Trump's Drone Policy: The Continuation of a Legacy

Trump's Drone Policy: The Continuation of a Legacy

Journalists and academics have frequently speculated on President Trump’s drone policy, with many surmising that he has increased drone strikes relative to the number conducted by the Obama administration. During his electoral campaign, President Trump lacked clarity in defining his drone policy. When questioned about conducting drone strikes against ISIS, he simply stated, “I would bomb the Hell out of them.” However, now that he is in office, he has rarely talked about drones, let alone drone strikes.

After he won the presidency, journalists speculated that Trump was looking to expand upon, and revitalize, Obama’s drone policy. According to The New York Times, Trump has looked to “dismantle key Obama-era limits on drone strikes and commando raids outside conventional battlefields.” Trump has also called for expanding the breadth of allowed targets to include jihadist foot soldiers and has made policy changes that see the White House playing a diminished role in selecting and approving targets; instead, day-to-day decisions regarding those terrorists that should be targeted are being left to lower-level officials within the Department of Defense (DoD).

Under the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations, the authority to make drone strike targeting decisions was reserved for the president and their top aides. The Trump administration has carried out fifty strikes a day or more thus far – including coalition strikes. As sole executive authority over these decisions would be quite time consuming, the power has been delegated to top DoD officials, National Security Council members, military leaders, and high ranking intelligence officials. CIA intelligence and military analysts, for instance, have the expertise and training necessary for more appropriate and accurate targeting.

In reality, Trump’s drone policy has been a continuation of that of the Obama administration and has yielded similar results. Numerically speaking, the Obama administration authorized on average approximately ten strikes per day in the Middle East and North Africa. These figures have remained more or less consistent under Trump. It is speculated that Trump has experienced more criticism concerning targeted killings as he is a Republican president beset by a predominately liberal press and academia. Comparatively little attention was paid to Obama’s use of drones by both the press and academia, and not much was published concerning the effects of targeted killing and drone warfare. The increase in publications by a liberal press that has a combative relationship with the president has complicated President Trump’s ability to continue to pursue U.S. drone campaigns. This political pressure is yet another reason why President Trump has delegated the selection of targets to DOD subordinates.

Trump’s delegation stands in contrast to Obama’s much more hands-on approach that included weekly meetings determining who would be targeted. According to my research, under Obama, civilian casualties were as high as eleven deaths per strike and around six to seven deaths per strike on average. However, the number of deaths per strike is difficult to calculate as the United States government does not report deaths and drone strike numbers. Although, at one time, reports of strikes in Afghanistan were published by the United States’ Air Force, all drone strike and casualty data is currently gathered by various think tanks.

Whereas it was previously stated that civilians should not be harmed in a set of rules entitled “Principles, Standards, and Procedures,” increased delegation to the DoD has made possible the reorientation of regulations governing tolerance of civilian casualties. The official acceptance of civilian casualty risk under the Obama administration was not publicly specified numerically, although there are reports that specific rates were given by the administration behind closed doors. The civilian casualty rate is calculated as the number of noncombatant civilians killed per terrorist death; it does not include the terrorist, although in many situations, it is difficult for observers to independently verify the identities of the terrorists being targeted. The civilian casualty numbers reported by the Obama administration (using military reporting) were extremely low in comparison to what has been reported by The Long War Journal and The Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

On the whole, little has changed regarding drone strikes under the Trump administration, with the exception of increased delegation of drone strike authorization authority. Trump has executed a similar number of drone strikes compared to Obama. If anything, he is conducting slightly fewer. With regards to civilian casualties, it is still too early to make comparisons between administrations. With more oversight from the DoD in the targeted killing process, the number of civilian casualties and collateral damage rates may well prove to have decreased.  However, the opposite could also be true if overseeing agencies are targeting terrorists without communicating or working together. As such, it is important that the United States does not overuse drone strikes. While extremely efficient in targeting terrorists, they can cause more problems than they solve when civilians are killed and civilian property is destroyed. I found that countries such as Pakistan and Afghanistan have entire civilian populations with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) triggered by the humming of drones flying overhead, not to mention the strikes that people have witnessed firsthand. The constant presence of drones overhead and the regular death and destruction they inflict do not cast the United States as a “friendly” superpower; instead, some have suggested that drone strikes lead to an increase in terrorist attacks and radicalization.

Although extremely useful, drones strikes should not be used unless there is a threat of imminent danger. Drone strikes are expedient when an attack is pending or a terrorist group leader is within sight. Children, families, and civilian property, on the other hand, are not threats. Legal scholars Amos Guiora and Jeffrey Brand have suggested the establishment of drone courts to legitimize and put legal protections into the targeting process. This idea includes a court containing 24 Article III justices, 12 justices from the district courts, and 12 justices from the Court of Appeals. While Guiora and Brand’s specific idea of a drone court is too difficult and cumbersome to implement in full, there should at least be a list of predetermined criteria that is employed when deliberating about whether or not to conduct a strike. A drone court including a smaller number of competent judges – perhaps ten or less – could be chosen and approved by the Senate to help with this process. While this targeted-killing war machine deserves high respect for its ability to kill terrorists, it should be considerably regulated and infrequently used by the U.S. government and military.


Christine Sixta Rinehart is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of South Carolina Palmetto College.  In addition to numerous articles and book chapters, her first book Volatile Social Movements and the Origins of Terrorism: The Radicalization of Change was published in December 2012 by Lexington Books. Her second book, Drones and Targeted Killing in the Middle East and Africa: An Appraisal of American Counterterrorism Policies was published by Lexington Books in December 2016. Her third book, Sexual Jihad: The Role of Islam in Female Terrorism will be published in late 2018 by Lexington Books.  She can be reached at