Reply to Wittes and Singh

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.

Also from This Issue

Lead Essay

  • License to Kill by David Cortright

    David Cortright argues that drones are making warfare cheaper and less visceral — for us. This may sound like a good thing, but it also means that we may be drawn into more wars, and we may inflict more harm on innocent bystanders. This collateral harm is not only immoral, it’s also against our best interests, because it encourages terrorist retribution against us.

Response Essays

  • Drones Are a Challenge — and an Opportunity by Benjamin Wittes and Ritika Singh

    Benjamin Wittes and Ritika Singh argue that drones certainly do increase the distance at which deadly force can be delivered. In this they resemble the large majority of weapons that have ever been developed. Humanitarians, they add, should welcome drones’ precision, which makes possible a new level of caution in avoiding civilian bystanders. They conclude that the question is not whether the United States can prevent drones from proliferating. It is whether the United States will lead or follow in this new field of military technology.

  • Drones and the Changing Nature of Warfare: Hold the Presses! by Daniel Goure

    Daniel Goure argues that if drones are making warfare more deadly, it’s certainly not showing up in the aggregate numbers. Casualties and warfare itself have declined substantially in recent years—and, he suggests, drones might be one part of the reason why. Drones remain a small part of our overall military forces to date. They are overwhelmingly used for nonviolent purposes such as surveillance. When they do exert deadly force, they often accomplish objectives that would have been impossible without them, barring a full-scale invasion. Legitimate concerns do exist over specific acts perpetrated via drone technology, but there is at least a plausible case that drones in general are making warfare less deadly, not more.

  • Drone Proliferation: Other Chapters and Other Challenges by Tom Barry

    Tom Barry argues that the U.S. Congress and other policymakers have uncritically accepted drone warfare as both effective and cheap, with little regard to its actual costs and benefits. Defense contractors obviously stand to gain a great deal, and they have recently been lobbying to ease restrictions on drone technology export controls. The United States should lead the way in forming international agreements to prevent the proliferation of these high-tech weapons. At home, the proliferation of drones in drug enforcement and other local law enforcement tasks is also a worrying trend.

The Conversation