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Is using drones against terrorists cheaper than using special forces?

Question submitted by The Universal Human and Civil Rights Union, from Brooklyn, New York, April 26, 2013

Answered by: Linda Robinson, Senior International Policy Analyst, RAND Corporation


The Obama administration has increasingly relied on drones in its counterterrorist operations. And, as I explain in a recent CFR report, U.S. special operations forces are doing more things in more places than ever before. The heavy reliance on both drones and unilateral commando raids needs to be reassessed. There are other approaches that can be employed which may be more effective and less costly in a broader sense.

While it may well be cheaper in a narrow, monetary sense to send an unmanned armed drone rather than a highly trained commando force on undoubtedly expensive stealth aircraft to kill a terrorist, the most appropriate cost-benefit analysis would be one that incorporates a broader definition of costs and benefits.

Is the goal for national security policymakers to provide the cheapest solutions to national security threats, or to provide the most appropriate and effective measures that are compatible with American policy goals, laws, and values? Cheapness may be acceptable as the sole criterion employed by bargain shoppers at the supermarket, but it would not likely lead to the wisest national defense and foreign policies.

For example, a commando raid may be more expensive to execute than a drone strike, but the intelligence that may be elicited from a captured suspect is a potential benefit favoring the capture rather than killing of such individuals. Training a country's military forces to go after terrorists inside its borders can avoid many of the political and diplomatic complications of unilateral U.S. strikes. Finally, it is important to consider what problem one is trying to address. The tactic of drone warfare may not address the factors that are generating terrorist recruits, and may even exacerbate them. The use of drones may not ultimately do much to stem terrorism or address the factors driving the creation and regeneration of terrorist cells, organizations, and networks.