The use of armed surveillance drones will be one of Barack Obama's lasting legacies. Just three days after he was inaugurated on January 20, 2009, a US drone strike carried out against al-Qaeda in Pakistan killed between seven and fifteen people, according to The Bureau of Investigative Journalism.
This figure would increase throughout Obama's presidency, with the latest statistics pointing at Obama and the CIA having orchestrated 473 separate drone strikes between January 2009 and December 31, 2015, killing upwards of 2,500 "combatants" and more than 100 civilians, many outside active theaters of war. But how will the United States' weaponized drone programme change under President-elect Donald Trump?
"Everyone in [Washington] DC is basically asking a variation of this question," Dan Gettinger, co-director of the Center for the Study of the Drone told Motherboard over the phone.
Discerning Trump's drone policies is an altogether more difficult matter than analysing those of would-be President Hillary Clinton. Not only is there scant concrete information, but there are also the same inconsistencies that peppered the entire presidential race. Clinton and her advisers' proposed drone policies matched Obama's as closely as you'd expect for someone who served under him as Secretary of State for four years, but Trump's plans remain murky, which leaves researchers poring over his campaign rhetoric and looking to his administration appointments for clues.
In a Fox interview back in December 2015, Trump stated that one way to combat ISIS would be to "take out their families." This would presumably be achieved through air strikes. "They care about their lives, don't kid yourself. When they say they don't care about their lives, you have to take out their families," he said.
But since then, some of Trump's rhetoric—and that of his advisors—has actually pivoted against the use of drone strikes for counterterrorism. Instead, a Trump administration may prefer the method of "capturing and interrogating suspected terrorists" according to Bard College's Center for the Study of the Drone, a tactic deemed more effective in counterterrorism in Trump's eyes.
"I think the more interesting part perhaps is Trump's take on the so-called 'targeted killing' campaign, the drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen and Somalia," said Gettinger. "Trump and his advisors have actually been down on the targeted killing campaign, they haven't spoken so favourably of it. One could attribute that to the fact that it is an Obama effort. It is a bit of a contrast to the Hillary Clinton and Obama perspective."
Still, Trump's calls for an increase in airstrikes against ISIS have persisted. "He's committed to carrying out a large scale bombing campaign that will certainly involve unmanned aircraft," said Gettinger.
But Trump's lack of firm drone policies is a confusing one, considering the fight against ISIS was one of Trump's strongest arguments during the presidential campaign. With 70 percent of polled Trump voters having reported they consider the fight against ISIS to be going badly, one would think Trump had something more tangible in his ISIS-fighting plans. Yet, at present, he doesn't.
"I think we have to keep an eye on who he appoints around him,"
The uncertainty of Trump's policies continues in Europe. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism's Jack Serle told Motherboard that "all cards are off the table" when it comes to Trump and drones. "I think we have to keep an eye on who he appoints around him," said Serle. "A leading advisor has been Michael Flynn who has spent many years deep in the US drone programme. I suppose if we see him rise high in the Trump administration then we may see some continuity, perhaps even expansion." But even Flynn's take on drone policies has been somewhat inconsistent.
A retired US Army lieutenant and a former registered Democrat, Flynn served as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency from 2012 to 2014 under Obama. This year, however, Flynn moved to become one of Trump's military advisors, and could soon secure the role of Defense Secretary. In a 2015 interview with Al Jazeera, Flynn, who was a leading intelligence official in America's War on Terror since 2001, said "drones do more damage than good" and that the US should take "a different approach, absolutely," on drones. Flynn even went so far as saying how drones could have helped create ISIS itself. "When you drop a bomb from a drone… you are going to cause more damage than you are going to cause good," he said.
Yet a year later, in May 2016, Flynn was appointed vice chairman of Drone Aviation, a company that has a growing list of Department of Defense surveillance drone contracts. Calling hypocrisy may be too cynical in this case, but inconsistencies are aplenty as the same ambiguity that defined much of Trump's other campaign topics has struck this one.
In contrast, probing Trump's domestic, rather than foreign, drone policies has been made much easier now by campaign promises of boosting levels of drone surveillance on the Mexican and Canadian borders. Trump told a campaign rally in Syracuse in April that he would want drones to patrol America's borders 24/7. "They would work in conjunction with the Border Patrol," said Trump, according to Syracuse.com. "I want surveillance for our borders, and the drone has great capabilities for surveillance."
According to Gettinger, these statements are some of the most definitive that Trump has made on drones so far. "There's been a growing push by National Guard units to use drones more, for national disasters at home and potentially even for border surveillance, so one could speculate that that could be something that we'll see more of," Gettinger told Motherboard.
Serle agrees. "He has spoken about using drones on US borders, boosting the US defence budget," Serle said, "which would probably affect the drone fleet, among other things."
US Customs and Border Protection is already using surveillance drones to monitor sections of the American-Mexican border. Unarmed Predator-B (now known as MQ-9 Reaper) aircraft are flown from bases in Florida, Texas, Arizona, and North Dakota. While federal agents have in recent months called for more drones, the program has previously been criticised by the Department for Homeland Security for being a waste of money and time, as arrests and apprehensions from operations assisted by drones were tiny in comparison to the total number of apprehensions of people illegally attempting to enter the United States.
A third avenue on America's drone policy is exports. While the US participates in armed drone exports to "friendly" nations, exports of armed drones to the Middle East have been controlled tightly. In this vacuum, countries such as Egypt, Iraq, and the United Arab Emirates have purchased Chinese drones instead. In October, however, a US-led agreement on the export of armed drones was signed by 48 countries. The Joint Declaration on the Export and Subsequent Use of Armed or Strike-Enabled Unmanned Aerial Vehicles draws on principles that serve to aid international standards on drone sales worldwide. This agreement, along with Trump's business focus, could in fact see the proliferation of drone sales from the United States.
"I think one can speculate that there will be fewer barriers to exporting drones to countries in the Middle East. Primarily I'm thinking of Jordan, because a lot of Middle Eastern countries already have drones," Gettinger told Motherboard. "The US did just put out this declaration on drone exports, but I think under a Trump administration there will be fewer barriers to arms sales generally. That's just speculation, there's no hard fact on that."
In any case, Trump is now lined up to inherit a number of covert and open theaters of war in 2017, and with the use of surveillance drones in the Middle East now so deeply embedded in the US industrial and military complex, it's unlikely to see any drastic shift of focus immediately. On top of this, The Guardian has reported that Barack Obama will not be changing any policies governing drone strikes before Trump's inauguration, meaning Trump can continue, if he wishes, to conduct targeted killing as outlined in the Presidential Policy Guidance "playbook"— a 2013 document detailing the White House's counterterrorism operations.
"I think the only guiding principle that we have from the Trump administration is that…there'll be fewer impediments to using military force, whether it's drone strikes or air strikes," said Gettinger. "That's something that we're going to be watching develop."
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