Remote killing and victory in war

I have noted elsewhere that while drones (or RPAS – Remotely Piloted Air Vehicles – as the military prefer to call them) receive a lot of bad press, a lot of this is actually to do with one specific role they are associated with – targeted killing. When used alongside other military tools in support of more conventional (and less contentious) military operations, however, it would be churlish not to acknowledge that drone technology offers a whole range of military advantages that can be genuinely welcomed from an ethical perspective. While not always given the prominence it deserves, the lives of friendly aircrew are not being placed at risk in order to carry out their missions. This has got to be a welcome development from a force protection angle, let alone considerations of their friends and families. When used appropriately, advanced drones such as the Reaper can also deploy munitions significantly more accurately than nearly any other type of military platform, allowing smaller warheads to achieve the same effect, resulting in less death and destruction to any innocent bystanders who may not have made themselves liable to harm. Precisely because their own lives are not at risk, drone operators are also afforded a much less pressured decision-making environment, allowing time and space for consideration that is radically different to that experienced by soldiers on the ground or even pilots in hostile airspace. The ability to remain cool, calm and detached arguably allows better decisions to be taken in the heat of battle, further improving accuracy and reducing the risk to civilian life.

However, for all of the (often underreported) advantages offered by such new technology, one of the on-going concerns relates to how an increasing reliance on such remote military tools may affect decisions about the resort to force in the first place. The lower political cost that appears to be attached to using drones due to the expectation of reduced collateral damage and no worry about body bags returning home to upset the domestic public, means that drones appear to offer policy makers an option for direct action that would simply not be present, or at least realistic, using more conventional tools in the military toolbox. Does this increase the probability of using war, a tool that should always be a last resort, so that it becomes a first or at least early response to certain types of crisis instead?

As students of Clausewitz often remind us, war is the continuation of politics with an admixture of other means. All decisions and actions within a war need to be considered in this light. New generations of standoff weapons may simply telegraph to our opponents our ability to kill but little or no willingness to die for our causes. If we are not really committed to the cause, then it would seem that technological advantages might actually therefore be sending a message of a fundamental lack of resolve to see an issue through to the end. If we’re not really prepared to risk anything, then doesn’t that send the message that we can be easily derailed from our political objective? Perceiving a lack of will, why would opponents not seek to just ‘ride it out’ or instead seek to raise the political cost by attacking elsewhere in the soft underbelly of democracies in order to change policy?

Drones are currently employed in combination with, rather than as a straightforward replacement for, many other types of military asset in theatre. The concern expressed here is related to military operations that might rely heavily or even exclusively on such tools in the future. The ability to conduct standoff wars in a way that minimizes risks to non-combatants and eliminates it for our own combatants might well lower the political threshold to employing military force, making the occurrence of war more frequent. At the same time, it might also make those conflicts more difficult to resolve due to the lack of will to put our own people in harm’s way when required.

David Whetham, Kings College London

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