First Drone Strike on U.S. Soil

Updated: July 8, 2016

By J. E. McCollough

The battalion commander I fought under during the invasion of Iraq had a saying, “Never send a Marine where you can send artillery, and why send artillery when you can send an airstrike.” This philosophy saves lives, of course, and has basically been the philosophy behind President Obama’s drone war on Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Troops on the ground facing the enemy are used only in the most extreme cases where it is absolutely necessary, like killing Bin Laden.

But that’s “over there.” In a war. It was the US military killing a foreign enemy. When the Dallas police used an explosive device attached to robot to remotely kill the shooter in a garage, it was the first time a drone strike was used to kill an American citizen on American soil by American law enforcement.

Practically speaking, there is zero difference between a purpose-made missile being fired from a remotely piloted airplane and an ad hoc explosive device attached to ground-based remotely controlled robot.

BROWN_PENSIVE_HORIZONTALAnd, just like my old battalion commander’s reasoning, the Dallas police department’s logic made sense, why put more cops lives at risk when you can send in a robot/drone? “We saw no other option but to use our bomb robot and place a device on its extension for it to detonate where the subject was,” Dallas Police Chief David Brown said at a news conference Friday morning. “Other options would have exposed our officers to grave danger.”

Still, it sets a precedent. Police already use drones for surveillance purposes within the United States. Are we going to allow the cops to arm their drones for in extremis situations? Does the means of delivery of lethal force matter?

According to Seth Stoughton, an assistant professor of law at the University of South Carolina, a former police officer, and expert on police methods, it really doesn’t. He told The Atlantic, “The circumstances that justify lethal force justify lethal force in essentially every form. If someone is shooting at the police, the police are, generally speaking, going to be authorized to eliminate that threat by shooting them, or by stabbing them with a knife, or by running them over with a vehicle. Once lethal force is justified and appropriate, the method of delivery—I doubt it’s legally relevant.”

Mr. Stoughton makes a good point, the police had to eliminate the threat, no matter what. And I personally have no issue with the police using the resources they had available to accomplish that mission in the extraordinary situation they found themselves in.

But we can’t take the step of letting the police use drone strikes on American citizens as a matter of policy. Armed drones can quickly become a crutch, an easy answer to every hostile situation. President Obama’s drone war has had some severe negative impacts, both with the local populations and with lost intelligence. Yes, it’s far easier to kill the terrorist from the sky than put American troops in harm’s way to capture him, but when we use drones we lose a lot of goodwill with the local populations because of collateral damage and we lose the ability to interrogate our enemy and acquire valuable intelligence on additional threats.

We absolutely cannot afford “collateral damage” in the United States, these are our citizens and we’re not engaged in a war on our own soil. And we should always prioritize arresting criminal suspects so we can try and jail them via the justice system. The Dallas incident using a drone is unique and it will be picked apart at every level. As an ad hoc measure I believe it was completely justified, but we should be sure we do not take it a step further and give the police armed drones. They’re the easy option, and it is simply too easy for drone strikes to become the first option instead of an absolute last resort for law enforcement.




  1. Phelps

    July 8, 2016 at 10:16 pm

    The negotiations had been going on for five hours already. I can’t imagine a DPD lawyer OKing that use of force. It just defies reason and history.

    I’m waiting to hear the EoD operators admit that they weren’t the ones who triggered the explosive (which was likely on the bot to disable any IEDs the guy had) so we can start tracking down who did send that signal.

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