Remote Killing and Victory in War

by DR DAVID WHETHAM

I have noted elsewhere that while drones (or RPAS – Remotely Piloted Air Vehicles – as the military prefer to call them) receive a lot of bad press, a lot of this is actually to do with one specific role they are associated with – targeted killing. When used alongside other military tools in support of more conventional (and less contentious) military operations, however, it would be churlish not to acknowledge that drone technology offers a whole range of military advantages that can be genuinely welcomed from an ethical perspective. While not always given the prominence it deserves, the lives of friendly aircrew are not being placed at risk in order to carry out their missions.

This has got to be a welcome development from a force protection angle, let alone considerations of their friends and families. When used appropriately, advanced drones such as the Reaper can also deploy munitions significantly more accurately than nearly any other type of military platform, allowing smaller warheads to achieve the same effect, resulting in less death and destruction to any innocent bystanders who may not have made themselves liable to harm. Precisely because their own lives are not at risk, drone operators are also afforded a much less pressured decision-making environment, allowing time and space for consideration that is radically different to that experienced by soldiers on the ground or even pilots in hostile airspace. The ability to remain cool, calm and detached arguably allows better decisions to be taken in the heat of battle, further improving accuracy and reducing the risk to civilian life.

However, for all of the (often underreported) advantages offered by such new technology, one of the on-going concerns relates to how an increasing reliance on such remote military tools may affect decisions about the resort to force in the first place. The lower political cost that appears to be attached to using drones due to the expectation of reduced collateral damage and no worry about body bags returning home to upset the domestic public, means that drones appear to offer policy makers an option for direct action that would simply not be present, or at least realistic, using more conventional tools in the military toolbox. Does this increase the probability of using war, a tool that should always be a last resort, so that it becomes a first or at least early response to certain types of crisis instead?

As students of Clausewitz often remind us, war is the continuation of politics with an admixture of other means. All decisions and actions within a war need to be considered in this light. New generations of standoff weapons may simply telegraph to our opponents our ability to kill but little or no willingness to die for our causes. If we are not really committed to the cause, then it would seem that technological advantages might actually therefore be sending a message of a fundamental lack of resolve to see an issue through to the end. If we’re not really prepared to risk anything, then doesn’t that send the message that we can be easily derailed from our political objective? Perceiving a lack of will, why would opponents not seek to just ‘ride it out’ or instead seek to raise the political cost by attacking elsewhere in the soft underbelly of democracies in order to change policy?

Drones are currently employed in combination with, rather than as a straightforward replacement for, many other types of military asset in theatre. The concern expressed here is related to military operations that might rely heavily or even exclusively on such tools in the future. The ability to conduct standoff wars in a way that minimizes risks to non-combatants and eliminates it for our own combatants might well lower the political threshold to employing military force, making the occurrence of war more frequent. At the same time, it might also make those conflicts more difficult to resolve due to the lack of will to put our own people in harm’s way when required.

Image: A Royal Air Force Reaper RPAS (Remotely Piloted Air System) at Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan.

4 thoughts on “Remote Killing and Victory in War

  1. Is the use of RPAS ethically just an extension of the use of strategic bombers – which were expected to succeed by devastating essentially “civilian” targets with little loss to themselves ? Yes, their crews were in harms way but the early theorists did not expect them to suffer significant casualties (experience obviously proved otherwise) and some of the other arguments sound the same – bombers would ultimately save lives by forcing the other side to capitulate more quickly, etc. So can the use of RPAS be looked at through that lens too ? I agree they have a lot of other uses, and I think the point about signalling commitment to a conflict is important, but wonder if we have been here before ?

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  2. In reality RPAS is just another military tool to be used for good or ill, unjustly or ethically. It’s a logical extension of the remoting of killing which started with spears, bows and arrows and muskets and now has long range artillery, cruise missiles and ‘drones’. It’s all about the ethics of military action and the rules of engagement.

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    1. I heartily agree, Drew. As Mark also alludes to above, stand off weaponry is a spectrum, from the thrown rock at one end, through to a remotely piloted drones at the other. It is how they are used that makes the real difference. To condemn drones out of hand or say they are inherently evil would be met by some bemusement by someone who’s life has been saved by accurate and discriminate close air support delivered by a Reaper. However, just like the humble machete, there are also many immoral ways to use them. The specific concerns I refer to above focus on the implications of being seen to be overly reliant on them.

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  3. “The ability to conduct standoff wars in a way that minimizes risks to non-combatants and eliminates it for our own combatants might well lower the political threshold to employing military force, making the occurrence of war more frequent.”

    Soldiers always want to wage war at standoff distances, and since the beginning of the airpower age, they have given lots of lip service to minimizing risks to non-combatants. “Concern” for the innocents the bombs may fall on helps seal the deal with the pols, and makes the public at large feel OK about the war du jour, provided they even know one is going on. The reality, of course, is that soldiers are in the business of engaging the enemy and destroying it (sometimes just its will) in the first, most effective, and then second, most efficient, ways possible. ROE, moral debates, etc, about drones are for the JAG (to fry the soldier for his decision after the fact), the PAO, and internal and external political opponents of the war. Drones therefore really are a panacea for all. The soldiers can lean toward efficiency (tho’ most likely not effectivness in killing the bad guys) in the age of budget constraints that really don’t exis, the JAG can come up with all kinds of putatively humane ROE and the PAO can share them with the world (”look at us: we really are decently going about killing you”), the external oppostion can claim that every drone strike was on a wedding or school full of 9-y.o. girls, and the internal opposition can be shocked and appalled at their wanton use (either the immoral one, or the one in which they replace “boots on the ground”) until they are in charge. So, regarding drones “making the occurrence of war more frequent,” I’m not sure how we parse out the coincidence, causation, and correlation, but I know for certain soldiers aren’t going to stop using them, and neither will the pols.

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