Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones are remotely operated aircraft which can be used to gather intelligence or launch missiles . 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 . 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 . 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 . 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 . 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 .
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 .
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 .
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 .
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