A Transatlantic Conversation on Drone Policy

Armed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) — more commonly referred to as drones — have become a central pillar of the United States’ counterterrorism strategy. After more than a decade of use by the United States in an increasing number of theaters, a number of European state and non-state actors have expressed growing concern regarding the lack of transparency, accountability, and clarity surrounding the U.S. drone program. Europe’s concerns are of urgent priority now, more than ever, as drone proliferation increases at a rapid pace.

On 23 April 2015, the Stimson Center and the Heinrich Boell Foundation North America hosted a seminar to discuss transatlantic views on drones and explore the potential for developing international standards and norms to guide the sale, transfer, and use of armed drones in the future. The seminar — influenced in part by the Recommendations and Report of the Stimson Task Force on U.S. Drone Policy — brought together U.S. and European participants to discuss the current state of drone policy within the United States and Europe, the legal frameworks that underpin current use, and the challenges presented by uncontrolled proliferation of drone technology worldwide.

Key Takeaways:

  1. The Status Quo: In the past 15 years, the number of countries known to possess drones has risen dramatically. While estimates vary, it is believed that at least 80 countries currently have some form of unmanned capability. Of these, more than 20 are believed to be developing — or have already developed — armed drones, while many others possess drones of different classes for a variety of purposes. Only the United States, the United Kingdom, and Israel are known to have employed armed drones in conflict, but other countries continue to deploy lethal capabilities.

  2. Future European drone programs: Most European governments do not have an official policy for armed drones, given that most European states do not currently possess “robust” drone programs. However, several European countries agreed in 2013 to develop a European counterpart to the U.S. and Israeli reconnaissance and surveillance drones that dominate the global market. These countries include France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland and Spain. France, Italy and Germany recently pledged a two-year study to lay the foundations for a European drone program to be operational by 2025. Public information on concrete specifications of this plan is so far lacking, and it is not clear at this point whether the project will lead to common standards for transparency and oversight.

  3. Towards a common European approach? Despite the motion adopted by the European Parliament in 2014 on the use of armed drones, which calls on the European Union to establish a common position, no broader European effort seems yet to exist to define common rules for armed drones. A comprehensive European drone policy could be useful in addressing several aspects of contestation. A future policy should take into account legal and ethical considerations for use, and distinguish between the capabilities that drone technology provides and the use of such capabilities. Any common policy on drone proliferation and use should differentiate between drones (remotely piloted aircraft) and autonomous weapons systems. A policy on drone technology could also seek to limit proliferation.

  4. A transatlantic disconnect? In large parts of Europe, the debate over drones focuses more on ethical issues than on security, efficacy, transparency or accountability. Drones are largely associated with U.S. targeted killings and signature strikes — or strikes that are conducted based on patterns of behavior. Of central concern is the number of civilians reportedly killed by drone strikes. The apparent disconnect over drones appears to be mainly between the United States government and the European public, rather than between EU governments and the U.S. government. Few European governments have provided explicit opinions regarding the U.S. drone program and fewer still have spoken out publically against it. Some European governments are themselves involved in the U.S. drone program — often through intelligence sharing or data transfers.

  5. Ways of influencing U.S. done policy: Participants noted two key aspects that could influence the U.S. debate: evidence that strikes are ineffective outside of legal armed conflicts, and greater push back from partners and allies. Evidence suggesting that targeted drone strikes are ineffective at achieving their strategic aims — be it because they fuel anti-Western sentiments or serve as a recruiting tool for terrorist groups — could prompt reconsiderations of the U.S. targeted killing program. Similarly, if European allies limited their own participation in the U.S. drone program, such as by restricting data sharing, the United States might be persuaded to more thoroughly review its current program.

  6. The nexus between legality, accountability and transparency: Issues of legality and accountability cannot be disentangled from issues of transparency. The secrecy surrounding current drone use poses a considerable challenge to establishing clear legal frameworks. In particular, participants underscored the challenge of holding governments accountable for their policies and actions when there is little to no access to details on the policies and on their implementation in practice.

  7. “Gaps” or “ambiguities” in international law? Many participants stated that although drones are different from many more traditional weapons systems, they do not require a new legal framework. Instead, a greater common understanding of the specific areas of international law that govern lethal use of drones should be sought out- both with regards to International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and International Human Rights Law (IHRL). These include varying interpretations of breaches of sovereignty, theatres of non-international armed conflict, or definitions of imminence. Greater agreement and clarity could help in developing the foundations for international standards on use — especially as more countries and actors acquire drone technology.

  8. The need for more U.S. diplomacy and consultations: While the U.S. administration has referenced the U.S. drone program in various high level speeches over the past years, it has not made enough effort to engage in diplomacy that extends beyond domestic speeches. There is a need for more open discussions between partners and allies on the development of norms and standards and well as interpretations of current laws guiding the use of drones. Some participants noted that a code of conduct or an agreement among a smaller group of like-minded states could provide an appropriate first step for establishing international principles for use. This could be one area for transatlantic cooperation that could take place in the near term. A few participants noted, however, that it might be beneficial for European governments to drive this discussion rather than waiting for the United States to initiate it.

  9. The proliferation challenge: The development of appropriate norms and policies to regulate drone transfers is currently lagging behind technological progress. While currently only the United States, the United Kingdom, and Israel are known to have employed armed drones in conflict, other countries continue to deploy lethal capabilities, and it is likely that more countries will use drones in combat as the technology advances. Of particular concern is the proliferation of drone technology to non-state actors, including Hezbollah and Hamas.

  10. Towards a non-proliferation regime: Because it will be difficult to regulate drone technology entirely, states must identify the technologies or capabilities that pose particular proliferation concerns. For example, more sophisticated systems that have greater range or payload, stealth capabilities, or can attain high speeds might be easier to control than less-sophisticated systems — though smaller, less-sophisticated systems may prove more difficult to defend against and therefore pose a notable risk. Some participants suggested that countries explore mechanisms for testing technical solutions to some proliferation threats, such as “backdoors” or “kill switches” that could render drone technology inept if it fell into the “wrong hands”. One major question with regards to the future is whether technology and weapons can be designed to be legal- or treaty-proof. Participants concluded that focused and sustained international engagement is key to developing international proliferation standards.

  11. U.S. Export Policy: The United States Government released a new U.S. Export Policy for Unmanned Aerial Systems in February 2015. While the policy remains classified, the State Department released an unclassified summary that outlines the policy’s key tenets. Questions persist as to whether the new U.S. export policy on drones imposes a stricter standard for drone use than what the United States applies to its own use of drones. Participants challenged the U.S. government to clarify its own interpretation of drone “use in accordance with international law, including humanitarian law and international human rights law”. It remains unclear what criteria the U.S. will use to assess compliance (or lack thereof) with those principles. Conference participants acknowledged that the new export policy represents a positive step towards greater clarity for U.S. drone exports, but some noted that it contains significant transparency gaps and needs further development.

The views represented above draw upon the discussions amongst workshop participants and do not necessarily reflect agreement amongst them. The key take aways also do not necessarily reflect the institutional views of the Heinrich Böll Foundation North America or the Stimson Center.



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Date of Publication
July 2015
Heinrich Böll Foundation and Stimson Center
Number of Pages
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