Should Drones be Used in War?

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Should Drones Be Used in War?

As the times change, the laws of war have to change with it in order to protect as many lives as possible.  As technology becomes more advanced and the weapons people use become deadlier, such as drones or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), more people have questions as to whether or not they are ethical to use in times of war. Drones will shape the laws of war just as other weapons throughout time have. Every time this happens, there are people who still question the morals behind inventions and debate the ethics of each weapon. When the bow and arrow was invented, it was the deadliest weapon of its time. Warriors used it to kill from long distances and hit targets with a great amount of accuracy. By today’s standards, they are simple and outdated. This is the case with drones in today’s world. Drones are effective in today’s warfare by reducing the loss of life to soldiers, reducing loss of civilian life, making planning and execution of battles more efficient.

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To begin, it is logical to say that there should be laws governing war. Without rules, it would result in catastrophic losses of both military personnel and civilian lives for all parties involved. Systematic killings of massive groups of people and the use of inhumane tactics would make war more destructive than it already is. To limit ourselves, certain principles were set in place by leading military powers throughout history.

According to Braden R. Allenby and his article Are new technologies undermining the laws of war? he claims that there are three main perspectives to take on these laws. The realist perspective holds that, because states are not bound by anything save their own self-interest, whatever needs to be done to protect that national interest is permissible. . . On the other end of the spectrum, the pacifist perspective holds that war is entirely evil, and that no war can be ethical or moral. In such a view, any attempt to make war palatable, such as developing norms and laws of war that reduce collateral damage, is simply lipstick on a pig; . . .  Very few actors hold to these perspectives in their pure form, which means that most countries and militaries today adhere to a middle way that includes some form of the laws of war (Allenby).

Somewhere in that middle ground are what most of the world’s militaries abide by when it comes to warfare. They do this to protect the lives military personnel, financial resources, and civilians when possible. The same article states that there are three main categories of the laws of war. The first is jus ad bellum. This defines the ethicality and legality to start a conflict. It is usually used when a nation is under attack by another or needs an excuse to start war with another. A good example of this would be when Al Qaida attacked the United States. This law is a great one to have to keep leaders from declaring war whenever they want. It puts rules on what justifies going to war. The second, jus in bello, deals with the ethical and legal behavior once a conflict is under way. (Allenby) This concept closely follows the Geneva and Hague conventions which refer to the protections to Humanitarian Law (law of armed conflict). The third category, which is jus post bellum, deals with the conduct and issues to make peace after war. There are few modern examples of this, but the best one and most recognized by the public would be the Treaty of Versailles following World War I and the peace treaties signed at the end of World War II. These examples of common laws of war can now help define how new technologies can fit into them as well.

        With that being said, what exactly is an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), or more commonly known as a drone? According to Bradley J. Strawser, they are uninhabited remotely controlled weapons systems (more specifically, for this paper, ones owned by the US military and government). Some examples of these are predator drones and reaper drones. Due to their controversial nature, people debate whether or not drones are ethical to use during war. The most obvious argument as to why they are ethical is that they can reduce the risk of human fatalities during war or any other time. They allow the controller to seek out targets from large distances while eliminating the risk to the operator and his fellow troops. Putting less people in danger strengthens military power and retains their ultimate safety. Also, if the United States could use drones to persuade other nations from not going to war at all, both sides would not have to suffer.

        Another argument that supports the ethical use of drones during war is that because operators are able to use what is known as ‘targeted killing’ to obtain their objective, less civilians’ lives are endangered. The Geneva Conventions were held to make sure this happened in the first place. The Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols are at the core of international humanitarian law, the body of international law that regulates the conduct of armed conflict and seeks to limit its effects. They specifically protect people who are not taking part in the hostilities (civilians, health workers and aid workers) and those who are no longer participating in the hostilities, such as wounded, sick and shipwrecked soldiers and prisoners of war (Geneva Convention). Being able to target one small area or even one group of people would reduce the number of casualties there will be for everyone. Instead of flying an aircraft loaded with massive bombs overhead and bombing an entire area like in World War II, civilian casualties are drastically reduced. The strikes are carried out using MQ-1 Predator drones, armed with Hellfire missiles, and MQ-9 Reapers, which, in addition to Hellfire missiles, can launch GBU-12 Paveway II laser-guided bombs and JDAM GPS-guided bombs (Jordan). Laser guided systems are popular because of their ability to hit an area within inches or feet of the laser target. One of the first drone attacks was launched on June 19, 2004 in the country of Pakistan which killed a targeted Taliban leader Nek Mohammed. Since then, up until May of 2013, a total of 340-357 attacks were used by US military forces (Jordan). By making drones that can hit small specific areas, the operator can minimize the damage to surrounding buildings and people which is the goal for most missions. They can also take out specific targets and achieve important military goals that will end the war faster.

        The last, and possibly most important use for drones in war is their ability to be used as surveillance tools. They can fly above battlefields and allow troops to get an accurate picture of where to go, how they can get there safely, and where enemy targets are hiding. There are several different types of drones used for this purpose. Micro and Nano-drones are usually one to four inch machines called Black Hornets which have been used by soldiers to look over walls and around corners (Knight). These can be carried on all kinds of field missions and help individual squads of soldiers fighting in the city or anywhere their field of vision is not very far. They help keep them safe travelling through enemy dense places. There are UAVs called small tactical drones that are slightly larger than the micro-drones, are lightweight, and can fly up to 12 hours and a range of 90 km. It is used for ISTAR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition, and Reconnaissance) gathering (Knight). These could be used by field commanders to plan out patrol routes, small scale attacks, and many other things. Next are medium-sized reconnaissance drones. They are also used for ISTAR missions but have a much longer flight time and a longer range. They can fly for up to 52 hours and can get to an altitude of 35,000 feet (Knight). They are easier to conceal because of their altitude and provide clear aerial view pictures of battlefields and cities. They are also the most common type of drone used in most of the world. (Knight). The last type are large combat and surveillance drones. These are used to carry out most of the long-range targeted killings by way of missiles and laser guided bombs. However, they also are used to scan phone calls and gather intelligence that way.

        In conclusion, drones are a safe and ethical alternative to sending troops into war zones and endangering their lives. Even though war is a destructive and terrible force that kills millions, there are certain guidelines in place to minimize the damage and reduce the loss of life as much as possible. Drones make that possible. Or, at least, easier to do than before. Debates across the world go on every day as to their ethicality, but drones allow military forces to scope out terrain and battlegrounds, allow them to plan effectively, and execute missions with minimal danger to soldiers’ lives.

Works Cited

  1. Allenby, B. R. Are new technologies undermining the laws of war? Bulletin of The Atomic Scientists, 2014. 21-31.
  2. Jordan, J. The Effectiveness of the Drone Campaign against Al Qaeda Central: A Case Study. Journal of Strategic Studies, 2014. 4-29.
  3. Knight, B. A Guide to Military Drones. DW, DW Top Stories, June 30, 2017.
  4. Strawser, B. Moral Predators: The Duty to Employ Uninhabited Aerial Vehicles. Journal of Military Ethics, 2010. 342-368.
  5. The Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their Additional Protocols International Committee of The Red Cross, 1 Jan. 2014, https://www.icrc.org/en/document/geneva-conventions-1949-additional-protocols, Accessed 5 December. 2018
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Should Drones Be Used in War?. (2019, Aug 10). Retrieved July 7, 2022 , from
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