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Examining the military use of drone warfare

War! Do drone aircraft make it more acceptable? Is their use justified? On what occasions? Or are such considerations too obscene to contemplate?

Smallest U.S. military drone aircraft, the Black Hornet.
Smallest U.S. military drone aircraft, the Black Hornet.
Photo by Nigel Roddis/Getty Images
The issue of drone warfare bedevils President Obama much as Guantanamo did President George W. Bush.

That range of emotions accompanied University of Minnesota law school Professor Oren Gross’ presentation at Mondale Hall on February 11, 2014. For the half dozen protesters outside and at least one audience member inside, any such “discussion is a farce.” For the others, “The New Way of War: Is There a Duty to Use Drones” provided a thought-provoking and disturbing survey of using drone aircraft in armed conflict.

No question their use is controversial. Several Youtube videos relish in “drone porn” where military “slam cams” show assassinations by remote control. According to Gross, military drones are “the fastest growing fleet in the United States.” Former four-star General David Petraeus agreed, commenting that “the army can’t get enough of them.”

A scholar of international law, Prof. Gross encouraged his audience to adopt a “holistic view” of the matter. He pointed out that under current Laws of Armed Conflict (LOAC), “drones are not unlawful systems, per se.” In terms of LOAC’s basic principles—military necessity, distinction, and proportionality—drone use may be justifiable in humanitarian terms, such as targeting combatants more efficiently and reducing civilian casualties.

His thumbnail calculus helps evaluate the pros and cons drone warfare. On one hand, drones promise:

  1. Force protection
  2. Force multipliers
  3. Realistic approach to asymmetric conflicts
  4. Deterrence
  5. Collateral damage reduction
  6. Cost-effectiveness
  7. Command control
  8. Accountability

On the other, drones challenge leaders by:

  1. Making wars more frequent
  2. Seducing governments into “no casualty” conflicts
  3. Thinking things won’t go wrong
  4. Providing incentives to violate LOAC
  5. Violating people’s sense of honor
  6. Violating accountability
  7. Offering difficult technical issues
  8. Eliminating the need to declare war

Drone warfare tempts leaders with its potential for “making armed conflict more humane,” but Gross recalled a similar promise offered by dynamite a century ago. Lauded a century ago as the technology whose “very destructiveness that would make war unthinkable,” Alfred Nobel cautioned that reducing war’s frequency due to technological developments “hasn’t happened in the past.”

In the question-and-answer session, Gross reasserted a holistic view on the use of drones in armed conflicts. While agreeing with one audience member’s assessment that “technology does not mean progress, he asserted that “we need to calibrate expectations in real life.” Whether real life means a nuanced approach to war in general and drones in particular or their elimination altogether remains up to the individual conscience.

What do you think?

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