The recent series of posts on armed drones from James Brown, Sam Roggeveen and Jennifer Hunt each make a compelling case for the need to consider the ethics of these weapons. These authors are right, but what they may not be aware of is that such consideration is underway, at least in the Australian Army.
On 21-22 June 2016 the Army's Strategic Plans Branch will co-host with UNSW-Canberra a major conference on military ethics. The ethics of armed drones will be on the program. This conference is open to the public and its proceedings will be published, as Army encourages an open discussion of the ethics of contemporary war.
Moreover, through its Research Scheme the Australian Army has already commissioned papers on the ethics of other emerging technologies such as soldier enhancement, and intends to commission additional studies.
The ethics of armed drones are only one of numerous issues regarding their possible use that must be considered by Australia and other states considering their acquisition. Armed drones have demonstrated a stunning ability to kill people from great distances with virtually no risk to their operators. But there has been little consideration by the world's military organisations of their contribution to the ultimate objective of all war, the ability to compel an adversary to accept your will (in the classic Clausewitzian sense). The effectiveness of military technology has been a theme of Williamson Murray's work, to which he recently returned, and he finds fault in the wisdom of the recourse to drones and precision strike.
For me, the question that needs to be answered is: if a target is subjected to unexpected and instant death, has there been any effect on will?
The contribution to success in war (to victory) is an important aspect of any evaluation of the ethical utility of a weapon. I would argue that a weapon that doesn't meet ethical standards is unlikely to make a positive contribution to forcing your enemy to accept your will. Rather, it is likely to have the opposite effect.
Armed drones have dazzled many military and political minds with their ruthless efficiency. But efficiency and effectiveness in war are not the same thing. Efficiency in killing won't translate into effectiveness in war unless the ethics are right.
Otherwise, armed drones are nothing more than instruments of murder.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Airman Magazine.