The ethics of unmanned vehicle warfare


WASHINGTON, Dec. 8 (UPI) -- The U.S. military has faced criticism over the ethics of the use of the unmanned aerial vehicles as the number of strikes carried out with drones skyrocketed in recent years.

The premise for the criticism is that the robotic technology, formally called unmanned aerial vehicles, is a new type of weapon that has killed thousands of people in recent years, so it needs an entirely new ethical framework.


But others see it as a new style of weapon, not a new style of warfare.

"I think these questions would be more relevant if there had not been a human in the loop," said Guy Ben-Ari, a defense expert at the Center for Strategic International Studies, a Washington think tank. "Until we have the debate about whether or not to make these systems autonomous, I think that the ethics issue doesn't really come into play."

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The way Ben-Ari sees it, as long as a human -- regardless of where that human is located -- is making the decisions behind a weapon's actions, the ethics should be viewed through the same lens that's used for other weapons.

"Just by virtue of keeping a human in the loop," he said. "You are self-insuring -- the military is self-insuring -- against any sort of misuse of these systems."


From 2004-07, the United States launched a total of nine drone strikes, followed by 33 in 2008, 53 in 2009, and 118 in 2010, and 70 in the first 10 1/2 months of 2011, a study by the New America Foundation, a non-partisan Washington think tank, stated.

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This rapid increase can be attributed to a variety of factors, including technological advances and non-traditional wartime enemies.

UAVs, like the one that killed Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born Muslim cleric who called for attacked against U.S. interests, in a September drone strike in Yemen, are controlled remotely -- often from thousands of miles away -- and can launch strikes on specific targets. Despite their precision, they have been criticized for their potential to cause collateral casualties.

In 2010, 748 militants were killed by drone attacks and 46 non-militants were killed collaterally, the New America Foundation's recent report "The Year of the Drone" concluded.

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Dan Goure, vice president of the Lexington Institute, a conservative think tank in Virginia, argues that drones are more precise and careful than other alternatives.

"We can talk about SEAL team or a CIA paid assassin," he said, "but honestly, in terms of aerial munitions [drones are] just about the most discriminate capability we have."


Goure pointed to drones' ability to loiter and wait for the absolute best time to launch an attack, as well as the precision of the weapons drones carry. This "makes them much more discriminate and therefore moral, ethical, effective than what we had before," he said.

Asked to expand on drone policy, U.S. Army Lt. Col. Todd Breasseale, Pentagon spokesman, pointed reporters to a speech by the U.S. State Department legal adviser as the representation of the U.S. government's position.

In a speech, delivered March 24, 2010, at the annual meeting of the American Society of International Law, Harold Hongju Koh said the United States, when engaged in war, isn't required to provide its targets with legal process before the use of lethal force.

"In U.S. operations against al-Qaida and its associated forces, including lethal operations conducted with the use of unmanned aerial vehicles," Koh said, "great care is taken to adhere to these principles in both planning and execution to ensure that only legitimate objectives are targeted and that collateral damage is kept to a minimum."

But because there's no question that drones are unprecedented weapons. And other experts -- such as Peter Singer of the non-partisan Brookings Institution in Washington -- say they warrant a new set of ethics.


"New technologies are game changers," Singer said. "And we should be asking tough questions about them. These are all sorts of questions that we haven't had to ask before."

While drone technology has advanced quickly, Singer said the ethics have moved at a "glacial pace."

"We can't develop a technology, put it out in the real world and decide after the fact that there needs to be laws and ethics attached to it," he said.

Drones are operated by pilots sitting in front of computer screens, which look similar to a video game, in locations such as New Mexico and Nevada. As distant as these controls are from the death and destruction they cause, the psychological impacts on the operator appear to be similar to those that combat pilots over the skies of Afghanistan experience.

Any discussion of drone ethics would be remiss to ignore this. To think that drone strikes are so remote that they don't affect an operator's psyche isn't wise, Singer said. Drone operators, despite carrying out a strike and then going home to their families all in the same day, still suffer from trauma, including post-traumatic stress disorder.


"It's only the last few years that people have been even willing to talk about PTSD and it's still not something understood," Singer said. "So to think we have a handle on this new kind of experience of fighting from afar and its stresses after just a few years would be really arrogant of us."

Whether drone strikes will play a major role in the future of the U.S. military isn't in question -- they will.

If Singer had his way, the government would be designing official ethical guidelines for the use of drones but little formal action has been taken in this direction.

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