THE BLOG

Debating ethics as Obama drones on

Last week, the U.S. military reportedly killed 10 suspected militants at a compound in North Waziristan, Pakistan. No American soldiers were hurt in attack.

Actually, no American soldiers were there.

The person operating the drone, the unmanned aircraft that actually fired the missiles, was likely stationed outside of Las Vegas, Nevada. He's one person in the ranks of a new order of soldier - one who reports to a 12-hour shift fighting Taliban and al-Qaeda insurgents before going home to have dinner with his family.

This is the benefit of robotic weaponry. Since the summer of 2008, drones are reported to have killed about 500 suspected militants including 14 top-tier targets without putting U.S. soldiers in danger. This has been a leading strategy in Pakistan since 2004 and one that's been continued by the Obama Administration.

But while drones can keep troops safe, the same isn't necessarily true for civilians.

"Technology gives you incredible capabilities," says Peter Singer, author of Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century. "But, mistakes still happen. Don't expect technology to be the silver bullet for ethics."

While Congress has never voted to sanction these attacks, the United States has been bombing suspected terrorist camps in Pakistan for years at part of the War on Terror.

The military claims less than 30 civilians have been caught in the crossfire since 2008. But, the media in Pakistan puts estimates closer to 700 in 2009 alone.

The controversial drones seem to have become U.S. President Barack Obama's weapon of choice. Not only has he expanded the range of drone attacks in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen, this slightly over-protective father even threatened the Jonas Brothers - his daughters' favourite band - with strikes at the White House Correspondents Dinner.

The quip drew laughter - maybe because it's rooted in an element of truth. That has made critics wonder if the human cost of this technology has become so desensitized that it's now an acceptable punch-line.

Singer points out that technology has lifted the fog of war. Whereas in the WWII, forces dropped thousands of bombs indiscriminately on cities, advancements in warfare have allowed modern militaries to be more discerning.

"We've changed the bar," says Singer. "We've changed what we can do and our expectations are now of perfection."

The latest development for drones is software that intends to give the robots a conscience. One company called Ethical Architecture, hopes to install a system that allows drones to understand the force of the blast they are carrying while it uses GPS navigation to read the land they have been programmed to attack.

The hope is that they will use information about past attacks by other drones to assess if civilians are in danger. If so, they will override the programming and force humans at the controls to reassess the situation themselves.

This is something Singer warns is nearly impossible as warfare in the 21st century often means enemies are hiding among civilians.

"During Somalia, there was a report of a warrior firing on American soldier and he had two women sitting in front and four kids on top of him. He created a suit of non-combatant armour," he says. "How do you respond? You could spend not hours but days arguing on what's appropriate."

Currently, Pakistan officials average drone attack at about two per week. As evidence emerges that the Times Square car bomber was trained in Pakistan, the CIA has been given a new expanded authority to continue bombing in the tumultuous border region.

"The United States has no interest in engaging or occupying," says Singer.

But these more covert operations - ones with small numbers of troops and little debate - are no less acts of war. As drones slowly replace soldiers in battle, we need to remember that technology does not equal perfection.