Wittes and Singh correctly note that drone weapons allow for more accurate discrimination between civilians and combatants. They make it possible to lower civilian casualties and reduce the unintended damage that results from war. In that narrow sense the use of these weapons could be considered more ethical than relying on indiscriminate bombing or ground-based military operations.
These are secondary arguments, however. They concern the conduct of war once it has started, the jus in bello standards. The more important question is whether military force should be used in the first place, the jus ad bellum criteria. Pacifists would argue that force should never be used, but just war teaching acknowledges that force may be necessary at times to protect the innocent, although only under strictly limited conditions. Just war doctrine is based on a presumption against the use of force. It sets rigorous standards that must be met before military action can be considered. A thorough and honest application of these standards would rule out most wars that our political leaders claim to be just.
The objection to drones is not that they “keep our forces safer.” That is a misreading of my argument. My concern is that the availability of these weapons may weaken necessary moral and political constraints against the use of force. Our enthusiasm about the technological effectiveness of these killing machines may diminish our interest in questioning the morality of the missions they are intended to serve.
Because drone weapons reduce the costs and risks of armed action, they lower the inhibitions against using military force. They allow political leaders to consider the use of force in settings where it would not be possible otherwise. This is certainly true in the mountainous regions along the Afghanistan–Pakistan border where, as Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says, drones are the “only game in town.” Aerial bombing would be indiscriminate and ineffective. Ground operations by commando units could be more discriminating in theory, but they would entail severe risks to our troops. In truth neither conventional bombing nor ground operations would be feasible politically or militarily. Drone strikes are the only option. If these weapons were not available, political leaders would have to address the problems of terrorism and insurgency through nonmilitary means.
And that’s exactly the point. Drones reinforce the illusion that military force is the solution to complex political challenges. The available evidence indicates that terrorism is usually not defeated through military means. The same is true with counterinsurgency campaigns. Political solutions are needed that isolate violent extremists from the communities that sustain them. These tasks require complex long term political processes. They cannot be solved through military means, no matter how sophisticated the technology.