The increased use of unmanned aerial vehicles — better known as drones — to fight the war on terrorism has raised many questions about whether the high-tech weapons’ potential costs outweigh their in- tended benefits. 

Drones, which are armed with lethal missiles and piloted remotely from U.S. Air Force bases and CIA headquarters, have been employed by the United States in efforts to combat al-Qaida and Taliban forces since 2001. Their use has become increasingly prevalent in recent years, expanding from Afghanistan to include Iraq, Somalia and Pakistan.

Reports indicate that drone flights over Iraq and Afghanistan have soared since 2006, while CIA-operated strikes in Pakistan have continued to climb. A February 2010 study by the New America Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank, reported that there have been 142 drone strikes in Pakistan since 2004, with total deaths ranging from low estimates of 1,013 to as high as 1,536. 

But as news of drone strikes becomes more frequent, so too does the concern being voiced over their use. Reports on the number of civilian deaths at the hands of drones have varied greatly, and although no official numbers have been released, some experts have estimated that as many as 50 unintended targets have been killed for each successful attack against a militant leader. 

Just another weapon? 

Military ethicist Jim Toner told Our Sunday Visitor that drones can be evaluated under the same criteria as any other weapon and that, provided they are used within the laws of warfare, the unmanned vehicles themselves are not necessarily problematic. 

“If drones are being employed against legitimate military targets, I would say their use would be acceptable from a Catholic perspective,” said Toner, a political science professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, Conn. “But if they are being used in a way that raises legitimate questions about those being targeted, then their use would be illicit and immoral.” 

Others argue, however, that drones are far from being just another weapon of warfare. Mary Ellen O’Connell, professor of law and international dispute resolution at the University of Notre Dame, said that with operators often being thousands of miles away from the battlefield, it completely changes the dynamics of making informed ethical decisions in accordance with the laws of armed conflict. 

O’Connell told OSV that in combat soldiers are trained to take into account issues of law, morality and humanity before taking the life of an enemy. But there are serious concerns about remote operators — whose experience of controlling drones more closely resembles a video game than actual combat — being able to make those same assessments. 

“Someone sitting at a computer terminal using a joystick … may regard the target on the screen as just a speck and not a human being,” O’Connell said. 

The result, she told OSV, could be a greater propensity for the drone operator to kill than a person who is physically on the battlefield. 

“We have good studies that show the more removed a person is from the act of killing — in every sense of that word, removed — the easier it is for him or her to take a human life,” she said. 

Civilian safety 

Proponents of drones, however, argue that the ability to remotely pilot the vehicles is their greatest value. When a drone is shot down there are no casualties, and sending drones to seek out enemies in the difficult-to-navigate terrain of Afghanistan and Pakistan avoids putting the lives of many American soldiers at risk. 

But according to Jesuit Father David Hollenbach, director of Boston College’s Center for Human Rights and International Justice, the safety of American troops is not the issue when it comes to weighing the ethics of drone strikes. 

“You have to assess this in terms of what it is doing to the potentially innocent civilians that are in the vicinity, and that’s where you’ve got to get into some very severe restrictions on the use of drones,” Father Hollenbach told OSV. 

Father Hollenbach argues that drone use must be carefully evaluated on a case-by-case basis, taking into consideration the level of certainty that the target poses a threat to the United States, any possible civilian casualties and the potential to create insurgents. 

“If you alienate the civilian population then you may turn larger numbers of people against you than you have successfully resisted,” he told OSV. “That’s one of the reasons for the highly restrictive rules of engagement that are operating in Afghanistan right now, and the question is whether similar careful rules of engagement should be operating with the use of drones.” 

Setting limits 

The development of drones and other military robotics have also led to questions regarding the implications of using ever-evolving technologies in warfare. 

The ease of killing with unmanned vehicles creates the danger that far-away operators may become desensitized to the violence, believing that it is the doing of the drone and not the operator. 

Toner said that it is imperative to have highly trained military personnel making the decisions when it comes to drone use and reminding operators of the humanity involved in their actions. 

“We need to recognize that the drones are merely an extension of human will and we are responsible for what our machinery does,” Toner told OSV. “Trusting machinery or robots is always mistaken. We need good soldiers and good commanders, not just good robotics and good computers.” 

Yet with their potential for high-precision strikes at minimal risk, drones have an appeal that may be too strong for military and government leaders to resist. 

O’Connell fears that this may lead to an increased tendency to resort to lethal force without first fully analyzing the severe ramifications that such an approach could have.

“We are using [this new technology] frequently but have not yet understood what law and morality require respecting it,” she said. “We’re behind where the technology is.” 

Scott Alessi writes from New Jersey.

Lawful Combat? (sidebar)

In June, the U.N. Human Rights Council released a report examining the use of unmanned drones under international law. It states that while targeted killings may be lawful in certain situations, there must be accountability and transparency in their use — both of which it finds are lacking in the United States’ use of drone strikes in Pakistan. 

Philip Alston, a New York University law professor who compiled the report, said that in such cases, taking the concept of self-defense too far could have disastrous consequences: 

“This expansive and open-ended interpretation of the right to self-defense goes a long way toward destroying the prohibition on the use of armed force contained in the U. N. Charter,” said Alston, who serves as the U.N. special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions. “ If invoked by other states, in pursuit of those they deem to be terrorists and to have attacked them, it would cause chaos.”