Sudden Justice

America's Secret Drone Wars

April 2015 9781849044028 400pp


Sudden Justice explores the secretive history of the United States’ use of armed drones and their key role not only on today’s battlefields, but also in a covert targeted killing project that has led to the deaths of thousands. Days after 9/11, a CIA Predator in Afghanistan executed the world’s first lethal drone strike. The Agency’s role was no accident — it had nurtured and developed drones for almost a decade, seeking a platform from which it could monitor its targets and act lethally and instantly on what was learned. Since then remotely piloted aircraft have played a critical role in America’s global counter-terrorism operations and have been deployed to devastating effect in conventional wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya.

But there is another, covert war — one in which drones scour the skies of Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia in search of militant and terrorist targets. The American government insists that this secret war is legal. The CIA even claims that its armed drones are ‘the most precise weapon ever invented’, so perfect that civilians are no longer killed. Sudden Justice describes the reality of this secret drone war, one in which hundreds of civilians have died, and where the long-term strategic interests of the West may have been jeopardised.


‘Woods does a devastatingly effective job of illuminating the toll and potential legacy of U.S. use of drones to carry out targeted assassinations. Even readers who keep up with current events are likely to find some eye-openers here … Few can argue with Woods’s warning that the aggressive transition to increased reliance on drones has unknown long-term implications “not only on those personnel now fighting thousands of miles from the front but on the conduct of warfare itself”.’ — Publishers Weekly

‘The first significant, and valuable, contribution to the literature’ — Clive Stafford-Smith, founder and director of Reprieve

‘The best British historian of drone history’ — Max Hastings

‘Chris Woods has produced a detailed and balanced account of this controversial form of warfare … Woods is sensitive to the bureaucratic politics and peculiarities of this remote type of combat [and] is critical of the less legally inhibited CIA effort, especially of the practice of secondary strikes on first responders to an initial attack.’ — Michael Burleigh, Evening Standard

‘To appreciate the immediate history of the drone wars, especially the one in Pakistan, Chris Woods’ book Sudden Justice is essential. Woods’ massively detailed and well-researched book focuses mainly on the modern history of drones … But perhaps [his] most critical contribution … is the detailed account of the complicated relationship between Pakistan and the United States both leading up to and during the drone program in Pakistan. Woods does this using quotes, statistics, and facts to highlight the little-known and perhaps not oft-considered effect of the U.S. drone campaign in Pakistan: civilian casualties.’ — Foreign Policy

‘Drones for intelligence gathering and precision attack will feature in every future conflict. Chris Woods has uncovered the extraordinary story of the drone and its controversial use by the US, both on the regular battlefield and in its covert war against terrorism. Essential reading for those who want to see the benefits of this technology realised within international law.’ — Professor Sir David Omand, King’s College London, Chair of the Birmingham Policy Commission on the Security Impact of Drones

‘Chris Woods has written a brilliant — indeed, a definitive — study of the evolution of weaponised drone warfare. Woods offers detail never previously released, from insiders in the drone program and in the intelligence community. Most importantly, he examines how the drones’ targets — guerrillas, terrorists, and rogue states — have adapted, developed countermeasures, and (in some cases) begun to field their own competing drone programs. Anyone interested in the future of warfare needs to read this book — we have certainly not seen the last of this form of conflict.’ — David Kilcullen, author of The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One and Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla

‘War is, and remains a terrible thing. Sudden Justice affords the reader an informed insight to the world of the UAV and allows them to make a fair judgment, as Hugo Grotius asked of us, on its “moral certainty”. What is clear is that this technology is not going away.’ — Lieutenant General Sir Graeme Lamb KBE, CMG, DSO, former Commander, British Field Army

‘Woods brings a cool, informed perspective to this ominous topic, confidently examining the Pandora’s box of legal, human rights, and governance issues raised by this deceptively simple weapon … A clear-eyed and chilling account of warfare’s present and future.’ — Kirkus reviews

‘The use of armed drones in counter-insurgency operations has divided opinion in the international community and posed significant challenges to established norms of international law. This important book makes a major contribution to that ongoing international debate. Chris Woods has produced the first accessible, balanced and comprehensive analysis of this technological revolution in modern asymmetrical warfare. Through painstakingly detailed research conducted over a number of years, and unprecedented access to many of the key players, he has pieced together an unassailable account which both exposes and explains the haphazard way in which this new weapons platform has changed the nature of armed conflict and expanded the boundaries of the battlefield. The result is a thoughtful and critical narrative which explodes a number of the myths surrounding the use of armed drones.’ — Ben Emmerson, QC, UN Special Rapporteur on Counter Terrorism and Human Rights

Sudden Justice is a must-read. Chris Woods explains with authority and mesmerising detail how the armed drone has emerged to transform modern warfare. The product of three years investigative journalism, Sudden Justice covers the haphazard origins of drone warfare, revolutionary developments in technology and use, and the story of those caught up in the “decision matrix”. The book will add significantly to understanding of this hot topic.’ — Tom Watson MP, Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Drones

‘There are plenty of books about drone warfare and drone counterterrorism, but none as interesting and comprehensive as Sudden Justice. Chris Woods describes the drone strike program in both the major war zones of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria and in the places, like Yemen and Somalia, where the US has conducted a semi-secret program of more than 500 drone strikes. He also discusses the British and Israeli drone strike programs. Sudden Justice provides interesting new material based on Woods’ interviews with officials, former drone pilots and operators. Woods gives us the view from 18,000 feet and on the ground as only a good journalist can — with vivid writing, an eye for important details, and thankfully, an ability to identify the big picture questions.’ — Neta Crawford, Professor of Political Science, Boston University, and author of Accountability for Killing: Moral Responsibility for Collateral Damage in America’s Post-9/11 Wars

‘[A]s a chronicle of the first drone war, [Sudden Justice] is more comprehensive than anything else published to date. … [T]he humans for whom Woods reserves his most convincing chapter are the pilots, who, when they’re not bored out of their minds, watch the enemy, and the innocents, dying on screen in lurid digital detail.’ — Bookforum

Sudden Justice: America’s Secret Drone Wars is Chris Woods’s meticulous account of the rise of the armed drones, the scope of their deployment, and the humanitarian and political consequences of their use. … His book is perhaps the most comprehensive and scrupulous treatment of the subject.’ — In These Times


Chris Woods is a widely-published investigative journalist who specialises in conflict and national security issues. A former senior BBC Panorama producer, he has authored some of the key investigations into covert US drone strikes and their true effects. He was recently awarded the Martha Gellhorn Journalism Prize for his work.

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