Are the US drone strikes in Pakistan an ethically responsible military strategy despite the civilian casualties?

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones are remotely operated aircraft which can be used to gather intelligence or launch missiles [1]. Since 2004 the US has been using drones for strategic attack missions against militant groups in Pakistan. During this time they have killed over 3,000 targets, approximately 300 of them being civilians [2]. This has led to many ethical concerns as to whether or not these drones have been used responsibly and legally.


Pros of Drone Strikes

Intended targets in these drone strikes are mainly Al-Qaeda and Taliban militants. This is part of the War on Terror (WoT) campaign, started by the US after the September 11th Attacks. In 2013, Obama changed the military focus of the Pakistan operation to strike specific targets rather than engage in all out war. The campaign then became ‘a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America’ as stated by Obama [6]. Due to the improved accuracy and precision of the missiles used by the drones, civilian fatalities were greatly reduced to 8-17% from 40-67% compared to other attacking methods [7]. It can clearly be seen how effective the use of drones was in reducing the number of civilian casualties according to the aforementioned statistics.

The civilians affected by this issue may have a justifiably bad impression of the USA’s use of military drones; however civilian casualties are an unfortunate inevitability of war and an issue which is not exclusive to the use of military drones. One of the main advantages of the drone program is that it reduces the risk to the USA’s military personnel [8]. The drones allow strikes to be carried out from military bases in allied countries whilst being remotely controlled from the US. War is war and human fatalities are inevitable, but drone strikes prevent the chance injury to ground troops or pilots, who would otherwise be risking their lives. There is also a greatly reduced risk of potential mental health issues for the drone pilots we compared to the pilots of traditional aircraft or ground troops. It is estimated that only 4% of drone pilots are at severe risk from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) compared to 12-17% of ground soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan [9].

The critics of the USA’s drone program often cite figures about civilian casualties; however the casualties would be there whether or not the aircraft was manned, so why risk the life of the pilot? It has been proven that the risk of both physical and mental damage to the pilots is greatly reduced by using UAVs. But who is to blame for these civilian casualties? There is nothing intrinsically immoral about the UAV technology; however the ethical issues only arise when the technology is misused. The engineer’s responsibility ends when they have produced the drones and missiles to a certain standard and known degree of accuracy. After this point it is the responsibility of the operators and military leaders to determine which targets are acceptable and that the strikes are carried out in a responsible manner to reduce the risk of civilian casualties.

Cons of Drone Strikes

As there is no risk of capture, UAVs are often used in other nations’ territory.  The United States carries out such operations regularly in Pakistan. Pakistan’s prime minister called the strikes “a continual violation of our territorial integrity”. This puts additional strain on already tense relations between the two countries. UAVs are also increasingly available to other organisations. In fact, Hezbollah has already used its own armed UAV in an incursion into Israel, raising regulatory questions [3].

UAV attacks on Muslim extremists have also led to untold civilian casualties. 90% of fatalities are unintended, and ‘Militant leaders’ only constitute about 2% of fatalities. In spite of this, the US military considers all men killed to have been legitimate targets, unless there is proof to the contrary. Terrorist groups often use such examples as part of their recruitment propaganda [4].

In areas of Pakistan that are affected by these drones strikes, UAVs are heard 24 hours a day and people live in fear of being attacked at any moment. Their lives are paralysed by this constant fear. Meanwhile, the operators of such UAVs are usually far away from the area that is targeted. In doing so, there is a physical and psychological disconnect, and soldiers experience a reduced sense of the horror of war [5].

The US and UK have a key role in determining future regulations. Proper regulations could ensure that other countries do not engage in undesirable attacks in future. Engineers are in a strong position to be able to advise how these regulations should be implemented. They have a responsibility to engage in open discussions with the public and are obliged to act as whistle-blowers if necessary. Engineers working on UAVs also have the power to make airstrikes as accurate as possible, in order to minimise casualties.

Carrying out strikes is likely to result in more terrorism and more violent death. In other words, some lives will be saved by killing terrorist leaders, but more could be lost when the next generation of terrorists take their place. According to utilitarian reasoning, these attacks are clearly not a sensible course of action as they lead to more suffering.

Kant claims that in order to evaluate an ethical action, the consequences if everyone did it must be considered. If everyone used drones in the way the US does, the world would be more lawless and dangerous.

When UAVs are used, there is no transparency concerning the people it is targeting or the risk of civilian casualty. The secretive nature of the attacks means government organisations are thus not held liable to any errors, undermining ethical accountability. Thus, not only is the use of drones immoral, but the nature of their use obfuscates the moral problem in itself.

13: Tsz Woon Chong, Harry Campbell-Dagnall, Duncan Kelly, Amrit Singh, Mustan Singh


9 thoughts on “Are the US drone strikes in Pakistan an ethically responsible military strategy despite the civilian casualties?

  1. I think that that the utilitarian argument applies to both sides of the debate. On the ‘For’ side it limits the pain and suffering of US infantry and soldiers, and conversely on the ‘Against’ side, you have the avoidable deaths of innocent civilians. I am ultimately for the use of drones in warfare, as even though the mass civilian casualties are cited as a con, these casualties would still exist regardless. The figure may be smaller without the use of drones, however by eliminating drones we would still put the lives of countless soldiers under unnecessary peril. Also confusion and miscommunication on the battlefield means that ground troops could also account for a large number of civilian casualties.


  2. Drone use seems the most practical option. If one side in an army can minimise their casualties, then to suggest that they should reject this option, and instead choose to endanger more lives, is a strange suggestion. Not sure how choosing to endanger more people can be seen as the morally favourable option


  3. Fighting violence with violence doesn’t seem to be a good approach. If this fight to extremists leaders is really necessary has yet to be seen.
    Let’s say is necessary, then ok using drones will spare soldiers lives, spare them from mental disorders and reduce hit biases . I agree with Kant view on the matter, that if everyone would use drones as US does, the world will be more dangerous and lawless than it is. As the attacker is not mentally and physically there to experience the ‘horror of war’, killing people will just become a routinary thing to do.


  4. In the context of war/conflicts, I can agree that the use of drones has the advantage of reducing the harm in one of the sides of the conflict, and with the progress in technology, the accuracy of reaching the targets and avoid civil deaths can certainly be improved. However, I don’t think it is legitimate for a country (in this case USA) to decide that it can attack another one and just use their space against the approval from their recognised government. In my opinion it would be crucial to define proper international legislation that regulates the use of this technology.


  5. Also if drones are good for the reasons mentioned above, they are not enough to justify a government to use them in order to violate another country territory.
    And the important point made is that war is in this way underestimated as the use of drones keeps the attacker disconnected from the war environment.


  6. To say that drones essentially benefit soldiers and troops at the cost of lives of thousands of innocent people in the name of ‘war strategum’ seems like a convenient excuse. Although drone technology reduces risk of PTSD significantly for the troops, the fact remains that drone attacks do invade territories and international boundaries, not to mention ruins lives. That being said, to expect the US to relegate use of drones is unrealistic hence tighter legislations are definitely needed, though I say this with just a hint of scepticism.


  7. From a US (or military and government) perspective, as much as drone strikes are illegal technically by international law (the UN Charter clearly states that use or the threat of use of force by States is not allowed) and infringe territorial sovereignty, it is a beneficial to them. Having suffered greatly in Afghanistan and Iraq, Americans are unwilling to send ground troops anywhere (at least officially and in huge numbers), not even Syria, Yemen or Libya. Drone strikes have proven to be useful in the US military arsenal and why should they give it up, particularly at a time now where terror can strike anytime? Unless Pakistan can truly provide full cooperation with the US in eradicating terrorism, Al-Qaeda and the Taliban there, it’s unlikely that drone strikes will be outlawed any time soon.

    From a technological perspective, it is yet another advancement in this field and it won’t be long before machines start replacing human lives in the war zone.

    The issues with both perspectives is the lack of oversight. There is no body, nor a body of law that governs or regulates the use of drones, let alone drone strikes. The US Congress won’t legislate on it because there is divided opinion on this matter, and the US will veto any such attempts at the UN to weaken their military capabilities. Somebody has to give way and allow for a compromise on this grey area of the law but the US will be mindful that allowing room for the law to grow here will mean opening the floodgates to possible lawsuits or even war crime indictments against the US or its President, past and present.

    On a smaller note, humans need to ensure that they have control over the drones at all times. Otherwise, scenes from ‘Eagle Eye’ and ‘Terminator’ might turn into nightmarish realities.


  8. Before reading this, I had not fully considered the ‘pros’ of US drone strikes. Whilst there are certainly many, particularly (in my opinion), the reduced risk of mental health issues arising in troops and pilots, I still take an anti-drone stance. There are civilian casualties in war, but using drones seems to only exacerbate that risk. Soldiers sign up to fight, civilians that don’t live in developed western countries don’t ask to be ‘accidentally’ hit.


  9. One of the crucial issues in the ethical evaluation of drones is one’s definition of war. In a formal sense, the United States is not at war with the vast majority of states in which drone operations take place, and none of these strikes are subject to internationl scrutiny or even domestic Congressional scrutiny (which is unconstitutional by all accounts if we are to count drone killings as ‘warfare’. It can be argued that what the expansion of drone operations under Obama represents is not actually a different approach to ‘war’, but rather a targeted assasination campaign taking place outside of declared battlegrounds, a campaign with Obama as chief executioner, delegating which members of his infamous ‘kill list’ will be the next to face a death without trial. Indeed, civilian casualties are an unfortunate by-product of war. But the drone program is not ‘war’, but a series of extra-judicial executions in breach of international law. Article 51 of the UN charter does allow for use of force without Security Council authorisation, but this refers exclusively to situations of imminent attack, and thus these executions are justified as being pre-emptive ‘signature strikes’ – attacks on individuals thought to be associated with terrorism, or who display ‘terrorist behaviour’. It is essentially killing for pre-crime.

    It is important to take civilian casualties into consideration, regardless of how ‘accurate’ drone strikes are. Official figures of civilian casualties do indeed vary, from US government reports claiming that 80% of victims of raids in Pakistan and Yemen were militants, to data from The Intercept showing that 90% of people killed from drone strikes ‘were not the intended targets’. Due to the secretive nature of the drone program, one can be forgiven for doubting official CIA figures. A particular example revealed by WikiLeaks can justify scepticism of these figures, in which it was revealed that the first drone strike authorised by Obama in Yemen killed 21 women and 14 children, a strike that key figures within the CIA and DoD were quick to blame on Yemeni authorities. Suspects are targeted in their homes, at family gatherings, at weddings, where civilians are bound to be. These forms of attack are directly prohibited by international laws. If a police officer ran into a mall where a suspected murderer was spending an afternoon, or a wedding at which a suspect was a guest, and gunned down half of the shoppers or wedding guests in the process of stopping this suspect (without trial, it should be noted), there would rightly be an outcry. Why the United States militatry and executive personnel within the drone program responsible for the systematic murder of civillians and suspects without trial should be held to any different form of scrutiny is beyond comprehension, particularly at a time when the United States is the self-proclaimed ambassador for liberalism and democracy promoter in the very regions it is targeting is beyond comprehension.

    Drone killing is one of the many parts of the expansion of unaccountable and extra-judicial covert operations under the Obama administration, alongside targeted killings through the unaccountable JSOC, the funding of warlords in parts of East Africa against terror suspects, the expansion of extraordinary rendition black sites and the mass storing of civilian data through the NSA, covert operations all falling under the umbrella of the ‘War On Terror’,justified by various administrations through shifting the parameters and widely-percieved definitions of ‘warfare’.


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