About January 2012
Technology is to politics as the weather is to sports: We can’t really control it, but we certainly have to live with it. In recent years the technology of unarmed aerial vehicles has made tremendous strides, allowing modern warfare to be conducted in many respects by remote control.
This may seem like a boon to technologically savvy countries like the United States, and in a sense it clearly is. But the moral calculus of war is rarely that simple: While drones can and do shield front-line troops from danger, and can often substitute for them entirely, they also have other effects. Drones can make it more likely that we will enter into wars, for example, and if so, then it’s no longer clear that they help the ordinary soldier. Drones may increase casualties among noncombatants; their pinpoint accuracy is only as good as the human intelligence behind them, which now may be more subject to manipulation, not less. And drones are certainly being used by hostile states and nonstate actors, including terrorist groups like Hezbollah.
To discuss these issues, we have assembled a panel of experts on drones and ethics of war. Our lead essay is by David Cortright of the University of Notre Dame; he is joined by Benjamin Wittes of the Brookings Institution, Daniel Goure of the Lexington Institute, and Tom Barry of the Center for International Policy.
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.
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.
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.
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.