The Ethics of Remote Assassination by Autonomous Military Drones

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In recent years, there have been impressive technological advancements of military drones; however, as the number of and usage of drones increases, and the levels of autonomy elevate, so too do public concerns regarding the ethics and morality of unmanned drone strikes. Many of the most commonly articulated ethical concerns stem from confusion and uncertainty regarding the word autonomy itself. Defined simply: autonomy is the ability for a machine to perform a task by itself. Obviously, some machines are more autonomous than others, and many machines only rely on human control for specific tasks. For example, when the trigger of a machine gun trigger is pulled, the rapid firing that results is an automated process, but when the magazine is empty, a human must take control and reload the weapon. Thus, while a machine gun requires a high level of human control to function, it is still considered an autonomous weapon. With this in mind, and especially when considering the use of powerful military weapons such as drones, it is clear why it is essential to define the specific tasks that are being automated, rather than just labeling the entire device as autonomous.

Currently, there are no fully autonomous military drones -- that is, drones that perform all of their tasks and choices without human control --  but the level of drone autonomy is rapidly increasing. Many current critics fear that drones are capable of, or will be soon, instantaneously computing moral judgements and deciding which targets to kill by themselves; however, as of now, that level of autonomy still exists only as science fiction.

 For example, many believe that soldiers must be at serious personal risk in order to possess the moral authority to kill in battle. Other critics highlight a genuine concern that civilian casualties occur, making the use of these weapons immoral for that reason. There is a concern that the detachment associated with a lack of home team casualties will make the military leadership too comfortable using this weaponry with little public complaint.

There are other critics that understand the current status of drones, yet still believe the use of them to be unethical for various reasons. Closer examination reveals however that these concerns are misplaced.  In fact, by several important measures, highly autonomous drones provide not only military and strategic advantages, but are also tools that allow for the waging of war at higher standards of ethics and morality than is possible without them.  

Autonomous drones have been proven to greatly assist in reducing the number of civilian deaths in armed conflict. The key to safe, efficient, and ethical use of autonomous drones will be the careful and deliberate set of instructions that military engineers and high ranking military officials provide them. By programming high levels of autonomy in advance, drones will be able to operate efficiently and without emotional interference, while still adhering to human set guidelines.

Historically, nations have achieved military dominance through various means: superior tactics and strategies; better access to resources; highly-skilled combatants. Technological innovations, too, have provided an important military advantage: from the Roman Ballista, to the English longbow, all the way to the modern assault rifle. New weapons have often brought with them contemporary ethical concerns. Most notably, atomic weaponry especially as man developed horrific weapons within the last century that have not been used in over sixty years because of their capacity to kill huge numbers of civilians. In the case of drones, they too are just a weapon. Just like it is not unethical to use an assault rifle in combat, it is not unethical to use drones; however, it is unethical to abuse the power of drones and violate the Laws of Armed Conflict. While atomic bombs are clearly weapons too, their use is blatantly unethical because of the unavoidable, catastrophically large number casualties that will result from their utilization.

Some critics are concerned about the moral implications of using weapons that put civilians  but not the weapons' operators  at risk. According to the just-war principles, it is better to risk the lives of one's own combatants than the lives of enemy noncombatants, The Christian Century magazine opined. But this moral calculus is completely tossed aside in the case of drone warfare, since drone operators don't risk their lives at all.  With drone operators doing their work in the safety of an office environment close to their homes and families, they are delivering lethal force from behind computer screens to battlefields thousands of miles away.  While it can be seen that this seems somehow unfair, it is not morally wrong.  Aleksandar Fatic argues that the failure to endure hardship or take risks disqualifies the drone operator from the historic military tradition that gives soldiers the moral authority to kill.   The soldier who is literally getting his hands dirty laying anti-personnel mines that subsequently kill children and farmers is not acting in a morally superior fashion whatsoever.  Nor is the pilot who perhaps has some remote risk of being shot down while he drops thousands of pounds of explosives on cities 20,000 feet below, as occurred with alarming civilian casualties during the second world war firebombing of Dresden or Tokyo, a sympathetic claimant to the moral high ground.  The Syrian pilot dropping his payload of chemical weapons on civilians is rightly viewed as committing a war crime.  More to the point, it is the commander of the forces that sends this pilot on this mission that is viewed as the war criminal.

With documented evidence of civilian casualties resulting from drone strikes, concerns have been voiced that these are therefore immoral weapons.  By this measure, there are no moral lethal weapons.   Perhaps that is true, but within the context of military conflict, it is the relative propensity to inflict civilian casualties and death that is relevant.  David Rohde, a New York Times reporter held captive by the Taliban for seven months before escaping in June 2009:

I saw firsthand in North and South Waziristan [in the Pakistani tribal region] that the drone strikes do have a major impact. They generally are accurate. The strikes that went on killed foreign militants or Afghan or Pakistani Taliban around us. There were some civilians killed, but generally the Taliban would greatly exaggerate the number of civilians killed. They inhibited their operations. Taliban leaders were very nervous about being tracked by drones. So they are effective. . . . They do eliminate some top leaders

As compared to other lethal weapons, the rate of civilian casualties from drone attacks is low. The New America Foundation stated in mid-2011 that from 2004 to 2011, 80% of the 2,551 people killed in the strikes were militants. The Foundation stated that 95% of those killed in 2010 were militants and that, as of 2012, 15% of the total people killed by drone strikes were either known civilians or unknown    During the entire Vietnam war, it is estimated that while 444,000 North Vietnamese soldiers were killed, over 625,000 civilians perished in that conflict.  Civilian casualties during the wars in Iraq outnumbered combatants by a wide margin as well.  The organization Iraq Body Count estimates total casualties including combatants at 280,000, of which between 182,000 and 204,000 are civilians, suggesting that two thirds of all deaths were civilian.  If the high end of estimates are accurate, drone attacks have been responsible for 1 civilian death for every 4 combatants. 

Perhaps the most compelling of the arguments that drones are morally problematic weapons is the concern that they make the death and destruction too remote from the public eye, thereby desensitizing the average citizen from the horrors of war.  Argues Mary L. Dudziak, a professor of law, history and political science at the University of Southern California: Drones are a technological step that further isolates the American people from military action, undermining political checks on contemporary warfare, And the isolation of the people, historians of war have argued, helps enable ongoing, endless war.

This is a public policy argument larger than the issue of drones.   Governments have hidden the actions of their military and the resultant death and misery long before drones were invented.  Many years into the military involvement of US soldiers in Vietnam, the truth was kept from the American public, and deliberate management of public perceptions through misinformation and deception remains a reasonable concern.  A new weapon is not inherently morally objectionable if it is associated with this deception.  The political and military leadership that deliberately deceives the public however is.    With the recorded footage created by each drone strike, much like the dashboard cameras and body cameras that civilian police forces are beginning to adopt, accountability is arguable increased with this technology.

Legal frameworks form a useful perspective with which to explore the ethical implications of autonomous drones.   Existing legal standards understand that in the fog of war, humans will do terrible things and mistakes will be made.  The human emotions of fear and anger will naturally play important roles in the conduct of soldiers.   So too will human limitations adversely impact the ability collect, absorb and process information quickly and accurately in the heat of battle.   When judging the actions of military personnel during wartime,  some allowances are necessarily and reasonably made for this unfortunate reality. 

It is the effort to minimize civilian deaths - now referred to euphemistically as collateral damage - that forms the basis of much of the evolving legal and moral framework within which we view the waging of war.  An examination of these new autonomous drones within this framework is important, as their capacity to remove the human element that is the basis of the wiggle room with which we make allowances for the unfortunate inevitable loss of non-combatant lives makes them a morally superior weapon because of the fact that we can hold them to a higher standard than weapons more burdened with human frailties.

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The Ethics of Remote Assassination by Autonomous Military Drones. (2019, Dec 05). Retrieved December 4, 2023 , from

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