I am idealist enough to admire pacifism. But I’m enough of a realist to believe that if and when the criteria of Just War Theory (JWT) are satisfied and International Law adhered to, war may be necessary, unavoidable, just and moral. I recognize as well, and regret, the brutality that war entails, but I begrudgingly accept that in a just and moral war (one in which JWT’s jus ad bellum criteria have been satisfied and international law adhered to), the use of weaponry to destroy property and to kill and injure human beings can be just and moral as well (again if and only if the JWT’s jus in bello criteria are satisfied and international law adhered to). In this article, I will consider whether one particular weapons system, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), commonly referred to as drones, can satisfy these necessary criteria.
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles
The UAV initially was developed as a surveillance platform with limited weapons capabilities (the MQ-1B “Predator“). As its effectiveness in seeking out and destroying “targets” became apparent, it quickly evolved into a hunter-killer UAV with surveillance capabilities (MQ-9 “Reaper”). Deserving or not, drones have become symbolic of the “Global War on Terror.”
To be precise, and this is important, even the Reaper drone is not a weapon, but a weapons platform for 16 Hellfire missiles or a mixture of various ordnance types, in much the same way that submarines and naval surface vessels are weapons platforms for Tomahawk missiles or other cruise missiles.
Do Drones Cross a Moral Line?
The Criterion of Discrimination – identifying and affording of immunity to noncombatants – is critical to determining the morality and legality of any action and any weapon in war. Given its sophisticated optics and surveillance capability, drone “pilots” can clearly and accurately identify objects only inches wide from more than 15,000 feet. Further, drone pilots have the capability to follow and study in great detail the actions, patterns of behavior, etc. of prospective targets for long periods before initiating a strike. Consequently, drone pilots can make determinations of liability and can discriminate between combatants and innocents even more effectively than a pilot of a manned aircraft or a weapons specialist aboard a vessel. Thus, given its sophisticated discriminatory capability, the careful use of a UAV satisfies the Criterion of Discrimination and lessens the likelihood of collateral damage.
Also of moral and legal concern is the drone’s primary ordnance, the Hellfire missile, a depleted uranium (DU) weapon. While the use of depleted uranium is certainly questionable (in my view illegal and immoral), its use is not unique to UAVs. Tragically, depleted uranium is common in ammunition and ordnance fired from a variety of weapons and weapons platforms, including the Air Force’s A-10 Thunderbolt, the Marine Corps’ AV-8B Harrier, the Army’s Bradley Fighting Vehicle, the AH-1 Cobra helicopter gunship, etc. What is problematic, therefore, and should subsequently be banned as illegal and immoral is not UAVs or tanks or helicopters but depleted uranium, because it violates the basic rules and principles of a range of international humanitarian law regarding “appropriate” weaponry.
Another, perhaps more conceptual, concern regarding the use of UAVs is that drone pilots fire their weapons in total safety thousands of miles from the field of battle. Not only does this strike one as unfair, some have argued that it fundamentally alters the nature of combat, rendering resort to war easier and more likely.
Although perhaps regrettable, an expectation of fairness in the conduct of war is unrealistic and a consequence of a pervasive and insidious mythology intended to make war palatable, even romantic. War is neither fair nor noble. It ceased to be so centuries ago, when armies abandoned the scarlet tunic in favor of camouflage. The standing-exposed linear fighting tactic was eschewed in favor of ambushes and sniping … face-to-face, hand-to-hand combat in favor of long-range, indirect weaponry.
Secondly, if what renders drones immoral and illegal is the safety of the drone pilot launching his Hellfire missiles at great distances from the battlefield, then the same moral and legal criticism is warranted for the naval weapons specialist launching her Tomahawk missiles from submarines and surface vessels at distances of up to 1,500 nautical miles.
Third, there is no moral or legal requirement for equal jeopardy on the battlefield. The United States spends many billions of dollars on weaponry, more than the next 10 nations combined, including Russia, China, Iran, etc., to ensure its fighting advantage and to lessen the vulnerability of its soldiers. The fact that, because of technologically sophisticated weaponry, wars may seem one-sided (unfair) and battles waged with little or no risk to one group of belligerents does not, in and of itself, violate the laws of war. Asymmetrical warfare may be just and moral.
Fourth, “altering” the nature of combat because of technological advances in weaponry is nothing new. Nor is it unique to UAVs. It began with David’s slingshot in his biblical confrontation with Goliath and has progressed through the development of the spear, bow and arrow, musket, rifle, artillery, manned aircraft, etc. The drone is merely the latest expression of humankind’s “ingenuity” in developing even-more-effective means of killing fellow human beings.
Choosing war rather than diplomacy as a means of reconciling differences is a decision of conscience, based not upon the availability of any particular weapons system but upon the moral character and respect for law of our political leaders and citizenry. Recognizing the destructive capability of sophisticated high-tech weaponry ought to make reasonable, moral and law-abiding policy makers and citizens less, not more, likely to choose or support war as an acceptable means of resolving differences.
Finally, whether drones antagonize and subsequently militarize nonterrorists and noninsurgents as some have claimed is not an issue of morality or legality but a practical determination of effective battlefield strategy and tactics.
I fear this article will not be received well by some, perhaps many, of my compatriots in the peace and justice community. I have argued that – like manned aircraft, submarines and surface vessels – UAVs, if they are employed responsibly and carefully, can satisfy JWT’s jus in bello criteria and comply with international law. Consequently, drones are not intrinsically immoral or illegal. To see my arguments as dangerous, perhaps even as sanctioning the killing and destruction associated with the use of drones in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, etc., is to miss the point.
The strident anti-drone activism as practiced by many well-intentioned and thoughtful people, although understandable and laudable, is misdirected. It is motivated, in my view, by legitimate moral and legal outrage with the Global War on Terrorism tactics of targeted assassinations, kill lists, signature strikes, violations of the sovereignty of nations, etc. and a profound sense of helplessness and frustration at being unable to effect change, to have their voices heard. I share this frustration and have argued elsewhere, that drones, as well as other weapons systems, have been and are continuing to be used irresponsibly and indiscriminately in violation of the moral and international laws of war.
By providing clarity and enhancing understanding of UAVs and of the moral and legal guidelines relevant to their use, I hope to refocus the attention and outrage of activists to where it will do the most good and to where it should be – upon the war criminals who make the political and tactical decisions not to wage just war but to commit murder.
Until such time as humankind evolves sufficiently to recognize the horror and futility of war, we must realize that our struggle for peace and sanity is not about drones or cruise missiles or Seal Team Six. It’s about understanding that war is rule-governed and that these rules apply equally to all players, friend or foe. It’s about understanding that the tragic events of September 11, 2001, the development of new weapons technologies and the arrogance and hypocrisy of American exceptionalism do not absolve our political and military leaders of their obligation to abide by the moral and international laws of war, e.g., not to kill noncombatants, not to violate the political sovereignty or territorial integrity of other nations, etc. It’s about transparency. Most importantly, it’s about remaining vigilant and determined that all who violate these rules, whether by the use of drones or any other weapon or tactic, will be held accountable and prosecuted for their crimes against humanity.