Are drone strikes ethical?


Fact Box

  • The International Trade Administration defines drones, or unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), as 'air vehicles and associated equipment that do not carry a human operator, but instead are remotely piloted or fly autonomously.'
  • The Brookings Institution reports that, based on a study of over 3,000 documents obtained from the Pentagon concerning civilian deaths during US airstrikes, there is “an institutional acceptance of an inevitable collateral toll.” 
  • In 2011, Iran captured an RQ-170 Sentinel reconnaissance drone from the US, copied it, and then, in 2016, “unveiled a home-built drone that they said was capable of carrying bombs.” 
  • BusinessWire expects that by 2025, the global market for military drones will reach $32.14 billion.

Madison (No)

Drone strikes are highly unethical for obvious and numerous reasons. Firstly, drone strikes have had high civilian casualties, including children. This unfortunate fact can lead to the creation of more terrorists-- determined to seek revenge for the innocent--thus being counterproductive to counterterrorism movements. 

The local economy can also suffer damage from drone attacks, as the fallout from the blasts affects the environment and agriculture and any small businesses that may be in the target zone. 

Aside from the adverse effects the strikes have on targets, many of the soldiers piloting these drones suffer long-lasting trauma

If a drone strike against an American citizen happened on US soil, a violent retaliation would be imminent and potentially lead to war with the enemy aggressor. This is explained in an article from Georgetown University, which relates that drone strikes also 'challenge international rule of law' by pushing the limits of what is considered self-defense. If not done with the consent of the host country, drone strikes can severely damage international relationships, leading to enormous consequences such as a new war or loss of allies. 

Further, it is unfair not to give drone strike targets a chance to prove themselves innocent. In the United States, the most widely accepted legal policy is innocent until proven guilty. Therefore, the only fair way to convict an enemy target would be to try them in a court of law, something that drone strikes avert altogether.

Overall, drone strikes are dishonorable, immoral, and often cause unintended damage, in addition to being hypocritical to US legal policy.

Andrei (Yes)

The technological advances of our modern age have brought sophistication and precision to the art and science of warfare. Drone strikes have enabled the US military, primarily since 2009 with the Obama Administration, to target suspected Taliban, al-Qaeda, and ISIS forces in the Middle East in ways that weren't achievable before. Through 'signature strikes' and other tactics, Obama was able to kill 'at least 3,000 militants' via a method enabling 'a commander in chief to eliminate US adversaries without putting any American lives at risk.'

Drones are cheaper, more precise, and more efficient than relying on hand-to-hand combat. Although capturing enemies helps the military gain intelligence, as the Brookings Institution points out, when in a war zone or an unstable country, 'arresting militants is highly dangerous and, even if successful, often inefficient.' Furthermore, drones provide a level of targeting that an F-16 bomb simply cannot, 'the grenadelike warheads carried by most drones create smaller, more precise blast zones that decrease the risk of unexpected structural damage and casualties.' Philosophy professor Bradley Strawser, a proponent of drone strikes, explains, 'there's no downside. Both ethically and normatively, there's a tremendous value. You're not risking the pilot..And all the empirical evidence shows that drones tend to be more accurate.' 

Even if one is opposed to drone strikes, it can be argued that other types of warfare are just as questionable--if not more so. For example, in 2009 Tomahawks were fired at a suspected terrorist training facility in Yemen, ultimately killing 30. However, had drones been used to carry out the operation, their 'real-time surveillance would probably have spotted the large number of women and children, and the attack would have been aborted.' Drones reduce the brutality of warfare on both sides.

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