Thursday, December 29, 2011

Drone Wars

The dramatic increase in use of drones to carry out attacks against terrorists in remote locations--in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia in particular--has brought forward a debate about the morality and future of this form of unmanned warfare.

In its capability to destroy at a distance without much risk to the attacker, it is not that different from missile attacks, which are in turn a direct descendant of artillery fire. Because the remote-control attacker can see the targets at fairly close range before firing, it would seem to have the potential to reduce collateral damage and civilian casualties, a potential upon which today's vague or nonexistent statistics don't convince, one way or the other.

I think that the criticism from some left-wing sources that drones are immoral because they bring no risk for the attackers is wrongheaded. Similarly, I dismiss the argument about how our use of them subjects us to what would be "totally unacceptable" counterattack by other nations' drones sometime in the future. These methods only work because of aerial superiority; they wouldn't be that hard for a defender with strong anti-aircraft or counterforce capability to take out. We are no more wrong to use these forces than we would be to take advantage of our aerial superiority to attack with bombers, cruise missiles, or long-range artillery. So I don't see a qualitative difference in the morality of their use.

Still, like mustard gas, nuclear weapons, or biological weapons, these new capabilities have dangerous implications for the future, and their use could eventually make conflicts more likely and resulting in more casualties. It is not appropriate that the US military may refuse to acknowledge the methods that it uses, or to provide its citizens with data documenting their effectiveness (or lack thereof). I also think that the international community has every reason to seek to regulate their use; I do not know where the discussion will lead--though I think it unrealistic to think there will be universal agreement to ban their use, or that such a ban would be effective--but I think the discussion should be opened, and that we should not be ashamed or furtive about participating in it.

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