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Falling costs and rising complexity: where the real worries lie with drones

Falling costs and rising complexity: where the real worries lie with drones
Published 17 Nov 2015 

There is no doubt that remote weapons pose significant challenges in the evolving character of warfare.

Like other disruptive technologies emerging in the civilian realm, remote weapons such as Unmanned Air Vehicles (UAVs) have had considerable impact in the ways that advanced militaries are not only fighting wars, but also in how they understand themselves.

However, as the initial ethical concerns about remote weapons become less challenging, two key aspects of remote weapons point to the future concerns of their roll out and use.

In regard to existing ethical concerns, the main discussions of remote weapons centred on three main sets of worry: first, that the distance between pilot and target made remote weapons specially morally problematic; second, that their use, specifically by the US military, was secretive and thus of concern; and last, that they were somehow dishonourable.

The first sort of argument, that the distance between pilot and target is so great as to make them uniquely problematic, is initially tempting.

It soon fails, however, when we look at the history of almost all weapons. From the bow and arrow, to the gun, to rockets, to fighter jets and intercontinental ballistic missiles, the operator or pilot or commander has been ever more distant from their target, and that distance alone has not been of special moral concern. In this respect at least, remote weapons like UAVs are morally equivalent to many other weapons of war that we take for granted.

The second argument has some truth but is largely the product of confusion between the different branches of US offensive operations.

The US military does use UAVs primarily for reconnaissance and surveillance. But it has also increasingly used them in targeted strikes and close air support of ground troops. The doctrine of use is publicised, available on Amazon: Hardly a secret. The CIA is also known to use UAVs in regions where there are no official military operations occurring. However, the doctrine for CIA uses of UAVs is not public. The important point here is that the moral concern seems to be primarily whether the non-military CIA should be carrying out lethal operations, a point highlighted by UAVs but not particular to them.

The third concern is how UAVs change the actual ways that warriors are perceived. For instance, given their remoteness from conflict, are the operators of these drones pilots: actual warriors? Moreover, will the enemy see these drone strikes as cowardly, lacking honour? And if so, will this perceived lack of honour embolden the enemy, prolonging war?

The first question is largely answered – drone pilots are now receiving medals and though it may take time, it is likely that they will be incorporated into the military as have many specialists in the past. The second question is more speculative. But it is hard to see how an enemy will consider a drone pilot to be any more or less honourable than a jet pilot kilometres above the battle or a naval officer, perhaps hundreds of kilometres from the battle.

What’s perhaps of greater interest are the near term developments that we can anticipate.[fold]

The first of these is the concern of the proliferation of cheap UAVs. We can buy drones from the local toy-store or online. Given their increased accessibility through penetration into the commercial realm and decreased costs, do they have the capacity to become widespread weapons, a remote version of small arms?

One thing that is overlooked about UAVs is the high number of support and maintenance staff required to set up, send out and maintain them. Further, the current lot of commercially available drones are highly limited in their geographic range by battery life and communications.

So, for the near term at least, it would not seem that they will be used in battle by any but the most developed militaries. The real concern lies in the capacity for people to use them as an airborne explosive device. Perhaps it will not be long before we see UAV IEDs as part of a hostile insurgent campaign.

The other future scenario is remote weapons will become even more advanced and complex, and display increasingly autonomous capacities.

Current UAVs have the capacity for limited autonomy; they can, for instance, be set to auto-pilot when their mission is done. However, as the battery life of these remote weapons increased, and their scope of use expands, we are likely to see them display increasing levels of autonomy.

A recent report by the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNDIR) looks at this issue in the communication denied maritime environment. What this report demonstrates is that the idea of autonomous weapons is not some mere scientific fantasy. Moreover, it brings up a host of challenges about just autonomy is, and what it means for the future of weapons.

The overall point is that, as far as the ethics of remote weapons is concerned, we have largely left the initial concerns about the remoteness behind. In some senses we are moving into a new phase of assessment, where contrasting ideas of cheapness and complexity highlight a new set of areas that require further consideration and reflection.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Justin Ennis

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