Ethics of Drone Warfare

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The use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, commonly referred to as drones, has increased rapidly in recent years. These drone technologies have been utilized by agencies across the world for policing, surveillance, photography, product deliveries, and most notably military use. The military uses drones for reconnaissance, surveillance, and delivering targeted missile and bomb strikes to targets. Many ethicists have raised concerns about this new way of killing, while the military has defended it. Concerns include lack of accountability, civilian casualties, and the indirect nature of the killing. The United States operates two drone programs, one falls under the Department of Defense, and hence faces a degree of political and military accountability. The second program falls under the Central Intelligence Agency, and does not answer to the public.

A General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper

Civilian Casualties

According to investigative journalists, strikes have killed between 910-2200 civilians between 2010 and 2020, including killing between 283 and 454 children. Estimates place the total number of combatants killed between 8858 and 16901. lastname, firstname · (date) · [url ] · work · 04-18-2021The US government released numbers of civilian casualties that are notably lower than the numbers reported by journalists and watchdog groups. During one five-month period of a major drone operation. nearly 90 percent of the people killed in airstrikes were not the intended targets. Widespread press attention came to the issue when the U.S. struck a wedding ceremony in Yemen with a drone.

Just War Theory

Just War Theory serves as a series of considerations when considering going to war, and how entities should conduct themselves during a war.

Jus Ad Bellum - The Right To Go To War

In Just War theory, was must be waged in self-defense, or to defend another group from harm. The core components in determining whether to wage war are Just Cause, Comparative Justice, Competent Authority, and Proportionality.

  • Just Cause - An example of a contemporary interpretation of just cause comes from the The US Catholic Conference, who determined that "Force may be used only to correct a grave, public evil, i.e., aggression or massive violation of the basic human rights of whole populations."
  • Comparative Justice - The injustice suffered by one party must significantly outweigh that suffered by the other for aggression to be justified.
  • Competent Authority - Aggression must be initiated by a political system that allows distinctions of justice.
  • Last Resort - All other options must be exhausted before the use of force.
  • Proportionality - The expected benefits of using force must be proportionate to its anticipated harm.

Jus In Bello - The Right Conduct During War

During war, a warring state must act with Distinction and Proportionality.

  • Distinction - Acts of war should always be directed towards enemy combatants, not civilians who are caught in circumstances outside of their control.
  • Proportionality - Civilian casualties or other damage should be proportional to the number of lives saved by taking an action.
  • Fair Treatment of Prisoners of War - Captured combatants no longer pose a threat, and must be treated as such.
  • No Means Malum In Se - Evil weaponry, especially those where collateral effects cannot be controlled (like nuclear weapons or biological weapons) are not ethical.

Just War Theory and US Drone Usage

Defending the use of drones in a speech, President Barack Obama said: “That means taking strikes only when we face a continuing, imminent threat, and only where there is … near certainty of no civilian casualties.” These standards would likely make a strike justified under Just War Theory, but many academics contest that the execution of these standards has been subpar, and therefore undermines the standards.

Applying the Theory in favor of drones, the military and government officials contend that drones save lives. They argue that drone usage keeps troops out of harms way. Additionally, by not having to risk life and limb, drone operators don't experience fear for their lives, so they can evaluate situations more objectively. Former Director of the CIA, John Brennan, defended his frequent use of drone strikes to the Senate, arguing that "They dramatically reduce the danger to US personnel and to innocent civilians, especially considered against massive ordnance that can cause injury and death far beyond the intended target."

Proportionality implies that some civilian deaths are permissible if more lives are saved, so the US program is not an automatic moral failure if it kills some civilians along with terrorists. Additionally, drones are not evil weaponry compared to traditional weapons, they don't cause unnecessary suffering or cause widespread and uncontrollable effects. Finally, drones record their camera feeds, making it easier to hold operators who commit unethical strikes accountable.

Critics of drone usage argue that drone usage fails in providing an avenue towards justice for those accused of terrorist activity. The system is one-sided, with the targets unable to fight back physically, or contest the claims against them. Error is always possible, and the targets have no chance to correct an error. Additionally, critics contend that the US only uses drones in the Middle East. There have been terrorist incidents elsewhere in the Western World and the US never deployed a drone strike in a sovereign Western Nation. A terrorist is a terrorist wherever they are, yet we only use drones against terrorists from some regions.

Secrecy has shrouded the drone program, raising several ethical questions. Most notably, without a true number of strikes and casualties, it is impossible to determine proportionality. Critics contend that the US Government should be able to justify why they are killing on the behalf of their constituents, and have advocated for more transparency.

Some military historians contend that drones could make nations more aggressive. A main deterrent to waging a war of aggression is that the populace would sustain casualties, but if the threat of potential casualties was removed, politicians may be more likely to consider fighting. Weakening this aversion to casualties could serve to enable more war.

Drone operators launch strikes from thousand of miles away, and hence drone operators are under no physical threat when waging war. Drone operators have reported high frequencies of stress, 17 percent of active duty drone pilots surveyed are thought to be "clinically distressed" by the U.S. Air Force's own criteria. This is something that U.S. Naval Academy Professor Shannon French attributes to a missing sense of honor when waging this type of war: "If [I'm] in the field risking and taking a life, there's a sense that I'm putting skin in the game … I'm taking a risk so it feels more honorable. Someone who kills at a distance—it can make them doubt. Am I truly honorable?"

Politics and Drones

U.S. use of drone strikes sparked a Senate debate about Executive Overreach by President Obama. Democratic senator and intelligence committee member Ron Wyden said "The Founding Fathers thought the president should have significant power in the national security arena. But there have to be checks and balances. You can't just skirt those checks and balances if you think it's inconvenient."

Former President Jimmy Carter questioned the accuracy of the figures being reported by the government, saying "We don't know how many hundreds of innocent civilians have been killed in these attacks ... This would have been unthinkable in previous times." Hamid Karzai, President of Afghanistan, has called for an end to drone use by the U.S. within Afghanistan.