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Robot Wars

Author: Micah Zenko, Senior Fellow
November 2013
Politico Magazine


In late 2011, China's Ministry of Public Security began an international manhunt for a Burmese drug kingpin named Naw Kham, whose gang was accused of hijacking two Chinese cargo ships and killing 13 Chinese sailors.

The ministry tracked Kham to a remote mountainous region in northeastern Myanmar and considered how to deal with him. Among the options on the table was a drone strike. As Liu Yuejin, the head of the ministry's counternarcotics bureau, told Global Times in February: "One plan was to use an unmanned aircraft to carry 20 kilograms of TNT to bomb the area, but the plan was rejected, because the order was to catch him alive." Kham was captured within six months of the hijackings, then tried, convicted and executed by lethal injection.

China's public acknowledgement of the plan was unprecedented, and it raised an awkward question for the United States, which in recent years has made drones a centerpiece of its emerging national security doctrine for the robot era. The United States has asserted the right to use lethal force anywhere—"from Boston to the FATA," as a senior Pentagon official put it during a Senate hearing in May—against terrorist organizations, some of which the U.S. government will not name, and outside the bounds of what the majority of the world believes is lawful targeting. But what happens when other countries start launching killer drone strikes? What will the United States do then?

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