Protesters in Pakistan burn a U.S. flag, July 13, 2012. Anti-American sentiment in Pakistan is high due to the continued strikes by American drones aimed at militant targets in tribal areas. (AP Photo)

Drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles, now make up nearly a third of U.S. warplanes. The inventory increased fortyfold in the last eight years, and the Air Force now trains more drone pilots than conventional ones. Drones would appear to be the perfect weapon.

Indeed, if Saint Thomas Aquinas had designed a weapon that would meet the jus in bello requirements — the acceptable conduct for a “just war” — he might have come up with drones. What makes drones close to ideal is how discriminating they are. It is increasingly easy to kill the person you mean to target, with very little “collateral damage.”

And yet, there is something about them that makes some of us uneasy — something horrifying about the idea of killing an enemy half a world away, just by pushing a button, with no physical danger to the operator. It is hard to know whether this unease is moral intuition, or fear about what will happen when the bad guys acquire the same technology and target Americans they consider enemy combatants.

As long as we’re ahead in this technological game, the weapon looks remarkably compliant with the justice-in-war requirements. But it is the nature of weapon systems to proliferate. And ethical questions remain.

A just war must meet two broad requirements: Both the ends (jus ad bellum) and the means (jus in bello) must be just. Drones used to target al Qaeda terrorists would seem to meet both criteria.

But at whom, precisely, do you aim? In the war against al Qaeda, Congress (via the “Authorization to Use Military Force,” passed Sept. 18, 2001) authorized the president to “use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001.” The AUMF specified no geographical area in its broad authorization of force, meaning there is a legal basis for attacking al Qaeda, its affiliates and supporters wherever they may be found.

Most drone strikes have taken place in Pakistan. While the Pakistani government publicly denounces the strikes, operators have allegedly relied on Pakistani intelligence, and the drones have been launched from Pakistani soil, often against enemies of the Pakistani state.

But al Qaeda has far-flung branches, franchises and allies. One can easily imagine the use of drones expanding into many new regions. What about the Malian group Ansar Dine, responsible for destroying historic religious sites in Timbuktu and accused of killing at least 82 Malian soldiers? What about the Nigerian group Boko Haram, which has bombed churches and claims responsibility for 620 deaths in 2012 alone? And what if the individuals are American citizens, as was the case for Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan, both killed in a strike in Yemen on Sept. 30, 2011?

Critics worry that the relatively low cost of using these weapons, especially in terms of American lives, may make conflict both more widespread and more likely. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why majorities in 17 out of 20 countries surveyed by Pew disapproved of the strikes. America is an outlier, Pew found. Sixty-two percent of Americans approve of the use of drones.

Another concern: Will the enemy use broad public opposition to drones as a way to mobilize new recruits? This is a question we must always ask ourselves when evaluating counterterrorism policies. Do the benefits of killing known terrorists exceed the costs of increased mobilization? Recent interviews in Yemen, conducted by the Washington Post, suggest that opposition to the strikes is growing. “The drone strikes have not helped either the United States or Yemen,” said Sultan al-Barakani, a top adviser to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. “Yemen is paying a heavy price, losing its sons. But the Americans are not paying the same price.”

And then there is the question of how good we are at hitting the intended target. Perhaps more than with any other weapon system, the accuracy of a drone is only as good as the intelligence it relies on. In Yemen, political opponents have reportedly been nominating their enemies as legitimate targets, a particularly troubling development.

Further, how good is the technology at pinpointing the target and avoiding those sitting next to him at the dinner table? Early on, while the U.S. government minimized its reporting of civilian casualties, outside observers reported relatively high amounts of “collateral damage.” But the numbers have gone steadily down. According to Scott Shane of The New York Times, even the highest estimate for the percentage of civilian deaths caused by drone strikes in Pakistan is 20 percent, while the Pakistani Army’s recent conventional efforts to root out terrorists in the border regions between Afghanistan and Pakistan caused an estimated 46 percent civilian casualties.

Still, given the inherent limits of the technology, is the target important enough that we will go after him despite knowing that his family or neighbors may be at risk? When that happens, we’re told the president himself decides, but there is still something unseemly about a president admitting that he is responsible for a “kill list.”

Although Congress gave the president a very broad mandate to target al Qaeda and its allies anywhere in the world in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, it is now time for Congress to tighten the authorization. It’s also time to begin a national debate to ensure we are using these weapons in ways that are consistent with our national interests, as well as with the criteria for just war. Drones may be an ideal weapon, but one is left with a puzzling discomfort, wishing there were a saint around to query as to why.

Tags: Middle East, Security

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  • Evan P

    We must consider that the options are not drones vs. no drones, but drones vs. other modern weaponry. The horrifying thing about drones, as the author describes it, is even more true of missiles: ” the idea of killing an enemy half a world away, just by pushing a button, with no physical danger to the operator.”

    The Greeks thought bows were unfair for the same reason–Paris in the Iliad is seen as a wimp because he kills without risking his own life.

    If we’re talking about casualties: a drone pilot has a chance to look at his target, realize that the terrorist training camp has been placed in the middle of a pre-school, and not pull the trigger. A missile can’t make that choice.

    And when you compare the number of American soldiers killed or wounded in Afghanistan to those of a more technologically-balanced war (Vietnam, WWII–or even compare civilian casualties for these same conflicts), I don’t think any American or allied nation wants to see us forgo advanced technology at the cost of lives.

    The real moral issue is this: should we go to war? That’s what should take our consideration and our concern (if you want us to fight fewer wars, and only fight when it’s just, the move should be to put the power of declaring war back into the hands of our hemming-and-hawing legislature instead of one potentially impulsive commander-in-chief). But once we do decide something is worth fighting for, don’t we have a moral imperative to use the safest and most accurate weapons we have to limit the deaths of American soldiers and foreign non-combatants?

  • Allan

    What I most object to with drones is that they are also approved for striking people gathering in suspicious patterns. It is one thing to act decisively against a known enemy. It is quite another to strike without certain knowledge. We are supposed to be the good guys.

  • steve_the_teacher

    Who determines what person or people get to decide who lives and who dies?

    What would we think about a person, group, or state that views our children as legitimate targets of war, that kills our citizens just because they fit a certain “profile”, or that justifies the killing of our civilians. Isn’t this the ideology that we are struggling against?

    As part of President Obama’s war policy, despite the prohibitions of international law, the military targets and kills children under 18 with unmanned drones. Also, as part of his unmanned drone policy, President Obama has asserted the right to target and kill people when data processed by a computer algorithm determines that they fit a “profile.” The Obama administration has justified the hundreds of innocent man, women, children, and infants that US drones have killed as a tragic but acceptable (to us) loss.

    The Obama administration’s use of unmanned drones as weapons of war is a crime against humanity. Many of us who have been working to bring members of the Bush administration to trial for their crimes against humanity are now also working to bring members of the Obama administration to trial for such crimes.