The Strategic-Tactical Dichotomy of Drone Warfare

The Strategic-Tactical Dichotomy of Drone Warfare

“Drones have arguably revolutionised modern warfare, especially their use in targeted killings. However, over-reliance on this tactic due to its measurable results has come at the expense of long-lasting strategic advances, moving drones away from their original intelligence-focused tasks and stagnating an already exhaustive War On Terror.”

by Javier Martínez Mendoza

The failed assassination attempt of Taliban leader Mullah Omar, on 7th October 2001, marked the first use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) or “drones” for a targeted killing in the Global War on Terror [1]. Since then, the involvement of drones in this struggle has shifted from merely surveillance and intelligence-related activities to an additional function: leadership decapitation, arguably revolutionising the way war is waged [2].

Despite their tactical achievements, over-reliance on this tactic has had repercussions on the Global War on Terror’s strategic goals, stagnating any significant advance for the sake of short-term gains that require these operations to be carried out constantly. Ultimately, this strategic-tactical dichotomy has caused a misperception regarding how modern wars should be waged, prolonging an already exhaustive war.

How do drones fit in the War On Terror?

The use of drones is not new for US war efforts and intelligence. For decades, drones have been used just for activities relating to surveillance, training, and information gathering [3]. Originally, American decision-makers’ attitudes towards using drones to carry out strikes were of clear opposition, but the response to 9/11 paved the way for their use in targeted killings of Al Qaeda militants and enablers [4]. From that moment on, the US underwent ‘the most overt, technologically advanced, and prolific assassination programme the world had seen to that point’ [5].

In the broader context of the Global War on Terror, drones have been used or could be used for activities such as persistent surveillance, especially ‘pattern of life’ surveillance (following an individual’s everyday activities for a prolonged time), as well as tasks that involve entering environments that are risky for human health or that are deemed not worth endangering personnel [6]. It is possible to identify two trends: drones have been used mostly for surveillance and air support in Iraq and Afghanistan, whereas they have been extensively involved in targeted killings in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, where the US is not officially engaged in a war and thus has not deployed a significant number of personnel [7].

The strategic-tactical dichotomy

Drones have become essential for the US decapitation strategy against terrorist groups like Al Qaeda, which aim at taking down terrorist organisations by capturing or killing their leadership. However, targeted killings could have a limited impact in reducing the frequency of militant attacks in the regions where they are carried out, providing a short-term solution that must be consistently carried out to maintain its impact, instead of a definite solution to terrorist violence [8].

For instance, even if it is true that the assassination of terrorist leaders decreases the incidence of terrorist attacks by increasing the organisations’ vulnerability by disrupting cohesion and deterring its militants, terrorist groups might remain operational. Due to their decentralized and clandestine nature, communal support and the bureaucracy they create over time, these organisations can develop a resilience that allows them to engage in terrorism even while weakened [9].

Nonetheless, other research suggests that Al Qaeda and the Taliban do suffer the effects of drone attacks, losing bases and militants, and facing operational setbacks [10]. Moreover, these attacks not only take down organisation leadership, but also deter their activities due to fear of imminent strikes. Despite the latter seeming as a long-term strategic advantage, targeted killings would need to take place constantly to keep exerting their deterring effect. 

On the other hand, statistical data on the effect of drone strikes in North-western Pakistan and Eastern Afghanistan shows there could be a negative correlation between terrorist violence and the recurrence of drone attacks in these regions [11]. Notwithstanding the latter, drone warfare as a long-lasting counter-terrorism solution remains a dubious policy, since its deterent effect on terrorism would require strikes to keep taking place indefinitely.

When drone warfare is assessed from a strategic point of view, it can be argued that its groundbreaking character has been exaggerated, both by supporters and detractors, as it has produced an over-reliance on tactics at the detriment of strategy. As targeted killings deliver measurable results, it becomes “addictive” for decision-makers to continue to carry them out even if, ultimately, there is no territorial gain and terrorists maintain activities and control over the territory [12].

Furthermore, over-reliance on killing targets denies the possibility of vital information gathering had the operation been aimed at capturing. Targeted killings are shifting the focus from drones’ initial intelligence-driven role in the Global War On Terror: surveillance [13]. However, it is possible to consider that drones are also changing the dynamics of this armed conflict, causing a shift in the display of police functions instead of waging war against terrorists. Ultimately, it could be argued that carrying out drone strikes is stagnating US-led efforts, as it is driving American forces to maintain police-like surveillance over terrorists that are being deterred but not taken down as an organisation.


The tactical efficiency of drone strikes offers decision-makers much desired results in a seemingly endless War On Terror. However, the tactical advantages of drones have distracted from wider strategic goals, giving decision-makers a false sense of progress. Drone use in war should remain a tactic, but current policy-making has missed the point and favoured tactical gains rather than fulfilling strategic goals [14].

Due to the tangible and measurable results of targeted killings, US-led efforts in the Global War On Terror have run the risk of emphasising immediate achievements at the expense of pursuing long-lasting strategic objectives. This might ultimately contribute to the stagnation of US military efforts by stopping its forces from attaining fatal blows to resilient terrorist structures. In this regard, it could be argued that drone use for targeted killings has become just a tactically efficient way to cut the weed, without addressing the underlying roots.

Drones’ effectiveness is mostly present in their ability to support military operations and gather valuable information. However, as long as the tactical-strategic dichotomy analysed previously, keeps misleading decision-makers from the idea that drones’ true potential will be fulfilled when their use follows strategy instead of setting it, they will fail to truly revolutionise US efforts against terrorism.

1- Neal Curtis, “The explication of the social: Algorithms, drones and (counter-)terror,” Journal of Sociology 52, no. 3 (2016).
2- Hugh Gusterson, Drone: remote control warfare (London: The MIT Press, 2016), 6.  Christopher J. Coyne, and Abigail R. Hall, “The Drone Paradox: Fighting Terrorism with Mechanized Terror,” The Independent Review 23, no. 1 (2018).
3- Patrick F. Walsh, “Drone paramilitary operations against suspected global terrorists: US and Australian perspectives”, Intelligence and National Security 32, no. 4 (2017). Coyne, and Hall, “The Drone Paradox”.
4- Gusterson, “Drone”.
5- Simon Frankel Pratt, “Crossing off names: the logic of military assassination,” Small Wars & Insurgencies 26, no. 1 (2015): 11. 
6- Ann Rogers, and John Hill, Unmanned: Drone Warfare and Global Security (London: Pluto Press, 2014).
7- Walsh, ”Drone paramilitary operations”. Gusterson, ”Drone”.
8- Trevor McCrisken, ”Obama’s Drone War,” Survival 55, no. 2 (2013)
9- Jenna Jordan, ”Attacking the Leader, Missing the Mark: Why Terrorist Groups Survive Decapitation Strikes,” International Security 38, no. 4 (2014).
10- Asfandyar Mir, ”The U.S. Drone War in Pakistan Revisited”, Lawfare,
11- Patrick B. Johnston, and Anoop K. Sarbahi, ”The Impact of US Drone Strikes on Terrorism in Pakistan,” International Studies Quarterly 60 (2017): 215-216. McCrisken, ”Obama’s Drone War”.
12- Lawrence D. Freedman, ”The drone revolution: less than meets the eye,” Foreign Affairs 95, no. 6 (2016),
13- Tyler Wall, ”Ordinary Emergency: Drones, Police, and Geographies of Legal Terror,” Antipode 48, no. 4 (2016).
14- Johnston, and Sarbahi, ”The Impact of US“. 

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