Military Drones and the Ethics of Warfare

On Aug. 27, at least six people died in a U.S. drone attack in the South Waziristan tribal region of Pakistan. According to the Associated Press, two missiles were fired at a militant hideout. Nine others were reportedly injured.

The unmanned missile strike, the fourth reported by the media last month, is the latest in a long line of attacks from remotely piloted aircraft. More than eight years into the war in Afghanistan, the military and CIA are increasingly relying on drones and robotic ground vehicles to fight an elusive and dangerous enemy on rough terrain. These weapons have an advantage over manned platforms because they can fearlessly fly through heavy anti-aircraft fire, defuse roadside bombs or be the first to go through the door of a building where insurgents might be hiding. And if they happen to meet an untimely demise, the commanders who sent them into battle don't have to write condolence letters to bereaved family members back home.

On the face of it, using drones and robotics to perform hazardous missions in a war zone is a good idea: kill the insurgents while minimizing the risk to our own soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines. But, as these robots become more ubiquitous, they are raising questions about the role of humans in warfare. Split-second, life-and-death decisions are being made by people who are half a world away looking at the battlefield through laptops and computer screens. Combat troops can now physically remove themselves from the fight and even kill without putting their own lives on the line, thus limiting the number of American casualties we see on the cable channels and nightly news casts.

As the Pentagon gets better at shielding its people from danger, these new technologies are divesting us from the personal risk we take when we deploy forces, potentially making it easier for us to go to war and stay there. And, though keeping our troops safe is a noble goal, if there is no risk to our mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers, will we be emotionally invested enough in the act of making war?

Part of the answer to these questions lies in the experiences of Vietnam. Both the draft and the war officially ended in 1973, marking the beginning of what has come to be known as the "all-volunteer" force. As compulsory military service was phased out, the job of defending the borders and values of the United States fell disproportionately to minorities and those from lower-income families. With each passing decade, fewer and fewer Americans are related to or know someone in uniform.

If ending the draft has made it more difficult for the average American to connect to the human costs of war, drones push us even further away from being invested in the conflicts being fought in our name. With less than three million people serving today, the number of Americans on the front lines is already less than one percent of the country's population. If only a few bear the personal cost of going to war, we the people become less engaged in making sure that the war is worth fighting.

"The end of the draft was an important factor," says David Segal, a military sociologist at the University of Maryland. "While President Johnson tried very hard to avoid reminding the American people that we were in a very large war, the fact that we kept drafting 18-year-old men and shipping them off to war and getting 50,000 some odd of them killed did bring the war home to the American public. And when we converted to a volunteer force, we lost that thread that plays the role of weaving the military into the fabric of American society, the citizen soldiers."

Determined not to be drawn into another war without civilian support, the Army began reorganizing itself so that citizen soldiers would have to be called up if the service was going to be called upon to deploy troops. Certain logistics and truck companies that performed integral combat functions were shifted to the National Guard and Reserve. If a president decides to send a division, he's by definition pulling fathers from Little League practice, daughters from their day jobs and disrupting the lives of everyone in between. And, for the most part, at least for now, he's putting the troops he deploys at risk for injury and death - a concept that is supposed to make us more thoughtful about whether combat is the answer to whatever problem we're facing.

Drones, by definition, work against this strategy. When a society is deciding whether it should go to war, four main criteria drive support and opposition, according to Eric Larson, a senior researcher at RAND, a non-partisan think tank that works extensively on military issues. These factors include: the importance of the mission, the likelihood of success, the anticipated number of casualties and the level of consensus among policy makers and national leaders.

While just one part of the equation, casualties can take on a bigger role in determining public opinion because they are the most tangible and heavily reported aspect of war. They are easily quantifiable when compared to talking about things like how well the reconstruction of Iraq is going. We know that precisely 4,327 servicemen and women have died in Iraq since the March 2003 invasion. How well we've been able to rebuild the country is a question that's up for debate. The steady stream of combat casualties, combined with a crumbling faith in why the United States went to war in the first place, has undermined public support for the war.

"There's a greater willingness to accept casualties when the perceived stakes are viewed as critically important and a greater willingness to accept casualties when the prospects for success look pretty good, that it's going to be a successful outcome," Larson said. "There's a much lower willingness to accept casualties when the mission or the objectives or the perceptions of stakes is lower or expectations that we will be successful are that much lower."

On the flip side, if the public isn't concerned about casualties - or if they body count is low - because unmanned vehicles are mitigating the risks, that could keep public opinion on the side of war. This is not lost on the lawmakers and other policy makers in Washington, D.C., who are pouring billions into researching, building and deploying unmanned technologies. In 2009 alone, the Pentagon will spend upwards of $4.5 billion on these systems, and plans to spend at least $21 billion over the next five years, according to estimates.

And thanks to those kinds of funding levels, the number of and use of unmanned vehicles in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan continues to rise. In 2000, the Navy's unmanned air vehicle fleet flew about 2,000 flight hours. In 2008, that number jumped to 168,000 flight hours, but it still wasn't enough. The Navy had to pay Boeing to supply another 27,000 hours to support operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Air Force has also seen large growth in the unmanned vehicles arena. Its main attack drone, the Predator, flew about 50,000 hours in 2006. Service officials estimate the aircraft and its bigger cousin, the Reaper, will fly more than 228,000 hours this year.

The Army's numbers tell a similar story. The service had no tactical robots to deploy to Southwest Asia in 2001. Between 2003 and 2004, the first 162 robots showed up in Iraq to help soldiers diffuse roadside bombs. At the time, the number of purchase orders grew so rapidly that robot manufacturers couldn't keep up. "We didn't even have a single contractor who could produce all 162 so we had to spread that activity around between five different contractors," said Jim Overholt, director of the Army's Tank Automotive Research Development and Engineering Center in Warren, Mich. Today, there are more than 6,000 unmanned ground vehicles helping soldiers across the globe with improvised explosive device removal, reconnaissance, route clearance and surveillance.

The rate at which these systems are maturing has fueled expectations that drones will eventually be able to do anything and everything the Defense Department wants them to do with or without a human directing it. There will come a time, military experts say, when it's technically feasible for a drone aircraft to take off from an air base or charge across a mountain landscape without being flown or driven by an operator sitting at the controls.

Granted, how "unmanned" the armed forces will become in the future is up for debate. Ask 50 military experts, and you'll get 50 different answers. Some say the military will never, on a percentage basis, get to a point where the drones outnumber the humans and that soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines will always be a part of the fight even if they're physically separated from it by oceans and deserts. Others tell you the majority of the combat force across all of the services will be unmanned in less than 40 years. The remaining personnel will become "systems operators" and their sole function will be to keep the machines in working order. Most agree, however, that we are moving towards a military with fewer manned platforms and more automated systems, which is a trend that's likely to continue for several decades, if not forever. Col. Eric Mathewson, the officer in charge of the Air Force's unmanned vehicles task force, predicts that the military will have fully automated systems in 50 years.

"Automation is truly the revolution," Mathewson says. That means a computer onboard the aircraft (or in the tank or on the ship) is performing all of the functions human operators would normally do, including employing weapons.

The Army is developing algorithms and software so that their unmanned ground vehicles can map out and drive through terrain without a human in the loop. The goal is to build a variety of vehicles that can perform several different functions including medical evacuation, route clearance and logistics support. In Iraq, service officials have used unmanned systems that can employ lethal force. The Special Weapon Observation Reconnaissance and Direct-Action System (or SWORDS) is not autonomous, but the 200-pound remotely operated ground vehicle has a camera and either machine gun or rifle affixed to its top. The Navy has the Fire Scout, an autonomous helicopter used for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions.

As the military moves towards automated systems, especially those that can drop a bomb or shoot a gun, the prospect of machine-dominated warfare furthers the fear that we as a society may become too disassociated with combat. How robots and unmanned systems will affect a society's willingness to go to war is a question that military analysts and researchers are struggling to answer, but the logic seems simple enough. The fewer the troops that have to go into harms way, the fewer the number of combat deaths and injuries. The fewer the number of deaths and injuries, the less collective grief we feel. War all of the sudden becomes more palatable.

Military experts like Alex Roland, a history professor at Duke University, say that fighting war from a distance - and therefore with impunity - will undermine the moral high ground that a society must seek when it uses force to settle a dispute.

"War is a human and social activity in which the participants agree upon a set of rules under which they can do what they would never do in normal peace time circumstances, that is threaten or take other lives legally," Roland says. "One of the reasons states agree to do that is that both of them agree to put themselves at risk at the same time. They're threatening legal violence against each other, and if one state can say to another state, 'I'm going to expose you to lethal violence, but I'm not going to expose myself to any,' it kind of changes the calculus of whether that's a reasonable social bargain, and I think lots of people would feel there's something mildly distasteful about it."