What’s wrong with drones?

[Updated in October 2015]

Preamble: Are drones different?

While some insist that armed unmanned drones are effectively no different from other military aircraft, there are two important differences.  Firstly they can be operated remotely over very great distances via satellite links. While the drones themselves are located near the point of operation, once they are launched, control can be handed over to pilots sitting thousands of miles away. Read more

Are drones compatible with the idea of just war?

This is an edited version of an article by US Catholic theologians Tobias L. Winright and Mark J. Allman that first appeared in the 18th August 2012 edition of the international Catholic weekly, The Tablet  (www.thetablet.co.uk) as Obama’s drone wars: a case to answer.  Recalling that Barack Obama spelt out his commitment to the just war tradition at the outset of his presidency, Winright and Allman, reflect on whether the growing use of armed drones is in fact compatible with the just war tradition.  Reproduced by kind permission of the publishers. Read more

Reflecting on the recent rash of writing on morality and drones

There have been a number of articles published recently on the morality of drone wars, many of them suggesting  that those of us with grave concerns about the growing use of drones have either got it wrong, are confused, or are just plain misguided.

Writing in The Observer, Peter Beaumont posed the question ‘Are drones any more immoral than other weapons of war?‘  After suggesting that “much of what has been written on both sides of the debate on the surrounding moral and legal issues has been ill-informed and confused” he then goes on to give a rather unhelpful summary of the international law arguments surrounding the use of force against non-state actors based on the recent paper ‘The Strategic Context of Lethal Drones’ published by the American Security Project.     Read more

Time for deeper questions about drones

BAE’s Mantis drone on display

This week’s Farnborough Airshow – with its dedicated unmanned systems showcase – will no doubt generate more media stories on the growing use of both civil and military drones. Indeed BAE Systems has hinted that there will be further contracts signed at Farnborough to take forward the joint UK-French Telemos drone and the companies are also looking to the UK and French governments to fund further drone work.  Tom Fillingham of BAE Systems told journalists at recent briefing for journalists:

 “At Farnborough we will also look for a positive indication from the governments that they are willing to allow BAE, Dassault and engine suppliers [Rolls-Royce and Snecma] to work on an 18-month FCAS [Future Combat Air System] demonstrator preparation programme.”

Coincidentally this week  the Defence Secretary, Philip Hammond, is also due to appear before the Defence Select Committee (12 July) for a session examining “topical issues affecting the Ministry of Defence and the Armed Forces” and may well say something either about the Telemos programme specifically or the development of unmanned systems more generally.   

While the Defence Committee will no doubt raise some questions about the costs and affordability of specific programmes, what is really required from MPs on the committee is that they grasp their public accountability role with both hands and investigate whether the growing use of armed drones  is making the UK – and the world – less safe.  While it is important that the committee discusses technical and financial questions about the progress of specific drone programmes, it is equally important that the wider ethical and philosophical questions are addressed.  Perhaps, as some are suggesting, its time to bring the philosophical big guns to bear on the issue of drones?

In a recent Financial Times opinion piece, Michael Ignatieff quotes Immanuel Kant’s argument from 1795 that  “if the consent of the citizens is required in order to decide that war should be declared nothing is more natural than that they would be very cautious in commencing such a poor game”.   The problem now, as Ignatieff points out, (and the Defence Committee needs to explore) is that new technology such as drones and cyberwarfare, “make it easier for democracies to wage war because they eliminate the risk of blood sacrifice that once forced democratic peoples to be prudent.”   

And if it is easier to wage war with drones – what could the global implications be?  According to Sigmund Freud, another 18th Century philosopher – Rousseau – can provide a clue:

 “In his essay ‘Reflections on War and Death’ French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau “asks the reader what he would do if without leaving Paris he could kill, with great profit to himself, an old mandarin in Peking by a mere act of his will. Rousseau implies that he would not give much for the life of the dignitary.” Imagine if great numbers could so exercise their will. What violence would be unleashed, how many prostrate bodies around the globe who never knew what hit them.

 Imagine indeed. It’s not too difficult to see Rousseau’s nightmare already enfleshed in Warizistan and Yemen. 

Defence Select Committee – wider questions

The ongoing questions over physical and psychological distance between those who are targeted by drones and the drone operator also needs to be explored.  Twentieth century philosopher  Heidegger grappled with the concept that modern technology helps us distance ourselves from the reality of the world and, as has already been pointed out, this analysis too should also be brought to bear on the issue.

 This week at Farnborough, the defence companies will no doubt promise us once more that their new military technology will make the world a safer place.  While it’s easy for the press and politicians to be impressed  by shiny new weapons technology, we need to think deeply and carefully about the moral, ethical and global implications of the drone wars and remote warfare.  As Michael Ignatieff said in his piece quoted earlier “These new technologies promise harm without consequence. Kant tells us there is no such thing.”

Drone advocates fight back on legality and ethics

John Brennan, White House Terrorism Adviser

Over the past week there has been what looks like the beginning of a concerted effort by advocates of drones to put their case to the public.

On Monday, Obama’s chief counter-terrorism adviser, John Brennan gave a widely reported speech defending  the use of drone strikes.  Brennan stated that “in full accordance with the law—and in order to prevent terrorist attacks on the United States and to save American lives—the United States Government conducts targeted strikes against specific al-Qa’ida terrorists, sometimes using remotely piloted aircraft, often referred to publicly as drones.”  He argued that the targeted drone strikes on known individuals (he didn’t talk about or even mention the other sort of targeted drone strikes – so called ‘signature strikes’)  were not only “legal” and “ethical” but also “wise”.  (see full transcript of speech here)

Others much more knowledgeable about the intricacies of international law and targeted killing have already critiqued  the speech.  See for example ‘Thoughts on Brennan’s Speech’ by Human Rights First,  and Further Reflections About John Brennan’s Targeted Killing Speech on the ACLU blog.

Although Brennan’s speech received the most coverage, his was not the sole instance of drone supporters making their case this week.

Bill Roggio, editor of the Long War Journal –  seen by many as a kind of unofficial media outlet for those conducting ‘the war on terror’ –  made a rare TV appearance on the US cable news network, C-Span.  Several time Roggio made the point that not speaking about the drones strikes was a “public relations nightmare” and that  “the American public really should have an understanding of what we are doing”.  He argued that the US administration needed to “be more open” and  “we should be making the case as to why we are conducting this program.”

In addition it was reported this week that during a seminar organised by US think tank The Stimson Center, US Air Force Chief of Staff, Gen. Norton Schwartz, went on the offensive  in regard to the ethical questions that surround the use of drones.  As National Defense magazine, put it Schwartz insisted that ethics were ‘not a relevant question’:

“Is it more honorable for us to engage a target from an F-16 or an F-15 [manned fighter] than it is from an MQ-9 [remotely piloted aircraft]? Is that somehow more ethical? .. Oh come on,”  “We have very explicit criteria, rules of engagement, legal standards to engage a whole variety of targets.”   The issue is not whether this is ethical, he said. If a weapon is intended to strike a legitimate target that poses a threat to U.S. forces or allies, “I would argue that the manner in which you engage that target — in close combat or not — is not a terribly relevant question. … If what we’re doing is righteous, and I believe it is, the exact modality is less relevant.”

Of course none of these arguments are new.  But what is interesting is the sudden desire of those advocating or supporting drone strikes to be speaking about the issue in public.  Perhaps there is a feeling they are beginning to losing the argument? Whether this is true or not, those of us challenging the rise of the drone need to respond loudly and clearly.  Speaking of which…..

The Menace of Present and Future Drone Warfare – Richard Falk

Professor Richard Falk

Richard Falk is an international law and international relations scholar who taught at Princeton University for forty years.  In his recent article The Menace of Present and Future Drone Warfare, he places the growing use of drones in their historical and political context.  The full article is highly recommended reading.  Here we excerpt the final paragraphs, reproduced with his kind permission.


The U.S. reliance on attack drones to engage in targeted killing, especially in third countries (Yemen, Somalia, Ethiopia, Pakistan) has raised controversial international law issues of sovereign rights in interaction with lethal acts of war, especially those far removed from the zone of live combat. The increasing reliance on drones during the Obama presidency has produced unintended deaths, civilians in the vicinity of the target and attacks directed at the wrong personnel, as with the NATO helicopter attack that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers who had been deployed near the Afghan border on November 25, 2011, provoking a major international incident (although not a drone attack, it was linked by angered Pakistani officials to similar mis-targeting by drones). There are also unconfirmed reports of drone follow up raids at sites of targeted killing that seem directed at those who mount rescue operations or arrange funerals for prior victims. As with the Bush torture debate the political leadership in Washington has turned for justifications to government lawyers who have responded by developing drone legal briefs that seem somewhat analogous to the notorious Yoo ‘torture memos.’ There are, however, some differences in the two contexts that work against equating the two controversies about post-9/11 war making.

For one thing, torture has a long history, having been practiced by governments for centuries, and its relatively recent prohibition is embedded in a clear norm criminalizing torture that is contained in the International Torture Convention of 1984. Torture is also enumerated as one of the Crimes Against Humanity in the statute of the International Criminal Court. Drone technology adapted to serve as a battlefield weapon is, in contrast, of extremely recent origin. Nothing in international law exists that is comparably specific with respect to drone attacks to the legal repudiation of torture. There is some resemblance between efforts by Obama law officials to stretch the conception of self-defense beyond previously understood limits to justify targeted killing and the Bush lawyers who claimed that water boarding was not torture. Expanding the prior understanding of the legal right of self-defense represents a self-serving reinterpretation of this core international legal norm by the U.S. Government. It seems opportunistic and unpersuasive and seems unlikely to be generally accepted as a reframing of the right of self-defense under international law.

Perhaps, the most important difference between the torture and drone debates has to do with future implications. Although there are some loopholes involving extraordinary rendition and secret CIA operated overseas black sites, torture has been credibly prohibited by President Obama. Beyond this, the repudiation of torture has been understood in a manner that conforms to the general international consensus rather than the narrowed conception insisted upon by the Bush-era legalists. In contrast, drones seem destined to be central to operational planning for future military undertakings of the United States, with sharply escalating appropriations to support both the purchase of increasing numbers and varieties of drone. The government is  engaging in a major research program designed to make drones available for an expanding range of military missions and to serve as the foundation of a revolutionary transformation of the way America will fight future wars. Some of these revolutionary features are already evident: casualty-free military missions; subversion of territorial sovereignty; absence of transparency and accountability; further weakening of political constraints on recourse to war.

Future war scenarios involve attacks by drones swarms, interactive squadrons of drones re-targeting while in a combat zone without human participation, and covert attacks using mini-drones. A further serious concern is the almost certain access to drone technology by private sectors actors. These musings are not science fiction, but well financed undertakings at  or beyond the development stage. It is in these settings especially, where the analogy to nuclear weapons seems most pertinent, and discouraging. Given the amount invested and the anticipated profitability and utility of drones, it may already be too late to interrupt their development, deployment, and expanding sphere of use. Unlike nuclear weaponry, already some 50 countries reportedly possess drones, mainly adapted to surveillance. As with nuclear weaponry, the United States, and other leading political actors, will not agree to comprehensive prohibitions on the use of drones for lethal purposes.

If this line of reasoning is generally correct, there are two likely futures for attack drones: an unregulated dispersion of the weaponry to public and private actors with likely strategic roles undermining traditional international law limits on war making and public order; or a new non-proliferation regime for drones that permits all states to possess and use surveillance drones within sovereign space and allows some states to make discretionary use of drones globally and for attack purposes until a set on constraining regulations can be agreed upon by a list of designated states. That is, drone military technology will perpetuate the two-tier concept of world order that has taken shape in relation to nuclear weapons, and reflects the consensus that both nuclear disarmament and unrestricted proliferation of nuclear weaponry are unacceptable. In this regard, a counter-proliferation regime for drones is a lesser evil, but still an evil.

The technological momentum that has built up in relation to drones is probably too strong to be challenged politically. The military applications are too attractive, the technology is of a cutting edge fantasy quality, the political appeal of war fighting that involves minimum human risk is too great. At the same time, for much of the world this kind of unfolding future delivers a somber message of a terrifying unfolding vulnerability. At present, there seems to be no way to insulate societies from either intrusive and perpetual surveillance or the prospect of targeted killing and devastation conducted from a remote location. It may be contended that such an indictment of drones exaggerates their novelty. Has not the world lived for decades with weapons of mass destruction possessed by a small number of non-accountable governments and deliverable anywhere on the planet in a matter of minutes? This is superficially true, and frightening enough, but the catastrophic quality of nuclear weaponry and its release of atmospheric radioactivity operates as an inhibitor of uncertain reliability, while with drone their comparative inexpensiveness and non-apocalyptic character makes it much easier to drift mindlessly until an unanticipated day of reckoning occurs by which time all possibilities of control will have been long lost.

 As with nuclear weaponry, climate change, and respect for the carrying capacity of the earth, we who are alive at present may be the last who have even the possibility of upholding the life prospects of future generations. It seems late, but still not too late to act responsibly, but we will not be able to make such claims very much longer. Part of the challenge is undoubtedly structural. For most purposes, global governance depends on cooperation among sovereign states, but in matters of war and peace the world order system remains resolutely vertical and under the control of geopolitical actors, perhaps as few as one, who are unwilling to restrict their military activities to the confines of territorial boundaries, but insist on their prerogative to manage coercively the planet as a whole. When it comes to drones the fate of humanity is squeezed between the impotence of state-centric logic and the grandiose schemes of the geopolitical mentality.