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Libya and the moral panic over drones

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31 October 2011 13:46

Figures released by the UK Ministry of Defence on the weapons Britain's armed forces used during the Libya operation reveal the transformation of aerial warfare over the last two decades.

From the start of current operations in Libya up till 1 September 2011, UK forces have employed around 1,100 precision guided munitions, 110 direct fire weapons, 4,100 rounds of direct fire 30 mm cannon rounds, and around 240 high explosive or illumination rounds from 4.5 inch naval guns. Therefore, excluding 30 mm cannon rounds, 76% of weapons employed were precision guided.

Going back to the 1991 Gulf War, the figure for precision-guided munitions used by US forces was 8% — that is, 92% were unguided 'dumb' weapons. The other big difference with 1991 is that many of the precision-guided munitions used in Libya were launched from drones.

Quite apart from the operational benefits, this transformation represents a significant moral advance, in that it means Western military forces have been able to practice a far higher degree of discrimination and proportionality, directing appropriate amounts military force at an enemy with less risk to innocents.

It is true, of course, that '(a)ny development that makes war appear to be easier or cheaper is dangerous and morally troubling. It lowers the political threshold of war.' But that's a dilemma humans have been struggling with since we started throwing rocks from a distance to avoid the risk of hand-to-hand combat.

The fact that weapons can now be launched over Libya from a base in Las Vegas is morally not that different to having a pilot do it from 40,000 feet. The recent advent of drone warfare is just another stage in the development of precision-guided munitions.

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