The Morality of Using Combat Drones

Posted: August 14, 2013
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On August 6, the Associated Press reported a U.S. drone strike against a terrorist target in Yemen.  It was the fourth such strike in a week.  It destroyed a car, killing its four passengers, all believed to be members of Al-Qaida.  The strike came after credible intelligence reports indicated that a terrorist attack was likely to be carried out against U.S. targets to correspond with the end of Ramadan (August 7). 

The U.S. military is increasingly relying on drones to fight its War on Terror.  Drones were first used in the 1990s for surveillance and reconnaissance.  Under Obama, they’ve become the outstanding aerial combat asset against foreign terrorists. 

Drones are operated remotely via satellite.  (Our Predator and Reaper drones are allegedly “piloted” from bases in the Nevada desert).  One operator flies the machine, another monitors its cameras and sensors, and a third communicates with commanders in the combat zone half a world away.  Drone operation costs a fraction of what conventional aircrafts cost, and they can stay in the air much, much longer.  Consequently, operators can follow their targets for many hours, even days, before striking.

Ethical Arguments For and Against Drones

Since combat drones have only been used for a few years, the moral arguments for and against them are still developing.  My own thoughts on the issue are developing.  My purpose therefore is not to provide a conclusive answer to the moral question of drones, but to stimulate critical thinking. 

Arguments For

Defenders argue that drones illustrate an evolution in aerial combat precisely fit for the unique circumstances of unconventional and asymmetrical 21st century warfare.  Outside the Afghan theater, our enemy is non-localized, not overtly affiliated with any state, particularized to individuals (not armies), and can make himself effectively invisible.  Terrorists train and operate from some of the most remote and inaccessible regions on earth, from the deserts of Somalia and Yemen, to mountain caves and walled compounds in Pakistan.  Local governments often have little ability and even less will to reach into these places and strike.  Ground operations, even small tactical strikes using Special Forces, are costly and extremely dangerous to our troops; and they rarely result in a terrorist capture. 

Drones can penetrate the remotest locations, strike and take out high value targets with an extraordinarily high degree of accuracy, causing fewer civilian casualties, at a relatively low cost; and without a U.S. boot ever touching the ground.

Obama claims their use is both ethically and legally justified.  He says we are waging a legally-authorized war against al Qaeda, the Taliban and their affiliates.  Our enemies are constantly contemplating and planning deadly attacks against Americans.  Opposing them with deadly force is proportionate to the end of rendering them incapable of doing us harm.  We use it in legitimate self-defense and—so he says—always as a last resort. 

To be sure, our use of drone warfare is imperfect: we use flawed intelligence, make tactical mistakes and cause collateral damage.  But, he says, “to do nothing in the face of terrorist networks would invite far more civilian casualties… Conventional airpower or missiles are far less precise than drones, and are likely to cause more civilian casualties and more local outrage.”  Other defenders say it more strongly: “all the evidence we have so far suggests that drones do better at both identifying the terrorist and avoiding collateral damage than anything else we have.” 

Arguments Against

In 2012, the Obama administration admitted that combat drones were being used for targeted killing operations.  The President insisted that outside Afghanistan, the U.S. only targets al Qaeda and its associated forces; and he said he personally approves every new name on the terrorist “kill list.”  Targeted killings are justified under the principle of “national self-defense.”  Not all agree.  Some of his opponents argue that targeted killings are not essentially different from assassinations or extrajudicial killings, which violate U.S. and international law.

The moral status of the human targets is obviously relevant here.  Just war tradition sanctions the use of lethal force to prevent an imminent threat to innocent human life and in general to restrain unjust aggression, presuming it is not in excess of what’s needed to stem the aggression.  Combatants on a battlefield are classically considered the paradigmatic legitimate target.  Off the battlefield, they can also be legitimate insofar as they are still committed to and engaged in a wider conflict underway or being planned that itself is just to resist.

In our period of unconventional warfare, the lines of what is and isn’t a legitimate battlefield, and who is and isn’t a combatant, can be blurry.  Nevertheless, the distinction—however difficult to apply—is always relevant: non-combatants are absolutely immune from intentional targeting.

In 2012, the New York Times reported that the Obama administration employs a disputed method for counting the civilian casualties that result from drone strikes.  It designates all military-age males in a strike zone as “combatants” unless posthumous information exonerates them: “This counting method may partly explain the official claims of extraordinarily low collateral deaths.” 

I would argue that commanders are under a grave obligation to refrain from deliberate attacks unless and until they secure moral certitude regarding the combatant status of a potential target.  To order a strike based upon evidence that leaves reasonable doubt as to whether a target is a non-combatant would be immoral.

Following from this, many have expressed concern that the use of drones may make recourse to lethal options too tempting to resist.  What happens when you remove from war all the conscious data of the battlefield?  No explosions, no blood, no faces of dead soldiers, no graphic sensory feedback to stir your guts.  The ugliness of human slaughter—however justifiable an instance of killing may be—is a salutary reminder that warfare and killing should never be the immediate option for social conflict: recourse to war should always be a last resort. 

When killing can be planned and executed by operators sipping drinks in a quiet room, doesn’t opting for lethal force become much easier?  If politicians don’t need to contend with the flagged-draped caskets of the young men and women resulting from their decisions to go to war, will they be quicker to adopt lethal interventions over cumbersome diplomatic bargaining?  In other words, does the use of unmanned drones encourage unnecessary killing? 

Other arguments against drones stem from the law of unintended consequences.  Since we carry out targeted killings inside sovereign nations that are not at war with the U.S., we risk souring our relations with strategic allies and creating the kind of political instability that allows terrorists to flourish.  Drone strikes anger local inhabitants, provide an occasion for radicals to foment anti-American hatred, and radicalize the young who might not otherwise be hostile to the U.S.  An expert on Yemen recently stated that drone strikes “are actually one of the major — not the only, but a major — factor in AQAP’s [al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula] growing strength.”

Using killer robots to carry out the dirty business of war may save U.S. lives and taxpayer funds, at least in the short run.  But if waging drone warfare results in the eroding of our good and healthy inhibitions against killing, then we risk becoming like those who hate us.