International Relations

Is the Marginal Cost of a Drone Strike Too Low?

Erik Voeten Sep 27 '12

The New York Times hosted an interesting but somewhat unsatisfactory debate on Tuesday on one of the most difficult moral issues of the day: whether U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan and elsewhere do more harm than good. My main problem as a somewhat though not entirely uninformed consumer is that neither proponents nor critics accurately characterize the strategic trade-off.

The critics, James Jeffrey, Ibrahim Mothana, and James Cavallaro and Sarah Knuckey highlight the civilian cost of drone strikes but do not discuss what, if anything, drone strikes replace. By contrast, the advocates for drone strikes,  Bradley Strawser and political scientists Avery Plaw and Christine Fair, rely heavily on the argument that drone strikes are cheaper, more accurate, and kill fewer civilians than the alternatives: air strikes and intelligence operations. This misses the point: the availability of cheaper options makes the U.S. more likely to authorize assassinations than it otherwise would. If it is cheaper to assassinate, then lower value targets will more easily make the list than when assassinations are expensive. It is not a priori clear that having many more “precise” assassination attempts is welfare improving for the U.S. or the Pakistani than fewer attempts with greater collateral damage.

The key question is whether the marginal cost of a drone strike is too low? There are probably good examples where a drone strike took out a dangerous terrorist with minimal collateral damage. But is the U.S. now authorizing too many drone strikes because it has paid the fixed costs of an infrastructure that makes it possible? Much of the information that would guide a better judgment is confidential. Yet, as someone who believes that assassination attempts should be rare I worry about this a lot. Multiple parts of the military and government agencies have developed the ability to use drone strikes. Generally, when bureaucracies invest in such infrastructure they will find ways to use it; allowing the standards for individual justifications to slip.

Pretty much all authors in the forum call for more transparency and institutional safeguards. I agree and I believe the goal of such safeguards should be to raise the marginal cost of a drone strike. Yes, that reduces some of the agility one gains from this technology and perhaps some exceptions should be created for emergency situations. However, from what I understand, most drone strikes are carefully planned missions that follow targets for days if not weeks before striking.

ps: The full report by Cavallaro and Knuckey is here and contains the most detailed information about the impact in Pakistan that I have seen.

Update: Omar Bashir (a graduate student at Princeton) has an excellent piece on the Foreign Affairs web-site that explains just how a feasible oversight mechanism could work (drawing on the UK example).