Some Thoughts on Drone Warfare

There is a drone in my backyard, and I don't mean figuratively, but literally speaking! It's a very expensive vehicle, the Euro Hawk at Manching Airport, about 16 kilometers from where I live. It must be lonely there, in a hangar all by itself. This unmanned aircraft has been the cause of many a debate regarding certain advances in war technology and the moral implications of killing under modern (and improved) circumstances.

What sometimes happens in public discussion forums, besides things getting blown way out of proportion is that we're quickly getting ahead of ourselves. This particular drone is a surveillance aircraft, specifically aimed at gathering intelligence via high resolution radar and infrared sensors, it is not designed to be a killing machine. It could be one, with the proper development and investment by the ministry of defense, but the there are some other fundamental flaws until we'll get there, having to do with the flight control system, and the pending approval for air space itself.

But for the sake of argument, let's just assume, we were actually talking about an unmanned armed drone, aimed to kill people in war zones. Sure, why not.

There are several problems with the principles of a "clean" warfare, meaning operations to precisely kill targets. Firstly, the act of killing itself. My thoughts do not revolve around the wrong or right of killing, and although it oftentimes comes down to that, the whole argument shouldn't be misconstrued as pacifists versus militarists. Pacifists per definition will always find fault in killing no matter how it's done. The act of killing, to them is not a variable to consider as the deed itself is inherently amoral. I'm not sharing this point of view, but I do understand it. In my, I guess more utilitarian, world view there are military actions that are morally justified with all their consequences, but ideally with as little casualties as possible.

Killing with a gun, a knife or killing with a joystick control - are there any differences in how we feel doing it? For all it's worth, in drone warfare like in any other act of killing, there will still be someone in charge, deciding about when it is the right place and time to strike. The drone is the eyes and ears, and the trigger, at least for now, remains in the hands of a human pilot. (We'll have to talk a bit more once there will be automated combat drones) The pilot not actually being inside the vehicle and on-scene is a lot safer for him.

The more interesting question is if the fact that a pilot is not present will somehow change his feelings about the mission, or rid his sense of responsibility. Considering the act of killing, is it necessary to have someone in that piloting position who weighs the pros and cons, given that the power of command even factors in such personal considerations?

You can find answers to these questions with the help of an interesting case study which shows that the rate of both drone pilots and combat pilots suffering from the ramifications of their job, mainly PTSD, depression, and anxiety disorders is roughly about the same. No matter where and when a trigger is pulled, there are similar reactions in present and absent pilots to the act of killing. It shouldn't surprise us as much as it does. As lame as that sounds, they are all humans, and as such they find it hard not to think about the moral implications of what they are doing.

That factor may not always stop them or us from doing things that may be morally questionable, but it will play a part in how we decide before we do what we do. That is how we are built. The preconception that anyone in that line of work immediately loses their conscience, or thinks they're playing a game of chess instead of what actually happens, seems ridiculous. The assumption that the physical distance to an act immediately creates emotional distance is shortsighted.


It's the act of killing itself that causes the (moral) response, not how it's done. But for some reason we still don't believe we're morally guided beings. Sure, our understanding of moral responsibility and the feeling of guilt are directly linked to an action and a sense of locality. We still have trouble even imagining our conscience remaining intact while our bodies are absent from the place of action. It is though.

We know what is right and wrong, even when we're physically removed from a moral realm. That's when our laws come into play. Being a tourist in a foreign country, we still retain a sense of law and right-doing, knowing that we can't commit crimes just because we're somewhere else (except for persons like Charles Manson, but he proved to have no regard for laws or morals, no matter where he went).

That moral connection remains binding for all of us non-sociopaths, no matter where we are, and it is binding for all our lives. I'm almost certain that with the help of our inbuilt compass we'll manage to safely navigate on shaky ground, through all kinds of predicaments, even the ones caused by advances in technology and warfare. But maybe that's just me, for once in my life thinking that we are not as bad as we think we are.