International Law, Middle East and North Africa, NATO, North America, Terrorism, Warfare

Drone warfare: Critics and their focus on the wrong issues

Reaper – The largest and most advanced armed drone in the inventory of the US Military. Source: Defense-update

Warfare in the 21st century has reached another milestone – the increased use of unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly known as “drones”. Drones do not only reduce the risk for soldiers, but also provide a unique endurance and observation capability. The US military is the unchallenged leader in this field and uses drones in various sizes for reconnaissance and attack missions.

A growing number of other nations are following suit and becoming increasingly engaged in unmanned warfare. Considering that the current manned aircraft of the fourth and fifth generation are likely to be the last fighters with a human being in the cockpit, drones are increasingly moving into the nucleus of discussions about aerial warfare in the 21st century. Importantly, drones are only the beginning as the US is already working on unmanned ground vehicles.

Despite several valid claims which have to be taken into consideration if drones are to be used responsibly, critics do often not advance these strong arguments, but emphasize flawed ones instead. These can not only be repudiated but do also damage a rational discussion about drone warfare.

Flawed criticism                                                                                                              

One of the arguments most often connoted to drones is: Flying a drone and killing people is just like playing a video game – that is human conscience and ethics are removed from warfare. This is, to a certain degree, degrading drone pilots to human beings without any feelings and ideas about morals and ethics and the consequences of their actions.

There is, to the best of my knowledge, no evidence to support these claims. Claims about the “playstation” mentality are so far only based upon assumptions. A drone pilot, similar to a sniper, observes target areas often over a longer period, maybe even for several days, and witnesses people going about their daily life. Subsequently, the drone pilot knows who will be hit by the bomb and witnesses with his very own eyes how in one moment a man going about his daily business is killed in the next one. Therefore drone pilots are more aware of the suffering than, for example, the jet pilot who flies over the target, drops the bomb and returns to base. In fact, a drone pilot is more “emotionally” involved in combat than, for example, the soldier who presses the button to fire a cruise missile, a torpedo or an artillery shell or indeed the medieval archer who fired arrows and hit a person hundreds of meters away – a person he probably did not see and did not have any “emotional” connection with. Remote warfare is not a new phenomenon.

A ground control station for a Predator Drone Playstation game or serious warfare?                Source: US Air Force

This claim is affirmed by research  conducted by the US Air Force which concluded that nearly a third of the 1100 drone pilots suffer from post-traumatic stress syndromes. The pilots are often based in the US while their drones circle over Afghanistan or other crisis regions. The constant switch over between the combat situations and family life has a significant impact as the pilots experience two opposing scenarios  – war and peace – in a single day. This is a new experience for armed forces and their effects need to be further analysed.

The second argument that is often advanced is that drones kill innocent civilians. This, however, is not a problem which can only be attributed to drones in particular, but to warfare in general. Drones are no less precise than jets, artillery, missiles or any other kind of distance weapons. Contrary to what critics claim, drones are even likely to be more precise as they enable pilots to obtain a clearer picture of the situation on the ground. Drone pilots, or the one who commands them, are therefore more likely to make a rational decision based on clearer facts as jet pilots flying with high speed over the target. Since drones provide usually more visual information than other means of reconnaissance one could expect decisions for the use weapons to be made more wisely. Admittedly, better capabilities to observe the target do not necessarily turn into wiser decisions.             Research shows that civilians were killed in “follow-up” strikes after they attempted to help the victims. Further, funerals, attended by “targeted individuals”, were attacked. These actions draw, understandably, severe criticism. Nonetheless, the deliberate killing of civilians is not an issue of “drone warfare”; it is an issue of the decisions taken behind these actions. These decisions could be applied to any kind of warfare.

Disregard of international law

Drones are build in various sizes. From handheld drones to……                                  Source: AP

This leads us to the crux of the problem associated with the use of drones – the question of legality. The focus here is on the legality of target killings, which are often described as extrajudicial executions. The legal adviser of the State Department, Harold Koh, claimed that ‘US targeting practices, including lethal operations conducted with the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, comply with all applicable law, including the laws of war’. Targeted killing in the context of a war is legal. The situation in Afghanistan is commonly accepted as a war and subsequently drone strikes which are not only aimed at killing the heads of Al Qaeda, but also play a vital role in protection the NATO lead coalition forces, are not illegitimate. Nonetheless, drone attacks in non-war theatres (Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia) are not covered by international law. International human rights law allows for targeted killings only if an attack is imminent. Whether an attack was imminent by any of the targeted terrorists within these theatres remains doubtful, and consequently, not only the killing of innocent civilians, but also of terror suspects without trial is illegal. This raises the question; is the global war on terror now global, in the sense that the US can apply military force and strike wherever and whenever it deems it necessary?

…..the Global Hawk with a wingspan of nearly 40 meters. Source: Global Security

Many critics claim that these extrajudicial executions do not only violate state’s sovereignty, but also create widespread opposition to US politics, up to a point where Al Qaeda might receive increased support. Surely, this would contradict US objectives and raises questions about the efficacy of drone warfare. Notwithstanding the current US supremacy in drone warfare other nations are catching up. This raises the inevitable question whether the US is setting a precedent for drone warfare in the 21st century which might haunt them in the future. Will we see other nations sending their drones around the world committing extrajudicial executions?

Drones are not computer games nor do they themselves put civilians at a higher risk than other weapons systems. However, the fact that drone warfare presents a smaller risk to one’s own troops and provide increased endurance and reconnaissance capabilities may seduce governments to use them more often. Notwithstanding the criticism, drones themselves are not the issue at hand; the issue is that the legal framework for the use of drones is often ignored. The question of legality should be pivotal to the discussion, not the question whether drone pilots lack morality or if missiles fired by drones kill more civilians than missiles fired by jets. Drones are precise, but the decisions behind their use are often not. Therefore, as the military application of drones develops, critics are right to remind governments that the use of drones, just as any weapon system, is based on a legal framework which ought to be taken into consideration before individuals are targeted. Governments should not be tempted by the fact that drones are replaceable and comparatively cheap. This is also in the national interest of the US, which is currently setting a precedent which it might regret at a later stage. The Rubicon has been crossed and it is indubitable that drones will dominate future warfare. It is imperative that their use is contemplated with the same legal scrutiny as any other weapon system.

About Thomas Hauschildt

Thomas Hauschildt works for a London based think tank committed to finding solutions to the social challenges of the 21st century. Thomas earned an MA in Law (Dispute and Conflict Resolution, Distinction) from the School of Oriental and African Studies and holds a BA in International Relations (First class) from the University of Portsmouth. In addition, he took part in a research trip to Rwanda, focusing on the post-genocide reconciliation process. His interests lies predominantly in the field of conflict resolution, humanitarian intervention and access to justice. Previously, Thomas worked for charities in the field of conflict resolution and international development as well as the German Navy and NATO. You can follow him on twitter @ThHauschildt


  1. Drones are only going to become more important in the years to come. The technology is not hard to come by. I hope the USA introduces some legality into their use soon or other nation-states such as China may use them as the USA does now. This will only create more global insecurity.

  2. Important points raised. Especially the psychological effects on the soldiers I think has been neglected in previous reports I read. The use of drones violates most of the principles entrenched in our current state system including a declaration of war before entering state territory, killing its citizens and violating its sovereignty. I wholeheartedly agree with Thomas in his pledge for a legal framework, but I doubt that the US as curbs any of its power voluntarily.

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