Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) in combat

Examining the controversy related to the use of UAVs with particular focus drawn on the moral implications within the contexts of harm, agency and regulation.

Professorial Dissertation, 2012

14 Pages, Grade: 78


Key issues regarding the co-existence of morality and UAVs

According to Quintana. E (2008: 4-5), the development and use of UAVs is an increasingly attractive prospect for politicians and military commanders, as they offer a high degree of control over the battlefield without placing any members of their own ranks in any danger, and at just a fraction of the price. The very notion of cheap warfare however, may actually promote violence since UAVs provide a practically disposable method of attack (Boyle. M: 2013; 11-19), therefore, the nature of this conflict is deemed by many as a controversial and unfair method of attack- since wars should not be waged on the basis that it is 'easy' to do so (Meisels. T: 2012). Boyle. M (2013: 21) further suggests that deploying UAVs against an enemy without equal firepower[1], is deemed as immoral and disproportionate warfare, since one side may suffer from great aerial disadvantages whilst the other boasts advantages such as the ability to perform reconnaissance missions and acquire air-superiority, all relatively cheaply. This is a somewhat legitimate claim according to McMahan. J (2005: 5-12), as this context of warfare undermines the guidelines of conflict in the principles established by jus in bello which states a war must above all, have distinction, military necessity, no means of evil conduct, fair treatment of prisoners and finally proportionality, in order to preserve morality (Finlay. C: 2013;156-158).

The primary principles of jus in bello in further detail are as follows; 'distinction'- whereby all acts of war are to be directed towards enemy combatants; 'military necessity'- whereby force is to be kept minimalistic and used only to gain military advantage only; no means of 'malum in se' - or 'evil conduct' which prohibits the use of weapons whose effects cannot be directly controlled such as chemical, biological and nuclear; 'fair treatment of prisoners'- prohibits the misconduct of enemy soldiers if captured, and finally; 'proportionality'- attacks should be thoroughly considered so that the harm caused is proportionate to military gain (Finlay. C: 2013;156-158).

This is problematic as each principle is extremely subjective depending on the nature of the conflict. Schulzke. M (2011: 295) argues that the principles, especially those such as proportionality and the use of 'evil conduct' are entirely abstract since there is no independent observer witnessing such conflicts nor is there a universal consensus agreeing on what is 'evil' or 'disproportionate', and that war itself is therefore subjective. For example, the current war in Afghanistan may be deemed as immoral, since it is almost impossible to distinguish the enemy from civilian and almost every confrontation results in the disproportionate use of force in the sense that western military capabilities- such as the use of UAVs, far outweighs that of the opposing militants (Schulzke. M: 2011; 295). However, despite this, the 'war on terrorism' is largely considered as the 'right thing to do' by western states (Boyle. M: 2013; 20-27), possibly because western governments have the required support from the rest of the nation thanks to the 'media hype' involved in up playing the danger of terrorism and hiding much of the horrors of warfare, such as UAV attacks on civilians (McMahan. J: 2005).

A digressing yet important point to make, is that according to Schulzke. M (2011: 295) war itself is subjective as indeed it is difficult to distinguish between acts of war, and public uprisings. For example the conflict currently occurring throughout Syria may well be considered as 'civil-war' through the eyes of citizens from stable countries such as the UK and U.S, yet for countries used to prolonged violence, like many middle eastern states, the difference between rioting and war is very much ambiguous (Schulzke. M: 2011). The implications being that one nations definition of 'war' may not be legitimate or legal in another's.

The issue of culpability is also relevant when discussing the morals of warfare since it is important to know who is accountable for wrong-doings Green. P and Ward. T (2004). During July 2008, one particular drone strike provoked controversy when a US drone strike in Pakistan seemingly disobeyed all the principles of jus in bello when suspected militants were bombed- killing all involved (BBC Online). Later the 'militants' were in fact identified as thirteen women and children. They had just been subject to an unprovoked attack by a US UAV on Pakistani territory without consent from the Pakistani government. This is arguably not a legitimate use of force since they were merely 'suspects' and not definitively identified as militants. According to Green. P and Ward. T (2004: 242) an investigation determining whom is liable should be approved on attacks such as this, yet no single person has been held criminally liable. This use of force is illegitimate in the context of this paper, and this example of a UAV attack could be considered a war crime since it violates international humanitarian law in the form of article twenty-two of the Hague Conventions[2] and as such those liable could be subject to jurisdiction through the International Criminal Court (ICC) and other relevant bodies (Jamieson. R and McEvoy. K: 2005; 505).

Determining whom to blame however, is not particularly straightforward due to the involvement of an entire agency- a concept known as 'organisational deviance' (Green. P and Ward. T: 2004; 242). This concept makes it extremely difficult to place the blame on a single individual or even a single organisation due to the hierarchal structure and nature by which many individuals make an informed decision, such as that to release ordinance from the UAV in the above example. This shall be discussed in more detail throughout the course of this study.

Boyle. M (2013: 21-23) indicates that UAVs are fundamentally contentious based upon the fact that there is a lack of a present pilot and crew. He suggests that militaries using UAVs are more willingly engaging in warfare safe in the knowledge that the only compromise is that of the UAV itself, with no crew in danger. Thus potentially lowering the threshold of jus ad bellum (Strawser. B: 2010; 358) and increasing the likelihood of outbreaks of violence, similar to the incident cited above in Pakistan, and may even lead to unnecessary conflicts (Boyle. M: 2013). Moreover, if a manned aircraft was deployed with the same objective as the UAV, the risk and embarrassment of crew capture and/or killing outweighs the benefits of carrying out the attack. The point being that governments may be more willing to initiate attacks knowing that they face losing only the UAV rather than losing pilots and crew, which would be politically harmful. Additionally, it is 'easier' to kill terrorists rather than having to capture them and deal with all of the legal and evidentiary difficulties associated with giving them a 'fair trial' Boyle. M (2013: 25-26). I suspect the killing of 'alleged' terrorists because it is easier than subjecting them to a due process[3] model of jurisdiction is neither proportionate nor a military necessity, and therefore morally inadequate.

Contrary to Boyle's assessment however, Quintana. E (2008:13-14) argues that the benefits of having the means to cheap, fast and effective control of the battlefield eradicates any 'trivial' arguments surrounding the use of UAVs since after all, a war is being fought and naturally war is not pleasant nor can it be made pleasant. Furthermore, Quintana. E (2008:13-14) suggests UAVs could act as a deterrent instead of a catalyst for conflict as the opposing faction may decide to divert away from conflict with the knowledge that their enemies possess such effective and accomplished weapons. I would assess this to be acutely similar to the reasoning behind stockpiling nuclear weapons, even though there is no immediate intention of using them, they act as an efficient deterrent (Chomsky. N: 2009).

Furthermore, I would suggest the notion whereby the threshold of jus ad bellum is lowered by the use of UAVs (Boyle. M's 2013: 21-23 & Strawser. B: 2010; 358), is in fact superficial in the sense that any development of military technology is done in the notion that it reduces harm to the force using it. Therefore, any improvement to a given military’s capabilities that gives it an advantage over its potential enemies will face the same objection offered here against UAVs.

Distance from the warzone is arguably a factor for discussion. Lt Col Dawkins. J (2005: 27-29) states that as the pilot operating the UAV is potentially thousands of miles away from the warzone, then the entirety of their war is fought from inside a small room filled with computer screens, thus eliminating all the conventional factors of warfare including the emotions linked with war such as fear, pity, remorse and many others. Emotions such as that of fear, speed up human reactions and mental alertness and effectively temporarily enhances a person's mental capacity and this is needed most during a stressful situation (Lt Col Dawkins. J: 2005). Since these emotions are largely eradicated due to the lack of connection to the war, then the accumulation of all these factors, as suggested by Lt Col Dawkins. J (2005), makes piloting a UAV vaguely comparable to playing a computer game (Schulzke.M:2011; 297). Given that we play computer games for our entertainment, it is arguably immoral to share the same emotions engaging with a computer game when in fact human lives are at stake (Schulzke.M:2011; 297). Moreover, emotions make war 'human' and without these human emotions, McMahan. J (2005: 3-4) suggests the morality of war is questioned as decisions may be made irrationally which in turn may lead to mistakes.


[1] This context of drone use is routinely exercised by the US throughout areas such as; Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, and the Philippines, all of which against opponents whom are more than inadequately equipped to wage war against UAVs (Rogers. P: 2004; 121-123)

[2] In this particular instance, even though the strike did not intentionally murder civilians of an occupied territory, it is still debateable whether or not the destruction caused can be justified by military or civilian necessity.

[3] Due process is the model by which a state must respect all of the legal rights that are owed to a person. It is considered to be a 'fair' process whereby the subject is innocent until proven otherwise. (Pati. R: 2009)

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Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) in combat
Examining the controversy related to the use of UAVs with particular focus drawn on the moral implications within the contexts of harm, agency and regulation.
University of Lincoln
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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unmanned, aerial, vehicles, uavs, examining
Quote paper
William Kealey (Author), 2012, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) in combat, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/267118


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