By Jacob Weiner
I aim to argue not only that the use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) is morally permissible, but that militaries are morally obligated to employ UAV technology if it is available. The crux of my argument, as supported by the writings of Bradley Jay Strawser, an Assistant Professor at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School, is simple: “If a war is just, we are obligated to protect the just warfighters engaging in it.” The antecedent “if a war is just” may trouble those who are eager to disparage the use of UAVs in contemporary conflicts, for they may wish to assert that the use of UAVs by the U.S. military and CIA has violated the principles of just war. However, it is critical to remember that any act perpetrated as part of an unjust war is inherently unjust, regardless of the sort of military technology used to commit it. If the assassination of, say, American citizen and Al-Qaeda operative Anwar al-Aulaqi in Yemen is part of an unjust conflict, then that assassination is unjust regardless of whether it was executed by a UAV, an F-22 bomber, or gunfire from infantry troops. In other words, in order to have a discussion of the moral permissibility of any sort of military technology, we must assume, from the outset, that the conflict in which the technology is being employed is just; otherwise, the whole discussion is moot, and a commentary on the moral standing of a conflict or an act or war, rather than of UAVs.
The morality of a particular conflict or act of war does not factor into a debate about the moral permissibility of drones generally. In order to discuss the morality of any sort of military technology, it is essential to assume consensus about the moral standing of an act of war; the question of whether a military technology is morally permissible can occur only after agreement has been reached that a conflict or act of war is just. For that reason, I will attempt to say what sorts of conflicts or military acts are justified. I will use certain terms pertaining to a discussion of the ethics of war, sometimes called “just war theory.” These include “jus ad bello,” which is concerned with the conditions under which it is acceptable to enter into a military conflict, and “jus in bello,” which is concerned with determining what sorts of military acts, within a conflict, are justified.
My argument that military commanders have a moral obligation to employ UAVs follows from the idea that “it is wrong to command someone to take on unnecessary potentially lethal risks in an effort to carry out a just action for some good. It is wrong to command someone to take on unnecessary lethal risks in the commission of a just act, so long as there is no strong, countervailing reason to do so. A failure to employ UAV technology, which removes warriors from the immediate danger of a war theater, clearly constitutes ordering a warrior to take on unnecessary lethal risk. The same argument is applied to the use of robotic bomb disposal technology, rather than “hands-on” bomb disposal. Given this premise, the burden of proof falls on those who would argue against the use of UAVs; opponents of UAVs must justify why warriors should take on unnecessary risk.
One objection to the use of UAVs is that remotely controlled weapons systems might reduce a soldier’s capacity to discriminate between legitimate and non-legitimate targets, or between combatants and non-combatants. I agree whole-heartedly that “if using a UAV in place of an inhabited weapon platform in any way whatsoever decreases the ability to adhere to jus in bello principles, then a UAV should not be used.” If a particular technology reduces a warrior’s capacity to behave justly in a theater of war, the use of that technology, no matter how much it might improve the safety of the warrior, cannot be justified. A reduced capacity to behave justly represents one of the aforementioned “strong, countervailing reasons” not to employ a military technology that would reduce the risk to soldiers in a just conflict. Strawser asserts that it is a warrior’s duty to take upon himself additional risks “in order to better shield innocents from harm.” However, it seems unlikely that UAVs actually lead to a greater likelihood of non-combatant deaths; there is significant evidence that the opposite is the case. Strawser, citing a 2010 study by Matthew Fricker and Avery Plaw, reports that in Pakistan between 2004 and 2007 “UAV strikes were far better at non-combatant discrimination than all other methods used used for engaging Taliban fighters in the region.” The study reveals that UAVs had a 17-to-1 ratio of combatant-to-civilian deaths, as compared to a 4-to-1 ratio for Pakistan Special Weapons and Tactics Teams and 3-to-1 for the Pakistan Army. This evidence strongly suggests that UAVs are, in fact, far better than inhabited weapons systems at discriminating between combatant and non-combatant targets.
Another argument posited by critics of UAVs is that UAVs have a tendency to cause cognitive dissonance in their operators; that the spatial distance between the operator and the theater of combat causes a dangerous sense of unreality for the operator that could cause him or her to take unjust or inappropriate actions and could lead to post traumatic stress disorder. In response to the first concern Strawser posits that “the temptation for the warfighter to commit jus in bello violations would actually lessen, perhaps significantly so, once the warfighter is not at risk.” Warfighters are far more likely to behave justly in combat if they do not feel the pressure of their own lives being in danger. Furthermore, since UAV operations are carried out through video and telecommunications, they allow for greater oversight and accountability; a UAV operator’s actions can be overseen and guided in real time by multiple individuals, allowing, for instance, for an operator to seek approval from multiple superiors before making a lethal decision. This level of accountability and scrutiny is unprecedented in warfare, and would presumably lead to more level-headed, just decisions on the part of soldiers. It seems reasonable to assume that the psychiatric risks associated with UAV operation are significantly lesser than those associated with inhabited weapons systems.
Another objection I will address is the idea that UAVs dangerously reduce the jus ad bello threshold; that UAVs reduce the risks of going to war so significantly that, if we implement them, we are much more likely to enter into unjust wars in the future. This objection faces a host of problems. First of all, the same argument can be made against any sort of military technology that creates any degree of combat asymmetry whatsoever; by the same logic, we ought to cease the use of bulletproof vests and helmets because they make us more likely to enter into unjust conflicts. Following this sort of logic, Strawser says, “militaries should intentionally reduce military capabilities in order to make war more costly to them”. While there is no inherent problem in this sort of thinking, it is not really a commentary on the moral permissibility of UAVs, but on the very existence of militaries and military technology; as such, it does not strike at my central claim, which is that we have a moral obligation to protect our just warfighters to the greatest degree possible without limiting their capacity to perform in combat or their capacity to behave justly, and that UAVs do precisely that. What’s more, this reasoning operates according to a very strange moral epistemology, for it essentially asserts that we should behave unjustly in the present (by ordering our warriors to take unnecessary risks) in order to potentially prevent ourselves from behaving unjustly in the future (by entering into unjust conflicts). This reasoning is problematic because it denies a moral certainty (not using UAVs to protect our warriors is certainly wrong) in favor of a moral uncertainty (it is uncertain that using UAVs will cause us to enter in unjust conflicts in the future). Of course, the moral weight of entering into an unjust conflict is significantly greater than the weight of endangering a soldier, but the odds of our entering into future unjust conflicts because of our present use of UAVs seem impossible to calculate. Therefore, we cannot invoke the uncertain (and incalculable) possibility of future injustice to rationalize behaving unjustly in the present.
This piece borrows heavily from the ideas presented in Bradley Jay Strawser’s 2010 article “Moral Predators: The Duty to Employ Uninhabited Aerial Vehicles,” which was published in the Journal of Military Ethics.