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Is drone warfare ethical?

Since the United States began using drones in 2002, several thousand militants have been killed across the Middle East. Through this aggressive campaign, the United States has been able to dramatically reduce the capabilities of terrorist organizations like Al Qaeda. While drone strikes sometimes kill civilians, drones are an effective way to combat militants. There are no other viable options, and the United States should continue to use drones to combat terrorists.

The U.S. should continue its aggressive campaign against terrorism, specifically within the Middle East and North Africa. More than one hundred thousand people since 2000 have died as a result of terrorist-related activities, and there are millions more who are affected by terrorist organizations. For example, many people in Somalia, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya are in constant fear of terrorist organizations. While these terrorist groups may pose minimal threat to the United States currently, if the U.S. does not act, then these groups may grow and reach the potential to attack America. That is a risk the U.S. should try to mitigate.

The best way to carry out such an aggressive campaign against terrorist organizations is to use drones. Other options such as aerial strikes and ground operations are costly and may be less effective. Aerial strikes risk the lives of U.S. personnel and use highly expensive equipment. For example, it costs anywhere from $18,000 to $169,000 per hour to operate a manned aircraft – six to 42 times more expensive than it is to carry out a drone strike. Additionally, since drones are unmanned, the U.S. government may be able to carry out attacks it would not be able to otherwise; the government can take greater risks because it does not have to worry about losing an American pilot.

Moreover, the only other way to attack militants is to deploy boots on the ground. Of the three options presented, this would be the most expensive and most likely to fail. For terrorist organizations it is most likely easier to wage an attack against American troops on the ground than it would be to defend from a U.S. aerial assault. Terrorist organizations can place landmines and use surrounding tribal communities to attack U.S. ground troops, and these tactics become relatively useless when the militants are attacked from the sky. The Iraq and Afghanistan wars illustrate the risks inherent in a ground invasion. In these wars, which cost more than $4 trillion, thousands of American soldiers died through acts of terror or in combat.

Finally, compared to the other options, drones kill few civilians. The government of Pakistan estimated that since 2008, around three percent of all people killed in a drone strike have been civilians. Of course, any innocent civilian dying is appalling, but there will be civilian deaths regardless of which route the U.S. government pursues. If the U.S. decided to use manned aircraft, it is unlikely that the type of weapon would change. If there was some weapon that could be fired from an airplane and had a smaller blast radius, drones would already be using that weapon. Secondly, during the Iraq War alone, more than 500,000 innocent Iraqis died as a result of the war. That number dwarfs the number of civilians killed as a result of drone strikes.

Some people may argue that drone strikes may make more terrorists than they kill because the death of innocent civilians inspires their friends and families to avenge their death. While some terrorism may originate from U.S. drone strikes killing innocent civilians, part of terrorism also comes from poor economic conditions and repressive governments. The U.S. can do little to change both of these factors, so terrorists will continue to exist independent of U.S. actions, and these terrorists will continue to be hostile to the U.S. Part of extreme Islamic jihad that is fundamentally rooted in the hatred of the West because of its secularism.

Others will be critical of drone strikes because someone can sit in a control room thousands of miles away from the attack and kill dozens of people. Those concerns have some merit; however, there is a chain of command that gives the order to fire a drone strike. A similar chain of command would likely be in place if live pilots were conducting the operation. There is virtually no significant difference between drones and manned aircraft.

To protect the United States against future attacks, it is important that our government maintain its use of drones to attack hostile militants. Unfortunately, innocent civilians may die, but compared to the all the other options on the table, using drones is the best option.

Contact Matthew Cohen at mcohen18 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

The future of aircraft seems to lie with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), otherwise known as drones. Everyone from Amazon to drug dealers to activist groups like the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society seems to have found a use for drones, and in the rather near future, even companies wanting to get into the aerial taxi business may rely on drones over human-operated vehicles.

The military hasn’t been blind to this trend, either. Since 1995, the U.S. Air Force has flown what has become the most infamous drone in the skies, General Atomics’ Predator drone. Its younger sibling, the Reaper drone, made its way into our military arsenal in 2007. And even before al-Qaeda attacked us on Sept. 11, 2001, the USAF had been attempting to give the previously unarmed Predator teeth befitting its name.

Undoubtedly, drone warfare will continue to define air-to-surface war in the 21st century. And for legitimate, just uses in legitimate, just war, it should. The problem we face, however, is that we’ve established a precedent with combat drones that makes it all too easy to use them nefariously.

The most salient benefit of using drones in war, besides their comparatively cheap cost as compared to an F-16, is the fact that flying them puts no human operator in harm’s way. Whether conducting reconnaissance over enemy territory or covering the efforts of ground troops, pilotless drones by definition can never put a human operator in a “Behind Enemy Lines” situation. Such a situation befell Moath al-Kasabeh, the Jordanian pilot shot down, captured and savagely murdered by ISIL. Additionally, keeping U.S. pilots out of harm’s way doesn’t seem to have negative impacts on the efficacy of our military operations: Using UAVs to carry out missions can prove more accurate and more cost-effective than comparable missions with our current fleet of fighter jets.

Despite the benefits of using drones for military purposes, their use in as lethal weapons should only take place within the context of a narrowly-focused constitutional war – war declared by Congress and managed by the President that also has a strict, limited focus and a clear, attainable objective.

We should not, however, use drones as a part of nebulous conflicts, like what the War on Terror has become. Doing so only makes it easier for us to entangle ourselves in foreign conflicts we have no business being a part of, and doing so makes it easier for us to turn from a shining city on a hill (a people who lead by example) into the United States Police Force (a people who lead by force). When a U.S. soldier need only walk onto a base in Florida to eliminate a target halfway around the world, the barriers of human cost that can stay our hands in foreign conflicts nearly disappear.

Already, we’ve gotten used to hearing the headlines that our Predator and Reaper drones have taken out groups of “suspected militants” or even former Guantánamo Bay detainees in a strike somewhere in the Middle East, and increasingly in the tumultuous country of Yemen. And though we have a fairly good idea that drone strikes have killed some high-profile terrorists, we cannot ignore the fact that some of those killed by our attacks were innocent civilians, including children. Sometimes, we have even taken out U.S. citizens like Anwar al-Awlaki, who, despite his evilness, remained entitled to the constitutionally guaranteed right to due process at the time of his death. Ultimately, as a task force from the Stimson Center reported this past summer, we’ve reached a point where our use of drones to hunt terrorists seems like “a ‘secret war’ governed by secret laws.”

If we don’t change that soon, then we will run out of time to change a very dangerous precedent – the precedent of saying that anyone killed in a drone strike probably deserved it.

Though the United States now has a near-total monopoly on the use of drones in combat, nothing guarantees that we will continue to do so even until the end of this decade. China, for instance has not ignored the potential for both military and economic benefits producing combat-ready UAVs for themselves and for foreign markets, and the United Kingdom and Israel had already joined the ranks of those with combat drones in service as recently as last year. The next few years could (and likely will) see a proliferation at least of combat drone use, depending on just how marketable the Chinese government decides their drones are.

In justifying how to use those drones, other countries will have only our example to look to. Regardless of who ends up in the crosshairs of the next generation of UAVs developed around the globe – whether drug cartels, separatist factions or freedom fighters – it’s safe to assume that the governments operating the drones will label the dead as “suspected militants” just as we do. It may be easy for us to give the benefit of the doubt to our own military’s explanations, given the residual fear we have from 9/11. But even with that fear, we still have to realize that the same rhetoric may soon come from Tehran, Moscow or Beijing in just a few years. And when we do, we’ll realize too late the damage we’ve caused.

Contact Johnathan Bowes at jbowes ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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