The use of military unmanned systems, commonly known as drones, has begun to be one of those subjects with which a variety of popular and academic commentators have utilised to discuss a range of divergent topics. The number of books that actually focus in granular detail on unmanned systems themselves and the consequences of their use can be counted more or less on one hand. Thankfully Jai Galliott’s work can now be added to that number.
Focusing on ethics, Military Robots: Mapping the Moral Landscape, reviews the relevant arguments for using unmanned systems and examines the key criticisms under the broad lens of just war theory. In many ways the book is an extended dialogue with the Bradley Strawser edited volume ‘Killing by Remote Control: The Ethics of Unmanned Military’ and Christian Enemark’s ‘Armed Drones and the Ethics of War’, both key works but coming from very different perspectives.
Key issues with which Galliott usefully grapples include the implication of reduced risk for users of unmanned systems and whether this in fact transfers risk to non-combatants; the ‘threshold problem’ both at the jus ad bellum and jus in bello levels; and the ethical implication of ‘radical asymmetry’.
Galliott begins by laying out what he argues are the benefits of unmanned systems: “the promise to reduce the human, financial and environmental costs of war” while providing effective and efficient security to the state and its citizens. He disagrees with Strawser’s argument that if there is a moral obligation to use these system (as Strawser suggests), it is grounded in the notion that they reduces the risk of harm to soldiers. Galliott argues any such obligation cannot be grounded in the intrinsic moral worth of soldiers’ lives, but rather in the military-state contract under which “military forces have an obligation to continuously seek to design or embrace advantage conferring weapons technologies.”
In examining the “alluring prospect” that unmanned systems can reduce the risk of warfare Galliott makes two broad points. On the one hand he suggests that the use of drones may not in fact reduce risk to operators as much as claimed. He gives as examples that, prior to being handed over to pilots in the US (and UK) far from the battlefield, the launch and recovery element phase of drone combat drone operations are undertaken from within war zones, and that when armed drones crash (as they often do) special forces are put at risk by being sent in to recover them. However he is mistaken on both counts. US drones launching strikes in Yemen, Somali and Iraq, for example, are launched from Djibouti, Niger and Kuwait respectively, well away from any specific dangers, while rather than risking soldiers to recover downed drones, they are often destroyed by air strikes.
However, building primarily on the work of Martin Shaw, Galliott also suggests that rather than overall risk reduction, what is actually happening is that risk is being transferred from combatants to civilian non-combatants in areas where strikes are taking place. While this is a very important point (and one that anti-drone campaigners have been making for some time), in his exploration of the ethical implication of this he omits one very significant point. That whether by intention or not, this reduction helps to ensure domestic support for current and future military interventions and thus further perpetuates warfare.
Related to this is discussion of the ways in which unmanned systems may be lowering the threshold for war. Galliott rightly examines the issue separately at the ad bellum and in bello levels and his examination of how drones may be eroding the threshold for use of force within a conflict (in bello) by looking at David Grossman’s work – looking at the relationship between killing and physical distance over a centuries long time frame – is particularly interesting.
Elsewhere Galliott reflects on the “inherent complexity of socio-technical systems” pointing out that drones are in fact just one element of a wider intelligence-defence network (what William Arkin in his book on unmanned systems dubs “the Data Machine”) and that this also diminishes personal responsibility. With intelligence specialists, troops on the ground, sensor operators, analysts, lawyers and commanders as well as the operator themselves all involved in missile launch decision, it may be that the operator can become distanced from the actual decision to kill – a version of ‘the problem of many hands’.
In his final chapter, Galliott dips into the wider arguments about the ethical implications of autonomous systems to deny the notion put forward by those seeing to ban such systems, that if autonomous systems commit unjust actions no one can be held responsible. Galliott argues, in what feels like something of a simplistic response, that responsibility can “be distributed amongst human and non-human agents or some combination thereof.”
Despite some disagreements this is a clear and helpful exposition of the main ethical issues arising from the growing use of military unmanned systems. The political, defence and security implications of the rapidly increasing use of military unmanned systems are vast. So too are the ethical implications and this volume is one of a very few that sheds important light on this important aspect.
Slightly adapted from review prepared for Defence Studies Journal