When assessing the U.S. campaign of lethal drone attacks against militants in Pakistan, Yemen, and other centers of terrorist activity, one of the most obvious questions is about effectiveness. Are the attacks meeting the government’s stated goal: to disrupt, degrade, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaida and its allies?

While those are important considerations for Denise Garcia, an associate professor of political science and international affairs at Northeastern, she believes more vital issues are in play. What are the long-term implications of deploying killer drones in a global governance vacuum? What happens when drone weapons proliferate in an environment where the rule of international law is ignored?

Those questions of strategic wisdom and morality were the focus of “Drones and Killer Robots: International Law and Politics,” a conference organized by Garcia in November, featuring a panel of experts who offered deep, and often conflicting, perspectives on the controversial issue.

The debate about effectiveness boils down to two predominant views. The government says that drone strikes have proved successful because they have killed more than 20 of the top 30 al-Qaida leaders in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Opponents, however, contend this success is outweighed by “blowback,” which undermines U.S. interests by radicalizing a new generation of young Muslims.  

Both arguments are difficult to test empirically.

But research by Patrick Johnston, a political scientist with the global think tank RAND Corporation, offered evidence that seems to substantiate the use of drones. Focusing on U.S. drone attacks from 2004 through 2011 in the tribal areas of northwest Pakistan, Johnston found a significant correlation between strikes aimed at militant leaders and a decrease in terror-group violence, both in the area of a strike and in surrounding regions.

But even Johnston concedes that targeting enemy leaders, known as “decapitation” in military circles, “is never a silver bullet.”

Garcia picked up on this thought, saying that the debate over the tactical effectiveness of decapitation ignores larger points.

First, our current drone policy is eroding America’s moral authority in the world, she said, and it violates a host of conventions embedded in international law, including prohibitions against assassination and extralegal execution. Second, with this technology proliferating among nations, it’s in America’s self-interest to take the lead in regulating the use of military drones. If we fail to establish international rules now, Garcia said, we’re setting ourselves up for a “Wild West” environment.

Max Abrahms, Garcia’s colleague on the political science faculty, said the decapitation policy results in more terrorism directed at civilians. He said his own research shows that when drones kill high-level leaders, their lower-level replacements are less likely to understand the subtleties of terrorist strategy and are more likely to act out of passion and impulse, attacking civilians.

It’s open to debate whether this supports U.S. interests by turning local populations against the terrorist organizations, or hinders American interests by intimidating local populations into passivity.

The event’s keynote speaker, Noel Sharkey, chair of the International Committee for Robot Arms Control and emeritus professor at the University of Sheffield, England, agreed with Garcia that the issue goes far beyond the interests of any one nation.

The evolution of drone technology—including the potential to develop fully autonomous “killer robots”—makes it imperative for the United States to pursue an international treaty governing the use of military drones, said Sharkey.

“We’re on a course toward fully automating warfare,” he warned.  “Who in his right mind would automate the decision to kill?”