Countdown to Drone Week: Filling the Legal Void

A comprehensive manual governing drone warfare is needed – simply admitting so is not enough.

By: /
November 27, 2012

The regulatory architecture in place to contain the U.S. drone program is shaky at best. Leaving military personnel to interpret and apply laws of war and rules of engagement designed with more traditional weaponry in mind encourages costly (and potentially criminal) confusion. Scott Shane reports for the New York Times that the Obama administration has acknowledged the need to formalize the rules governing targeted killing, and that drafting a rule-book of sorts became a matter of greater urgency during the lead up to the election. But to go by the lengthy (and still ongoing) process to draft and approve a revised U.S. Law of War Manual, a definitive drone manual is not likely to appear in the near future. The longer it takes, however, the more likely existing practices will become entrenched and resistant to change according to new rules.  

In the meantime, the U.S. Department of Defense is likely to continue updating existing manuals and issuing new policy directives in an effort to fill the void, such as the one released on Nov. 21, establishing DoD policy for the development and use of autonomous weapons systems with the intentions of “minimizing the probability and consequences of failures in autonomous and semi-autonomous weapon systems that could lead to unintended engagements.”

 For in depth discussion of the challenges of drafting and enforcing laws to govern the use of drones, check out contributions to “DRONE WEEK: KILL, WATCH, AID”, hosted by OpenCanada in partnership with CDFAI from Dec. 10th to 14th 2012.