As captured in the final images of this important new documentary, there seem to be at least three different debates going on about drones:
The first is reflected in a recent op-ed titled “Five Ways Obama Could Fix Drones Right Now.” Here, Sarah Holewinski of CIVIC and Larry Lewis, a Center for Naval Analyses researcher whose classified data on drone deaths made headlines a few months back, argue that the US’ drone strike policy is ok on its merits but could be far more humane, both in measures taken to reduce collateral damage and restorative justice for civilians harmed in drone attacks. First, by taking drones out of CIA hands, and letting war-law-trained DOD folks handle the program, the US increases the chances of hitting militants instead of the civilians. Second, in cases where civilians are harmed, the US government could do far more to acknowledge, atone for and make amends for that harm. (Condolence payments would be helpful, but so would mere acknowledgement: the fact that only five Congresspersons showed up to hearing of drone strike survivors who had traveled from Pakistan to brief US policymakers is an embarrassing example of how far the US has to go in this regard.)
This is in stark contrast to a view reflected in this new report co-authored by two human rights heavyweights, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, which suggests that the US drone strike policy itself is probably unethical and illegal irrespective of the collateral damage problem. Even if the US hit only the targets it is aiming for – high-value targets and their associated ‘suspected militants’ – this violates international rules against the arbitrary deprivation of life when undertaken outside a conventional battlefield. The issue here is extrajudicial executions – an issue bigger than Pakistan and bigger than drones.
In even greater contrast to Holewinski/Lewis’ argument is a consortium of NGOs who argue weaponized drones should be banned altogether – whether or not they are used for targeted killings or for lawful military operations. This argument draws on a frame soup of arguments having to do with the psychological costs of “joystick warrioring,” the fear that drones make war easier, the slippery slope toward automated killing, the civilian body count problem, and the general public fear of “flying killer robots,” on top of the opprobrium against targeted killings that this movement shares with the mainstream human rights community. While I do not see this as a campaign that is likely to pick up speed among international elites and result in an actual drone ban anytime soon for several reasons, it is notable that for a large number of civil society organizations the key policy solution is to ban drones altogether rather than use them more lawfully.
In my view, all these arguments have some merit but the most important thing to focus on is the issue of extrajudicial killing, rather than the means used to do it, for two reasons. First, if the US ended its targeted killings policy this would effectively stop the use of weaponized drones in the war on terror, whereas the opposite is not the case; and it would effectively remove the CIA from involvement with drones. It would thus limit weaponized drones to use in regular armed conflicts that might arise in the future, and only at the hands of trained military personnel. If Holewinski and Lewis are right, this will drastically reduce civilian casualties from drones.
Either of the other two approaches don’t really resolve the problem. The “minimize collateral damage” problem rests on the assumption that the only important civilian casualties here are those being hit accidentally, when civilians are being directly targeted by the US in violation of the laws of war and international human rights law. The “ban drones” argument acknowledges the problem of targeted killings, but ironically would allow targeted killings to proceed apace, with concomittant collateral damage, so long as they take place from manned aircraft or ground artillery. Only an approach that puts the blame on targeted killings rather than drones per se will solve the problem as the civilian-protection and anti-drone crowd see it.
In fact it is probably essential to de-link these two problems. The irony then is that the groups making the anti-targeted-killing argument are still making it through the lens of “drones” instead of “stop targeted killing” with drone strikes as but one pernicious example of a wider, more distinct problem. I find this strategy of engaging with the drone debate through drones rather than through the larger problem of which they are an example fascinating, and can’t really explain it. What are your thoughts?
Charli, is there a reason why weaponized drones should not be banned? Is the world a better place with them than it used to be without them? You may be right that a straight ban-drones campaign won’t “pick up speed among international elites” but if not, what does that say about international elites?
By this logic, is there any reason why every weapon should not be banned? In a bellicose world, however, the ethical dilemma is about regulating how violence is used so that it can still be used, but will be used in a way that minimises harm to certain categories of people (such as ‘noncombatants). The claim that drones are so essentially harmful that they cannot be so regulated — the only sound grounds for banning drones in particular — is pretty easily shown to be specious.
Frankly, Simon, I do not see why it would not be desirable to ban all weapons beyond a minimum needed to maintain social order. Even if, in a divided world, military forces are needed to maintain international order, I do not see a compelling need for weaponized drones.
The amount of harm they have done so far is not great in comparison with many other things, but in the future, if many nations acquire and begin to use them in imitation of the US, there is a great potential for mayhem, conflict, and instability.
The next generation of combat drones are represented by the X-47B and its European and Chinese equivalents. These are strategic combat weapons; we are entering a new arms race. They are also intended to be autonomous, and an autonomous weapons arms race is a terrible threat to global and human security.
While it is possible to propose an arms control regime that bans AWS while permitting remotely operated weapons, a ban on both together would be much simpler and easier to verify.
The myriad ways in which weaponised drones offer the potential for more discriminating and ‘precise’ uses of force in comparison to manned combat aircraft are pretty obvious. I’m sure you’ve can think of them. A total ban on drones is not only unrealistic but therefore also blocks us from taking a step towards less harmful ways of fighting wars. The question to me seems to be, how do we realise that potential?
The suggestion that these are ‘strategic combat weapons’ is not particularly compelling. Drones currently and in the foreseeable future will not carry any bombs that other planes don’t already carry, will not be able to go anywhere that other planes can’t already go, and will at best offer incremental improvements upon the manoeuverability already possessed by fighter aircraft. The odd drone here and there may offer a new intelligence-gathering capacity to insurgent groups, but the industrial-scale killing that the US engages in with its drones will be beyond all but the most powerful states.
As for this talk of autonomous weapons systems, I see this as the sort of ethical hurdle that is neither the catastrophe many claim it to be nor something qualitatively new. We already have ‘fire and forget’ missiles. Incorporating increasingly complex targeting systems or other forms of ‘autonomy’ into existing structures of command, control, and oversight will be a challenge, but one that we can surmount by taking it seriously and being mindful of it. Nor do I think that flying terminators capable of near-complete autonomy are a necessary outcome here, for reasons of technological and strategic exigency.
Frankly, I am frustrated by all this attention on the technological qualities of drones because it distracts from what I think is a far more important discussion that we should be having, which is on the legitimacy of the policies concerning the killing of people, often targeted simply for their putatively suspicious behavioural patterns, in various parts of the world where the US is not currently at war. This could be done with manned aircraft, cruise missiles, or with commandos, but in all cases it raises important concerns about sovereignty and humanitarian laws/norms. The fact that these killings are done with remote airplanes is a red herring except in a few ways that are significant mainly to academics like Charli (and me, I guess).
I don’t agree that a ban on weaponized drones is unrealistic, but I recognize that it would be difficult.
I do not agree that drones are more discriminating or precise than manned combat aircraft. Both use the same targeting pods. The small missiles could be launched from manned aircraft, too. Drones are sometimes used for surveillance and targeting assistance to weapons-launching manned aircraft. If a ban on weaponizing the drones would be slightly inconvenient to military forces, this would be a small price to pay for slowing or avoiding a global arms race.
When you say that only the most powerful states will, within a few years, be able to carry out drone strikes by the 100s and 1000s, I don’t know what to say except, you are wrong.
You seem to have missed the point about the next generation of stealthy, autonomous drone jets. They are the strategic weapons; in fact, the planned Long Range Strike Bomber “will be nuclear-capable and potentially have the technological capability to be unmanned.” Just to barely scratch the surface of the AWS black lagoon.
You may fret that people are focusing on the wrong things but, you know, that’s people for ‘ya. Gotta love ’em.
-by unrealistic I mean infeasible
-I’m not sure what you mean by ‘targeting pods’ but the possibility of greater ‘precision’ offered by drones comes from their ability to remain in the air above a target for extended periods of time, collecting targeting intelligence and allowing the pilot to wait for the most opportune time to strike. Manned combat aircraft do not possess this capability. Unusual operations involving multiple aircraft including ‘spy planes’ might enable something a bit like it, but it would be exponentially more expensive and probably still less effective at delivering force with similar discrimination to what drones are currently capable of.
-The apparatus that allows the US to kill with drones at this scale is vast. It is a system, including not only weaponised drones but bases, a small army of technicians, massive intelligence collection, and an ongoing process of diplomatic engagement to get drones their access (at least, in Pakistan, and at least, until quite recently). It is beyond the capacity of most states to develop anything remotely like this. It is also a capacity that is highly dependent upon the nature of the US’s enemies – specifically, that they lack any real ability to shoot down aircraft. I’m trying to anticipate the source of your objections here, but since you are by your own admission incapable of articulating them, you’ll forgive me if I am in any way off the mark?
-You seemed to have missed my point too. Also, you are aware that ‘unmanned’ =/= autonomous, right?
-I am of the opinion that people are capable of adjusting their perspectives and positions in light of good arguments, at least once in a while.
Anyway, thanks for this exchange.
I think if you don’t know what a targeting pod is, google is your friend.
Drones do have the advantage in loiter time, but it is often an unused advantage; tactical fire decisions are made in combat often very quickly. Jets will not loiter, but slower manned planes and choppers can. When a target is stalked for days, it is typically TK. And again, if use of the airspace is legal, the drone can watch, and a manned craft could be called in for a strike.
I’m puzzled by your stance that US use of drones is justified by the helplessness of the victims, but in any case, I will just have to disagree again that drone strikes on the scale the US has been conducting them are beyond the reach of second-tier powers. China is offering drones at a fraction of the US price, and like everything else in high tech the basic capability is going to get cheaper, cheaper, cheaper if we keep going this way.
I don’t get why you think “Calling a manned craft
in for a strike” is such a good idea. It would be more expensive and time
consuming. If a target is being followed and it is decided that the target
should get destroyed why not just let the Drone that is following launch the
missile. Compared with a 500-pound bomb dropped from an F-16, the small missile
that a drone uses has a better chance of not inflicting collateral damage.
The real difference is that the Chinese have no arms export restrictions. So
they’ll basically sell to anyone. However I don’t believe they have sold any
Let me quote from Daniel Byman’s Foreign Affairs article from awhile back;
it is a very good summery: “The Obama
administration relies on
drones for one simple reason: they work. Drone strikes have devastated al Qaeda at little financial cost, at
no risk to U.S. forces, and with fewer civilian casualties than many
alternative methods would have caused.”
Your point about China is wrong. They are not offering drones at “a fraction of
the US price “They may well be somewhat cheaper but not by that a huge sum.
Indeed, they are also probably much less capable than the Predators and Reaper
drones in production in the US and considering that the US is building them at
a much larger scale they may actually be less expensive. Assembly line
production is much cheaper.
The real difference is that the Chinese have no arms
export restrictions. So they’ll basically sell to anyone. However I don’t
believe they have sold any yet, and
they are not operationally tested like US drones.
Drones do loiter a very long time. Yes you are right that “tactical fire
decisions are made in combat often very quickly,” but drones are usually not in
combat, a drone can follow a target for a very long time without incident.
Sending helicopters to do this ridiculous. Why would you risk lives by sending
a slow “manned-aircraft” in, when a drone can do it much better. A
drone can view what is going on with much better detail and take more
time to assess the situation than a fast-flying jet.
On the issue of ‘targeting pods: you should be aware that drones have the equivalent
of a targeting pod. How do you think a drone works… unlike jets it is part of
the drone. Drones are basically flying targeting pods with missiles.
I don’t think you fully understand what a targeting pod. A targeting pod is, in
essence, a camera and some sensors. Drones have this equipment, a targeting pod
doesn’t have to be external on a wing.
Thank you for your thoughtful comments. I will address them point-by-point.
1. I agree that having drones armed is convenient for military forces. That is why it is done. However, the inconvenience of having to launch weapons from manned platforms only, particularly in uncontested skies, would be small in comparison with the benefits of a ban on armed unmanned vehicles (other than munitions).
2. There is nothing about unmanned aircraft that makes them uniquely capable of launching small missiles.
3. The claim that drone strikes have devastated al Qaeda is dubious and highly controversial.
4. Sorry I don’t have numbers on hand but China is offering drones comparable to Predator and Reaper at a fraction of the US price. They may not perform as well — yet. But that may not matter much to many customers, if they decide they want to engage in the same kind of remote-control rub-outs as the US does. Interestingly, that does not seem to have happened yet. There may still be time to prevent it!
But if we fail to do so, China will undoubtedly sell a lot of drones, even if they have not yet.
Again, thank you for thoughtful remarks.
I remove my comment about targeting pods. I mis read you as saying that only manned aircraft have them… Pardon me, I should have been more careful.
Mark: Yes, I think there are reasons, but that is not the point of my post. The point is that even if that goal is laudable and could be achieved, it’s probably a distraction from a bigger issue which in my view is targeted killings.
So, drones don’t kill people…?
I’m all for targeting targeted killing, but drones make a good target too. Better, I actually think, but why not shoot at both?
Besides, if you’re not going to TK, what are armed drones for?
It seems to me any policy of extra judicial execution has serious moral problems as does any weapon system that has collateral damage.
It seems to me that begging the question is a morally problematic way of engaging with complex policy issues, and that virtually all technologies of war, including social technologies such as ‘armies’, pose the risk of causing ‘collateral damage’. Hence the vast literature on the morality of going to war and of particular uses of force while fighting a war.