trump will be worse than Hitler for the exact same actions Obama spearheaded for 8 years.

      I know this, because it’s the exact reverse of Obama’s first term.

      1. “but Trump will be worse than Hitler for the exact same actions Obama spearheaded for 8 years.”

        Yes, that seems the most probable result. With reporters looking for every tiny technical difference to claim this is why when Obama blew somebody up it was ok, but when Trump does it, it proves he’s just like Hitler.

        “So, Mr. Press Secretary, can you explain why the Trump administration has expanded bombing in Syria by striking a village in Syria that has a name starting with Z, whereas the Obama administration restricted it’s precise targeting to villages that started with letters other than Z? Can anything justify this horrendous expansion of un-Constitutional executive overreach?”

  4. The fact that drones have killed many civilians not involved in terrorism doesn’t seem to have affected interest in using them.

    As though if anything negative comes from that!

  5. And so it begins.
    Which was my #1 reason for preferring turd over douche – the press will start talking about all the warring we do again

    1. Hillary Clinton was the Turd I believe

      1. Christ! Why did it have to be her. She’s such a turd sandwich.
        -Mr. Garrison

  6. Trump did, in a foreign policy speech in August, say he wanted to keep drones as part of his military strategy,

    There’s nothing wrong with having drones as part of your strategy, it’s what you aim them at that gets questionable.

    1. “keep drones as part of his military strategy”

      “tactic” I believe.

      1. “”tactic” I believe.”

        No tactics would be how you employ them. Strategy would be having them in your arsenal and using them in a consistent manner.

        Strategically, you might have and use a doctrine that indicated drone use over areas that bombers might have a high risk of being shot down. Tactically, you would fly the drones in a manner that avoided the enemy anti-aircraft defenses.

    2. That’s my take. Drones being used by the military is a viable way of waging war. Drones being used by the CIA is assasination that is okay because we kill “bad people.”

      There is a fairly extensive set of procedures in the kill chain for military operations that follow documented ROE’s. It’s been covered numerous times that the other side of the drone war uses profiling as a method of determining whether or not people should die.

  7. President Trump + military drones = dead Rosie O’Donnell.

    1. Any target that meets certain height + weight + sex + geographical parameters will be posthumously designated Rosie O’Donnell.

    2. I keep getting given new reasons to like Trump. It’s very weird.

  8. The president-elect has said he wants to continue with strikes against terrorists, but to what degree?

    A degree from the School of Hard Knocks?

  9. How easily we’ve transitioned to Droning terrorists on a computer screen is almost as scary as how easily the word ‘terrorist’ is transitioning into referring to US Citizens who don’t agree with their government.

  10. We would need to know what it looked like under Obama to have the slightest clue of what it could look like under Trump. I’m sincerely waiting on Obama to tell us the details of what he’s been up to over the last 8 years so we can see a clear dangerous rise in ‘X’, ‘Y’, or ‘Z’ under Hitlerump.

    Oh, wait, nevermind. Obama wouldn’t know transparency if he walked into it.

  11. Maybe, when he’s actually in office, we can actually see what he does? It seems a cottage industry of pants wetters has sprung up imagining all the terrible things Trump is just waiting to do. No doubt there will be plenty of dumb shit to talk about when he actually gets into office, it is, after all, the US government, and Trump. But JEEZUS, can we get a short break from the imaginary horrors? Trump may actually do some good things too. Anyone imagining that shit? If so, they’re as hard to find as long tailed cats in a room full of rocking chairs.

  12. I think that current alternatives to drones would sometimes kill even more people than drones do. For example, if the government attempts to capture the subject of their hunt, that could quickly turn into a large, protracted fight on the ground that would kill large numbers of civilians.

    I was watching the Helen Mirren movie about a drone over Africa and in the movie there were various flying robots impersonating insects and I was thinking why don’t just use those things to do what they want to do instead blowing the whole thing to Pluto (within the fictional reality of the movie itself; I mean, if you have these things, why not use them to deposit some ricin in the specific, intended recipient, or something along those lines). Such a thing might not exist at the moment, but doesn’t seem that great a technical challenge.

    If we could roll back time to the late 1990s, and prevent 9/11 and all that followed it, by capturing or killing the senior leadership of al Qaida, what would be an acceptable means of doing the deed itself (not the time-travel business, the killing or capturing of al Qaida leadership)? What risks would be acceptable? How would one minimize risks? I mean, suppose that bin Laden and friends just aren’t aren’t that into giving peace a chance? What do we do?

    1. Send Ahnald farther back in time and kill Osama Bin Laden’s mother obviously.

      1. Sorry, he’s already being prepped by the Bush family to counter an even bigger threat. Arnold is being sent back in time to target Donald Trump’s mother before she can ever meet his father. To save the Republican Establishment for all time.

    2. I think that current alternatives to drones would sometimes kill even more people than drones do. For example, if the government attempts to capture the subject of their hunt, that could quickly turn into a large, protracted fight on the ground that would kill large numbers of civilians.

      I still feel bad about this, but my level of give-a-shit has started to bottom out. After all the shootings, knifings, spontaneous attacks, crybullying, threats, and demands that just…keep…coming from the Religion of Pieces, the “rubble doesn’t cause trouble” solution is starting to look really attractive.

  13. Unlike Clinton, Trump has had no direct experience in coordinating drone strikes.

    I snicker at the idea of Clinton having “coordinated” any drone strikes, unless you define that as casually signing off on lists prepared by other, bureaucratic human, “drones”.

    The only role that the likes of a Secretary of State, or President, for that matter, has in the details of strategic planning is in the advisors they choose and appointments they make. As appalling as Trump’s judgement has demonstrably been, I see no reason to think a Clinton or a Kerry or an Obama is or would be “wiser” about utilizing drone strikes.

    1. I believe Hillary had a drone ap on her dingleberry phone.

  14. Every time I bring up Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Barack Obama keeping us at war every single day of his 8 year reign to my liberal friends, they quickly point out Bush started all that. I wonder how that strategy will work on them in 3 months when they are screaming about Trump continuing the drone war

    1. I also wonder at what point every evil of Islamo-fascism will not be Bush’s fault. The US has a very long and convoluted history in the ME, and if you changed the names of countries and looked at who did what and when we would look like a bunch of douche bags.

    2. ” I wonder how that strategy will work on them in 3 months when they are screaming about Trump continuing the drone war”

      You expect logical consistency? I hate to disappoint, but they’ll have a carefully prepared talking points list of why, when Obama did it, it was a great idea, but when Trump did it, then it’s wrong. They will all rest on some obscure pedantic difference that no one can predict now, but will be quickly found and pointed out as soon as convenient.

    3. & point out Libya and a prog will say = it’s not a war – no boots on the ground.

      In the prog mind – if you’ve launched cruise missiles into a country but there are no boots on the ground , it’s not a war.

  15. As what point has a president declined to assert and use the same powers as his predecessor?

    When you have virtually unlimited power to kill people in foreign countries with no harm to yourself, what is the incentive to not use that power?

    I predict continuing drone strikes with perhaps a little less worrying about who is getting killed and the negative impact years down the road.

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  20. It would be fine with me if President Trump would withdraw all the troops, leaving in place a few troops to outfit drones with bombs to be dropped on terrorist camps.

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