Is there a good reason to order drone strikes on civilians?

For a fictional take, I recommend Eye in the Sky, a 2015 movie and Alan Rickman’s last live action role.
IMDb’s synopsis:

EYE IN THE SKY stars Helen Mirren as Colonel Katherine Powell, a UK-based military officer in command of a top secret drone operation to capture terrorists in Kenya. Through remote surveillance and on-the-ground intel, Powell discovers the targets are planning a suicide bombing and the mission escalates from capture to kill. But as American pilot Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) is about to engage, a nine-year old girl enters the kill zone triggering an international dispute, reaching the highest levels of US and British government, over the moral, political, and personal implications of modern warfare.

I recall a similar discussion in the past here on the board, and IIRC Jimmy Carter was the only POTUS who deemed to not have given any such orders.

I think this gets to the heart of the matter. What makes someone a noncombatant? Let’s consider WWII, the stereotypical army against army war. We bombed things like German tank factories during the war, and I doubt that every last factory worker in the German tank factories was a member of their armed forces. Was that a war crime? IMHO that type of action isn’t a war crime. Neither is the death of civilians that resulted from the targeting of an enemy combatant. Does it just so happen that I live next to the local military base, and an enemy bomb targeting that base kills me while I’m at home sleeping in bed? Maybe the base has already been destroyed, and the soldiers are being quartered in my actual house, and the same thing happens. Too bad for me, them’s the breaks. Those things are not, IMHO, war crimes.

IMHO being a noncombatant means someone who isn’t participating in the war effort. What Hitler did to the Jews, what Pol Pot did to the Cambodian civilians he killed, and if we want to include an American who IMHO is a no doubt about it war criminal, what Andrew Jackson did to the Cherokee during the Trail of Tears, are the sorts of things that I think about when I think about war crimes. A bomb targeting a member of the Taliban that kills someone in the same house and who likely supported the Taliban cause doesn’t count, at least in my opinion.

ETA: To give a direct answer to the OP, yes, there are good reasons to order a drone strike on civilians. If those civilians are actively engaged in the war effort, i.e. making tanks at the tank factory, that would be a good reason. If those civilians are quartering soldiers, that’s also a good reason, although such an attack is IMHO better characterized as an attack on an enemy combatant who was using a civilian as a human shield.

I think it’s mostly been covered already–it is unlikely, or at least not well established, that Obama or any other recent President ordered any type of aerial strike deliberately targeting noncombatants. Under international treaties we have signed, such deliberate targeting would constitute a war crime, but I’m not personally familiar with any such orders or such cases, with the big caveat that there have been many aerial strikes in the Middle East ordered directly by recent Presidents, and I’m not even familiar with an appreciable percentage of them and their specifics.

I do like to point out because this is a point often missed in such discussions–our treaty obligations do not require us to “avoid all civilian deaths” or to “never harm the hair on a civilian’s head.” International law in terms of treaties we have signed, basically say we cannot deliberate make civilians the target of an attack. This gives the military wide latitude. For example let’s say there is an Iraqi Children’s Hospital right next to a major Iraqi military communications facility, and this is right before the invasion of Iraq. That communications facility is a valid target of war, so we launch a cruise missile at it. Sadly the cruise missile is not as accurate as we would hope and slams into the hospital, killing hundreds of children.

This is a terrible thing, a tragedy. Compounded by the fact that most of us feel the invasion of Iraq was unnecessary, many view that invasion as illegal (that issue is quite complicated and not worth litigating right now), however this hypothetical strike would not be illegal. The dead civilians are “collateral damage” unintended casualties of a “miss” on a valid target.

I also think we have a broader moral obligation to take reasonable effort to minimize incidents like I just exposed, and I actually think there is evidence we have. We increasingly use smaller explosives on vehicles that can more precisely target them, specifically to reduce collateral damage. Drones actually help with this, because they can more safely get much closer to a target than an airplane which we also risk losing a pilot flying too low, and drones generally carry smaller missiles than full size bombers, smaller missiles, closer range, generally means higher accuracy and less collateral damage.

Does that mean drones raise no moral questions at all and should be considered hunky dory? Of course not, but it does mean that it is unlikely most U.S. drone strikes constitute war crimes. Remember, we wrote the laws on war crimes more or less, we were instrumental in the text of every one of these treaties we signed, and also in the wording of domestic laws that implemented them. Do you really think we would have promoted treaties that so hamstrung our President that he couldn’t order attacks on our enemies? Just not reality.

I don’t think many people are concerned about drone strikes because of the use of drones themselves, but that the practice of drone strikes is (perhaps increasingly) less rigorously adhering to the rules of engagement we expect from our military, and that the 1) ease and 2) remoteness from the violence inflicted have made it psychologically easier to order a drone strike than a traditional military attack. That putative psychological effect, which has been proposed to occur from other technologies (guns making killing easier than hand-to-hand combat is frequently discussed), may be contributing to a slippery slope of moral descent from our original intentions.

They may have a point. I don’t have a cite for this handy, but can dig for one if disputed (or people may already be familiar with this)-- the original genesis of the armed drone program sprang from the CIA’s regret they missed a chance to kill a tall person. That was their criteria – the knew Osama Bin Laden was tall, and when a drone saw a tall person traveling with others during the early search for OBL, much regret was expressed among CIA types that “if only the drone had been armed, we could have killed [that random tall person, who might or might not have been Osama.]”

That horrifying, murderous overreach was how the drone program was conceived. It’s possible things have gone downhill from there.

Armed drones were conceived long before 2001; the primary U.S. drone the Predator, was first flown in the early 90s. The use of drones was inevitable; it offers the superior power the opportunity to carry on killing undesirable people without risk to its own personnel.

Among the other bothersome things about the program is that the CIA operated armed drones at all. The CIA is not part of the United States armed services.

The main problems with this are the lack of transparency and the extremely broad definition of what an enemy combatant was. There were two significant problematic areas:

One was the idea of a “signature strike” where the identity of the victim was unknown but there was a pattern of life, which might be something like target practice with guns, or traveling to an area where a terrorist group is operating. This is a huge problem, in part because a lot of our drone strikes were in war zones where people could be training with guns just because they need to protect themselves or because they were fighting against a terrorist group. There’s of course a universe where we have a program like this but it is done so carefully that only someone who we have a ton of reason to believe is actually a terrorist (i.e. we see them actually making IEDs or something). However we have no way of knowing how broad the definition was except to look at cases where journalists and locals give an account of people who pose no threat to us being the target. And the kicker is that the justification for allowing an targeted killing program where the military got to make up its own rules was that terrorists could pose an imminent threat and we might not have time to wait around for an approval process. However the absurdity of that is exemplified by signature strikes themselves - we don’t even know who were killing and there is no imminent threat in those cases. There’s just some dude shooting a gun or living in a compound.

The other big problem is that some groups realized they could kill off regional rivals by reporting them to the US as terrorists. In those cases we frequently killed regional actors who posed no threat to us and may have even been in a relatively evenhanded dispute (where it wasn’t clear who the aggressor was) or was the victims of another group attacking them.

This logic is flawed because the US gets to make the rules but we never have to follow our own rules. Who’s going to make us?

In reality lots and lots of actors commit war crimes and it often isn’t punished, but the US is a country that basically could not face consequences.

You will never convince me that a drone strike, or other military action, outside a war zone (with something resembling a declaration of war) or on something that is not a legitimate military target inside a war zone is in any way justified. You cannot fight terrorism with terrorism and expect to win.

— I will make an exception for armed forces in a role supporting law enforcement, like storming a hijacked plane.

Such is in direct conflict with the rule of law, replacing it with anarchy and “might is right”. Nothing good wil ever come of such. (Yes, that includes the murder of OBL, as much as I despised the man) Turning the world into the old west; “wanted dead or alive” will do nothing to further proclaimed “American values” or freedom. I would argue the opposite.

Yeah I mean I’m not here to discuss drone strikes as wise or unwise or right or wrong, not interested in it. Just saying they don’t meet the textual definition of war crimes as pertains to treaties the United States has signed, and in so much as we have information on known drone strikes. There could be drone strikes we don’t have details on that would constitute war crimes. But a lot of people casually mix terms, for example you don’t think it is “justified” to have a drone strike targeting someone outside of a country with which we have a “declared war”, or the above poster takes issue with the disclosure policies of the military or specific types of strikes we’ve used. Pointing out problems with those activities does not equate to meeting the textual definition of war crimes under treaty law.

It’s important imo to understand that war crimes don’t just mean “bad things that are done in war.”

And many foreign leaders, such as Israel. The Hague would get really crowded. Iran went so far as to ask Interpol to issue a Red warrant for trump.

Right, if we base what is and what is not a war crime based upon prosecutions, then only a tiny % of those accused by liberals are actually guilty. This sort of thing, killing terrorists, is pretty much accepted- and benefits the entire world.

And the USA declared war on terrorists, so it is a act of war. The Hague would not be interested.

If they are actively conducting a terrorist war against the USA and other nations, are they “civilians”? The Geneva Conventions recognize such people as soldiers in some sense. They are taking up arms, why do you call them civilians when they are really soldiers? The targets are soldiers. Yes, sometimes civilians died also, but that is accepted in war. This is war.

I think the question you are trying to ask is “Is there a good reason to order drone strikes on non-combatants” vs civilians.

Civilians, which I’m defining here as “citizens of a country who are not a member of country’s military”, are certainly worthy of eating a drone strike if they have picked up arms against US interests.

I don’t however think there is ever a good reason to order a drone strike against a civilian bakery feeding combatants and townspeople for example.