Peaceniks Should Love Murder Drones, Say Drone Enthusiasts


For the month of January, Cato Unbound is probing the West's use of murder drones. The lead essay is by Notre Dame's David Cortwright, who begins by asking "whether drone technology makes war more likely."

Are decisionmakers more prone to employ military force if they have accurate weapons that are easier to use and do not risk the lives of their service members? The use of these weapons creates the false impression that war can be fought cheaply and at lower risk. They transform the very meaning of war from an act of national sacrifice and mobilization to a distant almost unnoticeable process of robotic strikes against a secretive "kill list." Do these factors lower the political threshold for going to war?

….[T]he availability of a particular class of weaponry can influence judgments on the likely costs and viability of military action. U.S. political leaders are able to imagine intervening militarily in other countries because they have advanced weapons systems designed for that purpose.[6] The possession of drone technology increases the temptation to intervene because it removes the risks associated with putting boots on the ground or bombing indiscriminately from the air. Drone systems are "seductive," writes law professor Mary Ellen O'Connell, because they lower the political and psychological barriers to killing.[7] They induce a false faith in the efficacy and morality of armed attack that could create a greater readiness to use force.

A March 2011 report from the Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre of the U.K. Ministry of Defence concluded that the availability of drone weapons was indeed a factor in the decision of British leaders to participate in military operations in Pakistan and Yemen. In its study the Center found that manned aircraft and commando raids could have been used for the selected missions but were rejected as too risky. The decision to use force was "totally a function of the existence of an unmanned capability—it is unlikely that a similar scale of force would be used if this capability were not available." The report urged "removing some of the horror" of these weapons so that "we do not risk losing our controlling humanity and make war more likely."[8]

Drone enthusiasts Benjamin Wittes and Ritikia Singh filed the first response

To lay the matter bare, Cortright objects to military robotics because the field offers effective weaponry that keeps our forces safer while enhancing their lethality and targeting precision with respect to the enemy—the combination of which invites use. In other words, he objects to precisely what any operational commander would find attractive about drones.

As drones become smaller, more lethal, and more autonomous, they do present unique challenges. But it is very wrong to think about their novelty, as Cortright seems to, as all or mostly bad. Indeed, the field of robotics offers huge advantages both from the point of view of the effectiveness of military operations and from the point of view of human rights. On the military effectiveness side of the ledger, the logic of developments in weaponry that increase one's own lethality—allowing targeting at the highly individualized level—while protecting one's forces, may not persuade Cortright, a professor of peace studies, but it will tend to move commanders who have missions to accomplish and who have a fundamental obligation to their own troops not to expose them to undue risk.

Cortwright, "a professor of peace studies," is concerned that making war "cheaper is deeply troubling. It reduces the political inhibitions against the use of deadly violence. It threatens to weaken the moral presumption against the use of force that is at the heart of the just war doctrine." Wittes and Singh maneuver around this concern by arguing that people like Cortwright should be embracing drones: 

The United States is not going to take a hands-off approach to states like Pakistan and Yemen, where law enforcement is not a feasible option. Drone warfare permits a highly calibrated military response to situations in which the alternative may involve not lesser but far greater uses of military violence. This is a good trade. Conversely, drones also allow militaries to contemplate certain humanitarian interventions where they might never contemplate risking actual forces; consider whether the recent NATO Libyan intervention—which probably saved a considerable number of lives—would have been politically possible had U.S. forces been seriously at risk.

[W]hile the rise of drone warfare has changed the face of American counterterrorism efforts and promises far greater change in years to come, this does not present the simple and terrible moral equation that Cortright describes. What began as a surveillance tool that could, on occasion, deliver lethal force, has evolved in a short space of time into a principal means of following enemy forces onto territory in which the United States is reluctant to put large numbers of boots on the ground—and striking at them there in a limited fashion that protects innocent civilians to an unprecedented level.

Wittes' argument for drones makes perfect sense if one zeroes out the scale with the assumption that the U.S. is entitled to drop bombs whever it wants. Assessing the merits of the claim that "the United States is not going to take a hands-off approach" to country XYZ will presumably have to wait for another Cato Unbound series.