As drones have become the most prominent weapon in the US arsenal, scrutiny of their use has grown. People note the hundreds of civilian casualties they have caused, and are concerned by the secrecy of their rules of engagement and the seeming remove their operators have from the real-world consequences of their actions.
In response, some are calling for drones to be banned. As one petition puts it, drones "remoteness provides those responsible with a sense of immunity. Weaponized drones are no more acceptable than land mines, cluster bombs, or chemical weapons. The world must renounce and forbid their manufacture, possession, or use. Violators must be held accountable."
Precision and civilian casualties
Mines, cluster bombs, and chemical weapons are partially or fully banned because they are indiscriminate, which does not describe armed drones. The anti-drone campaigners may be mistaking the policies that cause civilian casualties for drones' inherent characteristics.
Early in the Vietnam War, the US government found that it was killing or seriously injuring 1,000 civilians each week -- and this was before the height of the conflict, so these numbers likely grew worse. More recently, the Sri Lankan government is said to have killed 40,000 civilians in five months as it concluded that country's civil war in 2009. In both cases, this was driven by policy and by the imprecision of weapons such as artillery and air strikes.
As now employed, drones are much more discriminate and precise than most other weapons systems. Some have even suggested that they are so superior to other weapons in this regard that their use might become morally obligatory.
Drones will become even more precise, as they add intelligence and sensors, and replace weapons such as anti-tank missiles with other options such as lasers. Strikes might begin to kill targeted individuals with no collateral damage at all.
Immunity and accountability
The petitioners above seem to allude to a sense of personal engagement and responsibility, and to accountability, when they mention "immunity."
Engagement and responsibility are always an issue for all combatants, and remote-control warfare could contribute, as Peter W. Singer writes in Wired for War. Some signs from drone operators suggest they are not disengaged: many are suffering combat stress. Drone operators also interact with their targets much more deeply than people firing artillery or flying strike aircraft, often observing them for hours, and witnessing the aftermath of a drone attack.
The accountability issue is real, but drones are a minor factor. Put simply, for all but the weakest states (which are subject to external power), no officials or soldiers are accountable unless their own societies decide to hold them to some standard. That is true whether one is talking about invading a country, shelling a city, shooting civilians at checkpoints, or launching drone attacks.
This accountability question will become more serious as more autonomous drones and other robotic systems are deployed, as is likely to happen soon. Human Rights Watch is calling for a ban on such technologies and the organization is likely correct in suggesting that autonomous killing will further muddy the question of responsibility and make atrocities easier for regimes intent on them.
But that won't be enough to get them banned. Chemical weapons and mines are banned in part because they are indiscriminate, but also because they are not very useful. Drones, on the other hand, will become steadily more capable.
Accelerating computing power will drive this process, and remotely controlled and robotic systems will become better than humans at ever more tasks. A researcher on NOVA's "Rise of the Drones" pointed out that a human takes 80 milliseconds to react, while a drone can respond to a situation in one millisecond. In many combat situations, that will decide who gets destroyed.
As a result, there is almost no chance that the world's militaries will not adopt them wholeheartedly. This need not result in a deterioration of human rights, however. These factors might help:
- Governments using drones and combat robots need to be told by other states and by their citizens that it matters how they are used.
- The international community should continue to strengthen norms about civilian casualties, for instance supporting prosecutions in the International Criminal Court; norm changes have been significant over the last 50 years.
- Leaders and military officers who deploy robotic systems should be held responsible for both the deployment decision and its outcomes, so that that they have concrete incentives to act responsibly.
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