Drones Are a Challenge — and an Opportunity

The following is a response to David Cortright’s “License to Kill”; both are part of the discussion “How Drones are Changing Warfare.”, originally published by Cato Unbound.

David Cortright crafts his essay as a series of cautionary warnings about the rise of drone warfare, but his core argument goes far deeper than drones: Cortright objects to drones, which promise unprecedented levels of humanitarian protection of civilians, chiefly because they facilitate the effective use of military force, including in situations in which the United States has not previously used military force. “Any development that makes war appear to be easier or cheaper is deeply troubling. It reduces the political inhibitions against the use of deadly violence. It threatens to weaken the moral presumption against the use of force that is at the heart of the just war doctrine,” he writes. As a result, he contends, “The first and most important question is whether drone technology makes war more likely.” And lest anyone miss the point, he also complains that drones “perpetuate[] the illusion that military force is an effective means of countering terrorism. . . .We should know better by now.”

To lay the matter bare, Cortright objects to military robotics because the field offers effective weaponry that keeps our forces safer while enhancing their lethality and targeting precision with respect to the enemy—the combination of which invites use. In other words, he objects to precisely what any operational commander would find attractive about drones.

Drones are a weapon like any other weapon. Their evolution is the latest step in a very long chain of the development of lethal technologies—virtually all of which involve the attempt to augment one’s offensive capability while at the same time minimizing one’s exposure to risk during attack. Indeed, the entire history of weaponry is really a history of decreasing the value of distance as a defense and of creating ever more remote opportunities to attack. The first Australopithecus who picked up a rock to strike one of his fellows learned that he didn’t have to use his hand. The spear gave one of his descendants the ability to impale at whatever distance he could throw. The arrow extended that distance still further—and thereby increased the attacker’s accuracy and his safety even more. The gun, the artillery shell, the air strike, and the Predator drone all follow this basic pattern.

As drones become smaller, more lethal, and more autonomous, they do present unique challenges. But it is very wrong to think about their novelty, as Cortright seems to, as all or mostly bad. Indeed, the field of robotics offers huge advantages both from the point of view of the effectiveness of military operations and from the point of view of human rights. On the military effectiveness side of the ledger, the logic of developments in weaponry that increase one’s own lethality—allowing targeting at the highly individualized level—while protecting one’s forces, may not persuade Cortright, a professor of peace studies, but it will tend to move commanders who have missions to accomplish and who have a fundamental obligation to their own troops not to expose them to undue risk.

The same features that make drones attractive to commanders also make at least some uses of them attractive on human rights grounds. As Kenneth Anderson, who helped lead the international NGO campaign against land mines, has written:

Advancing technology allows for more discrete surveillance and, therefore, more precise targeting, which is better able to minimize collateral civilian damage—a good thing for those who do not want to kill innocent civilians. Indeed, humanitarians have long called on advanced militaries to shift from designing more destructive weapons systems to designing more discriminating ones, and weapons designers have been seeking to comply over decades. There is something perverse about now criticizing their evolving efforts as making war so much less destructive and so discriminating as to be too easy to undertake.

Indeed, Cortright may argue that “terrorism is more a political and law enforcement challenge than a threat that can be addressed by military means,” but it is worth remembering that the opposite of targeted killing is not usually law enforcement. It is often less-targeted—that is, more indiscriminate—killing. The important flip side to Cortright’s anxiety that drones will lower our inhibition to go to war is that drones can also limit the scope and scale of military action. The United States is not going to take a hands-off approach to states like Pakistan and Yemen, where law enforcement is not a feasible option. Drone warfare permits a highly calibrated military response to situations in which the alternative may involve not lesser but far greater uses of military violence. This is a good trade. Conversely, drones also allow militaries to contemplate certain humanitarian interventions where they might never contemplate risking actual forces; consider whether the recent NATO Libyan intervention—which probably saved a considerable number of lives—would have been politically possible had U.S. forces been seriously at risk.

In other words, while the rise of drone warfare has changed the face of American counterterrorism efforts and promises far greater change in years to come, this does not present the simple and terrible moral equation that Cortright describes. What began as a surveillance tool that could, on occasion, deliver lethal force, has evolved in a short space of time into a principal means of following enemy forces onto territory in which the United States is reluctant to put large numbers of boots on the ground—and striking at them there in a limited fashion that protects innocent civilians to an unprecedented level.

The logic of these weapons is so overpowering, both as a means of conducting surveillance and as a means of striking at enemy targets, that their growth as an element of U.S. force will resist moral hand-wringing of a sort that, if taken at face value, would lead to greater uses of force, civilian death, and risk to U.S. forces.

Yes, as Cortright says, a great many other countries are getting into the drone game too—but this is less because the United States is paving the way than because this logic is obvious to those countries too. And this same logic, combined with the reality that robotic technologies are getting cheaper and easier to acquire even as their power increases, means that proliferation will happen irrespective of what the United States does. Indeed, the question is not whether we will live in a world of highly proliferated technologies of robotic attack. It is whether the United States is going to be ahead of this curve or behind it.