The ethics of drone warfare

October 7, 2011

As you probably already know, the United States has increasingly relied on drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles, to carry out warfare in recent years. Drone attacks have been particularly popular under President Barack Obama’s administration. According to the New America Foundation, there were 43 drone attacks between January and October 2009 (right when Obama took office), compared to just 34 in all of 2008 (when George W. Bush was still in office). The Obama administration has shown no indication that it will halt the use of drones, which are responsible for the deaths of many alleged terrorists.

The government’s increased reliance on drones has sparked public debate on two questions: Are drone strikes legal? Are they ethical? In my reading of various news and opinion articles on the issue, legal objections to drones come in three varieties:

1. Drones violate domestic law. Many, or even most, drone strikes take place in Pakistan or other Middle Eastern countries where the US has not declared war against a foreign state, but is instead working with local officials to root out terrorists under some “handshake agreement.” As such, many people feel drone strikes are an unjustified use of presidential and military power. US officials defend drone strikes on the grounds that they do not target a formal state, but a small group of people that have carried out attacks on domestic soil and plan to do so again. Thus, formal warfare laws do not apply (in other words: hey, it’s just the never-ending War on Terror).

2. Drones violate international law, which restricts when and how different states can engage in armed conflict. Yet, as with domestic law, there is no conflict between two formal states. Also, most drone strikes are carried out by the CIA, which as a civilian agency and a noncombatant under international law is not governed by the same laws of war that cover US military agencies.

3. Drones kill civilians. The Wall Street Journal reported via intelligence officials that since Obama took office, the CIA has used drones to kill 400 to 500 suspected militants, while only ~20 civilians have been killed. However, in 2009, Pakistani officials said the strikes had killed roughly 700 civilians and only 14 terrorist leaders. Meanwhile, a New America Foundation analysis in northwest Pakistan from between 2004 to 2010 reports that the strikes killed between 830 and 1210 individuals, of whom 550 to 850 were militants (about two-thirds of the total).

These arguments are nuanced and complex, and you can read more about them in this article in the Wall Street Journal, in this news entry in the New York Times, and in this recent essay by William Saletan on Slate. But let us put these legal points — and any discussion of just war theory — aside for a moment, for I think there is a more basic ethical point here.

Notice that the objections above do not inherently reject the use of unmanned drones. Instead, they make claims about international law, domestic law, and the accuracy of drones. Yet many people still argue drones are inherently ethically problematic. But are drone strikes really any more or less ethical than, say, manned aircraft strikes? Is there, or should there be, an ethical distinction between launching missiles from half a world away and sending fighter jets to carry out such an attack?

It seems to me that there is no ethical distinction. The method in which war is carried out — by drone, jet, or a missile launched from a nuclear sub — is less important than the pretenses and justifications for the use of war (think: laws and just war theory) and the nature of the attack (think: who is being targeted). If an act of war violates domestic or international law, it does so because, for instance, civilians were intentionally targeted or put at risk — not because the vehicle that carried out the attack was not carrying a soldier. I have seen no indication that drone strikes are targeting civilians, nor have I seen evidence that drones kill more civilians on average than manned strikes (your research is welcome). So why is there such an objection to, specifically, drone strikes?

In reading about objections to drone use, I can’t help but feel an unspoken and lurking moral sentiment that drone use is especially wrong for no other reason than it removes a human element of war. That is, many people are bothered by the use of drones simply because drones, unlike planes and submarines, remove a pilot submarine crew from harm’s way. They make the playing field unequal.

Consider these three passages. The first is from a story in the news outlet Christian Century:

With drones, operators sitting in front of computer monitors in Virginia and Nevada can target enemies halfway around the world. When their shift is done, drone operators retire to their suburban homes.

The second is from an essay in the Catholic magazine America:

Killing with drones is made easy for operators, who often work at great distances from the scene of attack. An Air Force ‘pilot’ may be in Nevada, while C.I.A. operatives are in Langley, Va., and others, including private contractors, are in Florida, Pakistan or Afghanistan. An operator may launch an attack from a trailer in Nevada viewing a computer monitor and using a joystick. The operators never see the persons they have killed. The pilot of a fighter jet flies over the place where the attack will occur and risks being shot down; a drone pilot never experiences the place where the attack occurs and knows he or she is in no personal danger. The operator can go home at the end of the shift.

The third is from an article on

Missile strikes launched from the comfort of Langley, Virginia, a half a world away from Waziristan, … to critics, remain morally problematic.

On one hand, this seems backward. Drones remove a pilot or crew from harm’s way, and so they would seem a safer way of carrying out war. Imagine being able to carry out attacks on highly dangerous terrorists and other figures without having to put your own people at risk of death. This would seem desirable.

On the other hand, perhaps there is something to the idea that warfare made easier means warfare more often; that the more we remove the human element from one side of warfare, the more that side becomes willing to commit to warfare. This does not seem necessarily true, as warfare has not increased — and overall violence actually might be decreasing — with increasing technology. I am also not entirely sure it is a compelling argument against drone use, either. Rather, it seems an argument against any advance in military technology: from guns that allow troops to shoot their weapons from further away, to planes that allow forces to drop bombs from higher elevations, to even bulletproof vests that provide more safety to soldiers engaged in war. And what sort of realist would oppose those advances?

But, as always, I offer my thoughts to the peer review of the public. What do you think?


#1 gray1 on Friday October 07, 2011 at 3:29pm

The described actions are still people killing people. That is always bad but at least it’s still human vs human even if it amounts to cold blooded high tech bushwacking.  Drones are one step away from having an automatic target selection mode which would amount to a certain catagorization as a crime against humanity.  How long do we suspect it will be before our own enemies have the same capability?  Then you will hear such a cry as their own select “criminals” are gleefully executed from above!

That the drone is designed to linger in operations for very long periods makes it “handy” if an opportunity to attack is located. That a pilot is not at risk is simply a bonus.  That a foreign country might object to an undeclared war is being enacted upon its citizens is a matter for international criminal and civil law, or perhaps just an outright declaration of war.

#2 Natalie (Guest) on Monday October 10, 2011 at 10:20am

You’re missing the very important point that the members of terrorism are not fighting according to the rules of war.  This is important, as they often mix themselves within innocent civilian populations and refuse to wear uniforms in order to distinguish themselves from civilians.  A pilot in the air and a pilot in a remote location would see the same individuals, receive the same information and drop the same bombs.  An unfortunate casualty in this war and the fact that the enemy refuses to succumb to the Geneva Convention are civilian deaths, but those deaths really are not a result of the use of RPAs.  Though unfortunate, the ultimate blame can easily be placed on terrorists who intentionally mix themselves among civilians and then get upset when civilians are killed.

As for the above comment, RPAs and regular aircraft linger in airspace to make them “handy” and available for use.  They are in the air constantly.

#3 gray1 on Monday October 10, 2011 at 4:34pm

Report: Computer Virus Hits Military Drone Program
By LOLITA C. BALDOR Associated Press
WASHINGTON October 8, 2011 (AP)

Oooh, can we guess where the subject of the above story is leading? 

I guess time will tell if the time honored tradition of the bad guy hiding behind innocents has been rendered obsolete since we are now going to bomb them all from thousands of miles away regardless.  I think the term is “acceptable collateral damage”.

#4 GrayLion54 (Guest) on Tuesday October 11, 2011 at 9:31am

Seriously folks, are we supposed to wait until these homocidal psychopaths strike us AGAIN ? Wait until they murder more innocent, non-combatant civilians ? The targets of these drone strikes are people loudly expressing the intent of doing so again, and who have proven to have the ability to do so. These individuals have declared WAR on the United States, and we have the right to protect ourselves. And the drone strikes are somehow more “immoral” than a manned strike fighter attack or a snipers bullet ? It does not matter what weapon is used. The old folkism is no less true in this case. Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.

#5 brides latin (Guest) on Tuesday October 11, 2011 at 7:24pm

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#6 SocraticGadfly (Guest) on Wednesday October 12, 2011 at 12:01am

Michael, many other countries are developing drones. I suspect the bipartisan political establishment will bemoan the ethics of a Chinese drone launched against, say, Mongolia, while still giving free reign to U.S. drone launches.

That said, I do agree to a degree on the type of weapon not mattering, whether it’s a club or a hydrogen bomb—or a drone.

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