The Ethics of Drones


KIM LAWTON, correspondent: Drones are increasingly becoming some of the most valuable weapons in America’s arsenal.

Drone operator speaking on video: This is going to save someone’s life today.

LAWTON: Unmanned aircraft such as the Predator and the Reaper can hover over remote areas and do surveillance for hours, even days. Their operators are often in places as far away as Nevada or Virginia, and the drones can release missiles or bombs with no risk to those operators. Experts say within 20 years the vast majority of America’s fighting aircraft will likely be pilotless. The use of drones may be strategic, but is it moral?

PROFESSOR EDWARD BARRETT (US Naval Academy Center for Ethical Leadership): If you believe that a society has a duty to reduce unnecessary risk to its combatants, then these systems do that, so that would be actually one moral obligation, and then also the state has an obligation to effectively and efficiently defend its citizens, and these systems are effective and efficient.

PROFESSOR MARY ELLEN O’CONNELL (University of Notre Dame Law School): To accept killing far from the situation of battlefields where there is an understanding of necessity is really ethically troubling for many of us.

LAWTON: America’s use of remotely piloted aircraft or drones has increased dramatically since President Obama took office. Both the military and the CIA use them in combat operations and counterterrorism missions. Drones have been engaged in lethal operations in at least six countries: Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan, and Libya. Retired Lieutenant General David Deptula oversaw the US Air Force’s drone program from 2006 until last year. He says remotely piloted aircraft achieve a moral good.

post02-dronesLIEUTENANT GENERAL DAVID DEPTULA: The precision, the persistence, and the accuracy that remotely piloted aircraft bring to the equation actually enhance our ability to accomplish our objectives while minimizing loss of life.

LAWTON: Yale Law School Professor Stephen Carter, author of the book “The Violence of Peace,” agrees that minimizing risk to US troops is a worthy goal. But he says it also has moral implications that should not be ignored.

PROFESSOR STEPHEN CARTER (Yale Law School): When America has troops on the ground and people are dying as well as killing, it’s on the news every day. When we’re using standoff bombing, when we’re using missiles that kill but place no risk, it fades from the nation’s consciousness. That means it’s easier to fight, which means it’s more likely that we’ll fight.

LAWTON: Notre Dame Professor of International Law Mary Ellen O’Connell worries that the growing availability of unmanned aerial systems lowers political and psychological barriers to killing.

O’CONNELL: These sleek, attractive, small glider-like planes fly out of their hanger and slip in to a village somewhere and drop a bomb. That seems so easy to do, and on the screen it doesn’t look any different than the video game that the soldier plays later at her home.

post03-dronesDEPTULA: Are these people arguing that, you know, we should only fight if you are exposed to threats and putting your life at risk? That’s silly, and I think it’s ill-founded.

LAWTON: Edward Barrett is director of strategy and research at the US Naval Academy’s Stockdale Center for Ethical Leadership. He says, in fact, high-tech sensors on the drones give operators a very detailed picture of what they are doing.

BARRETT: So they’re operating from afar, but their senses are very close to the situation. They see very clearly the battle damage that they are doing, and therefore they know they’re not playing a video game.

LAWTON: He says the distance allows operators to make moral decisions about the use of force.

BARRETT: A soldier in the situation is scared and possible hasty in deciding what to do and acting and possibly even angry, whereas an operator who’s not threatened can use tighter rules of engagement and is not going to be fearful and therefore is going have a much cooler head.

LAWTON: Deptula says much ethical oversight surrounds the US military’s use of drones.

DEPTULA: You have many, many more sets of eyes that are watching what’s going on and many, many more people in the decision loop in terms of employing lethal ordnance if, in fact, that is going to be applied.

LAWTON: O’Connell says she supports the use of drones in combat situations like Afghanistan. But she argues that their use in non-combat settings, such as Pakistan, is morally and legally wrong.

post04-dronesO’CONNELL: International law says that on a battlefield in which armed groups are engaged in organized armed fighting we have a presumption of necessity that persons may be killed without warning in that situation. You can ask any member of the United States armed forces where are we engaged in combat today, and they will all tell you Libya, Iraq, and Afghanistan. They will not tell you Pakistan.

LAWTON: The CIA oversees drone strikes as part of counterterrorism operations, but US officials refuse to discuss the program publicly. According to a tally by the nonpartisan New America Foundation, since 2004 there have been more than 260 US drone strikes in Pakistan, which the foundation estimates killed between 1,600 and 2,500 people. The strikes have generated strong protests from Pakistanis who claim that many civilians as well as militants have been killed. The US takes the position that those strikes are permissible as part of the war against terror.

DEPTULA: Our principal adversary since bin Laden has declared war on the US in the mid-nineties has been al Qaeda. It is fully in cognizance with the laws of international armed conflict to pursue those individuals wherever they reside.

O’CONNELL: They’ve actually been lulled into a sense that killing with drones is not extraordinary, that these are bad people as determined by our CIA, and therefore we can just kill them. This is killing large numbers of persons who we would never allow to be killed if they were in another geographic zone—if they were in the United States, for example.

post05-dronesCARTER: You need really good intelligence on where those missiles are going, because otherwise you’re going to blow up a lot of wedding processions and make a lot of enemies instead of hitting the al-Qaeda leader who you thought was in the car but really wasn’t.

LAWTON: The New America Foundation estimates that while the civilian mortality rate from drone strikes in Pakistan had been about 20 percent, last year it fell to about five percent. As drone technology advances, even more difficult questions may lie ahead.

BARRETT: Perhaps more ethically challenging is the issue of autonomous lethal systems. The idea is that you can use software that recognizes the targets and then makes a decision that’s ethical to destroy targets, with no human intervention.

LAWTON: Wherever the technology goes, ethicists say the moral dimensions must be a significant part of the discussion.

O’CONNELL: We have to be aware of what these technologies are capable of and what they’re doing and demand of our leaders that our ethical, moral, and legal principles that we hold dear, that are the basis of this country, remain uppermost in all of our minds.

LAWTON: Carter believes the principles of the just war doctrine, which have informed military policy for centuries, are still relevant for determining when to use drones.

CARTER: Is there a just cause? Is this the last resort? Can the use of force actually do the thing that we claim we are setting out to do? And is our use of force proportional to the problem we are trying to solve? When we ask questions like that we’re asking moral questions. I think those are the right questions to ask.

LAWTON: The Department of Defense currently has about 8,300 remotely piloted aircraft, not including the CIA’s, and plans to spend about $6 billion in 2012 adding to that inventory.

  • Don Charles

    I was very unhappy with this segment. It seemed heavily biased in favor of military justifications for unmanned bomber aircraft. The far-fetched rationalizations insulted the intelligence of anyone with Christian moral standards.

  • kingofallclergy

    Drones are legal. The nations that we operate drones in, are not legal states. Any state that has religion as it’s basis of law is not legal. Notice, religious or Semitic states are the only one s’ who harbor terrorist. Secular law is the only real law of truth. It’s the only law recognized by the ICC/ICJ and the U.N. Since we are all Atheist to each other any religious state that makes “judicial’ comment is malevolent. On the other hand is the CIA run by the Pious Empire(?) I would argue, yes. People in the Pious Empire or the Pious Empire is any person or organisation that is narrow minded and implements plans using dogmatic principals.[ex:In the Dead Poets Society movie, Neil s' father] I believe that the organisation ‘Knights of the Golden Circle” [even though it was 'officially' dis-banned] was held together for years by tradition, religion, and bigotry. I believe that this group [some would say, the Dixie Mafia or southern mafia] infiltrated the CIA during or soon after the National Security Act or 1947 was passed. In recent years the Patriot Act and Executive Orders[stringing as far back as Ronald Reagan] Allow at the very least a atmosphere of global manifest destiny to continue. We have paid security forces overseas protecting merchants. This is wrong. We have torture training facilities in the southern USA. This is wrong. The right to have a local security force is protected under the second amendment. However, any security force that targets innocent civilians must be subject to drone attack.

  • Wind

    Unless you yourself are willing to do the job that the drones are doing, I think that being silent would be the most ethical choice.

  • Graeme Davidson

    A major point that has been ignored in this discussion is that if it is morally justified to use drones for precision attacks against the enemies of the US, then the enemy could consider that it would be morally justified in using the same tactics against the US, especially if that enemy had the technical capability to do so.

  • Wind

    I fail to see how that matters. They would seek out a single target. However, mass killing of non combatants seems to be their preferred method. I am sure that the Taliban and Al Qaeda are using every method at their disposal to “strike at the head of the snake.”

    Surely you are not suggesting that just because the enemy does not use a certain tactic, that we should refrain from using it?

    This reminds me of the British Army protesting the fact that American combatants found it more productive to kill on officer in the field rather than exchanging musket fire with regular troops. That is the sloppy kind of thinking that fills grave yards.

  • Richard E. Schiff

    Has no one recall of the Nazi V-2 blitz of Britain during WWII? Those were explosive missiles remotely fired from conquered areas on the west coast of Europe at residential London and other major cities. That was considered a despicable atrocity only Nazis were capable of, and we are debating the morality of these murderous toy planes and the video war hardened children operating them, against predetermined, enemies?

  • Francois

    Not using the tech if available is absurd. Homicidal sociopaths should have as much reason for concern as anyone in homeland security. The big difference between us/them is we go to unprecedented lengths in the history of warfare to avoid civilian casualties, which has been documented to be exploited constantly by our enemies. I say keep it up and expand it. Sooner or later the folks around these terrorists will realize their proximity to the cancer of Islamic extremists will be almost always fatal to their health. Yes, we should always strive to minimize innocents dying, but we never deliberately target them. So they put civilian casualties on their web sites? Who cares? Just more of their hypocrisy. Let’s use them to spread the message that indeed hanging around these guys may be hazardous to your Health at any time of our choosing. Just because they understand propaganda we’re going market for the public’s approval? It’s a war, remember? Not an ad campaign. So get down to it and laser in on humanity’s cancer. It’s time anybody considering the occupation of terrorist should indeed himself be quiet terrified. Let the drones become an ever increasing occupational hazard for folks that won’t leave others alone.

  • 401BGsav

    The atomic bombs dropped on Japan killed large numbers of their non-combatant population, yet in the long run it saved lives overall for it ended the hostilities quickly… one who has faced the enemy in combat, I welcome the use of anything that will bring an end to hostilities…..if it is possible to fight a war with the use of drones as opposed to sending our young men and women into combat, then I say that’s the way to go. The useless wars we have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan has left thousands dead and many thousands more horribly mutilated and incapable of providing for themselves. The use of drones is very little different than the manned bombers we used in WWII to drop high intensity bombs on the populations in Germany and Japan, the major difference being that we do not have to put our young people in harms way to send the drones! Ask the young man who has had two or three combat tours in Afghanistan what he thinks about drones and then ask him if he thinks asking him to go back into the front line is a moral thing to do!

  • Channah

    Drones are used because they can pinpoint a certain target without many being killed while reaching said target————enough said. They are much better than putting many at risk of death.

  • Jura Nanuk

    What about Geneva Conventions? Are those Conventions canceled, obsolete? The Geneva Conventions (GC) consists of seven individual treaties which are open to ratification or accession by any sovereign state

    The Article 12 of the First Geneva Convention (ratified by USA in 1955) mandates that wounded and sick soldiers who are out of the battle should be humanely treated, and in particular should not be killed, injured, tortured, or subjected to biological experimentation.

    The articles of the Fourth Geneva Convention (1949) extensively defined the basic rights of prisoners (civil and military) during war; established protections for the wounded; and established protections for the civilians in and around a war zone. The treaties of 1949 were ratified, in whole or with reservations, by 194 countries.

    Does the use of drones violate those Conventions? What about injured soldiers, especially civilians who are often “collateral damage” of such attacks, left to suffer and bleed to death? Soldier in the field has an option of capturing enemy soldiers alive and have an obligation to treat POW humanly. Enemy soldier, if overpowered have an option to surrender and demand fair treatment as POW. Soldier sitting in some army base have no option to offer enemy soldier option to surrender and have no possibility to help wounded enemy soldiers or civilians.

    I believe war is inhuman enough just by itself, but the use of drones is further dehumanization of war. Can a soldier operating a drone, sitting in comfortable chair thousands of miles away from battlefield and without any danger of being killed or injured, ever qualify for a medal for courage? What courage can he demonstrate? Does the use of drones increase the safety of American citizens at home or encourage terrorist attacks on US soil by those who have no chance to counter hi tech drones on the battlefield?

    I would appreciate if somebody could offer answers to those questions.

  • ECS

    “Any state that has religion as it’s basis of law is not legal. ” So some other state can decide if the US is a “legal state”? (The flip side of YOUR judgement about another autonomous “state”.)

    Your decision about what ‘state” is legal” is based on…NOTHING!

  • Jeremy

    The preoccupation with war is a disease of humanity, one that can be cured. This article approaches the subject of drones with the presumption that war is inevitable. I don’t understand how we can ethically discuss war and not even mention that violent war is an absolute Last Resort, and that eradication of this culturally systemic violence is our ideal goal, one for which we may always strive towards, and with God’s graces one day hopefully achieve. I do not fall into the propaganda that war is inevitable, but even if war were inevitable, I’m not certain that America is doing everything possible to lessen war culture, and indeed seems to promote it. I’m disappointed. America is establishing a precedent for drone usage, and at this point is doing a terrible job writing history.

  • Humanist

    The drone attacks will not stop as long as the ruling class of Pakistan takes the Saudi money and creates thousands of talibans on a daily basis. As long as the ruling class of Pakistan is bent on controlling Afghanistan through the talibans, Afghanistan and that region will not see any peace. The ruling class of pakistan must stop playing this dangerous game of milking the Saudis and the Americans.

  • Norman Lampert

    There is a problem with lumping the military and the CIA together.

    The military is under much greater oversight, while the CIA has been involved with a number of questionable actions not invloving drones. A person on the spot may find himself in a “life or death” situation requiring instant reaction while a drone operator can tiake time to assess the situation.

    Also, since the drone can take higher g-forces, whether from acceleration or from sharp turns, the operator is less likely to have a problem with physical reaction to the flight.

    As far as using dromes for surveilance, I don’t think that there is a problem as long as there is no firing of its weapons in a non-combat zone.

    As a combat veteran, I don’t that there is any macho “virtue” in exposing a combatant to danger if he/she can do the same thing from a distance. If an action is moral, it doen’t matter where the “actor” is located.

  • clayton lewis

    Drones are now being used by the police here at home. Have you-all forgot Waco, TX?
    They had a tank and helicopters. Think about it.

  • Rev.Knell

    Ms. O’Connell has a sweet heart and intent, but the concept she’s talking about is warfare. The concept of warfare and law enforcement are being increasingly muddied in the “war on terror” Being okay with drones in “combat” in Afghanistan marks Afghanistan itself a labeled war zone, while many operatives initiating the violence plan, direct, and commute cross-border. Operations in a country without a country’s consent is morally wrong, but I often fee; that we don’t know the whole story of chains of permission and granters of final authority.