Research & Politics

Flying under the radar: A study of public attitudes towards unmanned aerial vehicles

Sarah Kreps


Unmanned aerial vehicles, also known as drones, have become a central feature of American foreign policy, with over 400 strikes in Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen in the last decade. Despite criticisms that have arisen about ethics and legality of this policy, polls have registered high levels of public support for drone strikes. This article shows that the standard formulation of poll questions takes as a given the government’s controversial claims about combatant status and source of legal authorization. I conduct a survey experiment that evaluates how varying the terms of the debate –in particular whether the strikes are compatible with international humanitarian law (IHL) and have legal authorization – affects public support for the drone policy. Treatments that incorporated contested assumptions about IHL meaningfully decreased public support while the public was less moved by questions about domestic or international legal authorization.

  • International law
  • use of force
  • military technology

Article Notes

  • Declaration of conflicting interests The author declares that there is no conflict of interest.

  • Funding This research received no specific grant from any funding agency in the public, commercial, or not-for-profit sectors.

  • Supplementary material The online Appendices are available at: The complete data sets of this article are available at:

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