Drones Warfare An Emerging Ethical Dilemma

Updated July 12, 2022

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Drones Warfare An Emerging Ethical Dilemma essay

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As long as we have had technology, we have been redesigning it to make it better. It is human nature to always improve upon what exists, and we have seen many technological developments in recent years. One field in which there has been a large amount of development is the military. There have been a plethora of new or improved weapons created recently. As weapons become more advanced, they must be evaluated to determine whether their use is ethical. One of these new technologies is military drones, which are used to send an airstrike remotely. Drone warfare violates multiple aspects of several ethical theories and because of that, it is unethical.



Understanding the history of drones is essential to evaluating the ethicality of drone warfare. Drones are a type of unmanned aerial vehicle that have been in development since WWI. They started off as target practice for the regular military and were useful because they were equipped with parachutes that allowed them to land safely and be reused in the event they were not hit. In 1918, the military started to develop a first attempt at a weaponized drone, known as the Kettering Bug. It was loaded with explosives and programmed to fly a predetermined course, where it would eventually detach its wings, plummet to the ground and detonate. Although there were many in production, WWI ended before the Kettering Bug was ever used.

In WWII, Japan developed a completely autonomous ‘balloon bomb.’ These bombs were intended to start forest fires and just generally cause chaos in the US. Although Japan launched around 9000 of these bombs there were only 361 confirmed to have reached land. They did not fulfill their goal, and only caused minimal damage, but they still became known as the first intercontinental weapon. Also during WWII, there were radio controlled drones used for target practice, as well as the first kamikaze drones. These drones were regular bombers that were filled with explosives. The pilot would take off with the plane and start it on the right course, and then parachute down to safety. These drones were not always reliable and sometimes detonated early killing their pilots.

The Drone Anti-Submarine Helicopter (DASH) was developed by Gyrodyne in the 1950s to attack submerged submarines during the Cold War. DASH could carry two nuclear depth bombs. They were semi-autonomous and able to travel alone, only requiring a human for takeoff and landing.

In 1946, the military began using remote-controlled B-17s for reconnaissance. One of the main missions for these drones was to collect samples from the mushroom clouds surrounding Hiroshima and Nagasaki after they were bombed. In the 1960s, the US developed the Lightning Bug drone, which was used for surveillance during the Vietnam War. They were launched from under the wing of a larger plane and flew along a programmed route while taking pictures until they parachuted down for later pickup. Israel was also a forerunner of drone technology, using drones as decoys in a war against Egypt in 1973. They used drones again in 1982, now as scouts, rather than decoys. They sold their drone, the Pioneer, to the US for surveillance in 1991 during the Persian Gulf War.

In 2002, the military developed the AeroVironment RQ-14 Dragon Eye. Although the Dragon Eye was not a weapon, it assisted soldiers in the field. It was small enough to fit in a backpack and could be launched by hand or with a slingshot. Once it was in the air, it would transmit live video and use GPS to help soldiers navigate the terrain ahead of them.

Weaponized drones started to become accurate and widely used when the US developed the Predator in 1995. Although it was only used for reconnaissance until 2001, they soon became the first real weaponized drone. They could carry two Hellfire missiles and destroy targets without any on-site assistance. The development of GPS and more accurate satellites allowed drone technology to become more precise. The MQ-9 Reaper, released in 2007, was similar to the Predator, but a bit larger. It also was able to carry a multitude of different weapons that allowed for a more customizable attack.

Since drones had been developed into highly accurate and deadly weapons, the US had to create policies for their use. Originally, the US was against targeted attacks using drones. After 9/11, the US changed its stance and began to employ drones regularly for targeted attacks, which created some discussion on the ethics of such actions.

Just War Theory

In order to determine the ethicality of drone warfare, just war theory must first be understood. Just war theory acts as a moral guide for war and has developed over time through centuries of combat. Its conception and development are credited to many well-known sources including Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, and Christianity. The theory consists of two core principles to guide the military and government during wartime: jus ad bellum and jus in bello.

Jus ad bellum provides a guide as to when it is appropriate to go to war, providing six criteria that must be satisfied in order for a war to be just. Firstly, a war must have a good cause to be moral. If the cause of the war is not justifiable, there is no way for the war to be moral. In addition, a war must be declared by the appropriate government agency and fall within the restrictions of war within the country’s government. In order to be moral, a war must also be a last resort after an attempt is made to make peace. If peace has not been attempted, the war cannot be moral, as it is not the best possible course of action.

While peace must be unsuccessfully attempted before a war is declared, peace must also be the goal of the war. When peace is not the goal, there can be no moral justification for the destruction caused by war. Similarly, war must be fought with a moral intention. Finally, before declaring war, one must be sure that there is a reasonable chance that the war will succeed and achieve its goal of peace. If it cannot be determined that the war has a reasonable chance of success, the death and destruction that it causes cannot be morally right.

Jus in bello guides the way a war is fought. It has been developed over time, mostly at military conventions, including the Geneva Conventions and the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials, among others. Jus in bello sets precedents about many issues, including the treatment of civilians in war, the treatment of prisoners of war, and the ban on chemical warfare. Jus in bello boils down to four broad principles. The first principle is that of military necessity, which states that the actions taken by a military must be necessary to the military objective. The second principle is the principle of distinction, which provides differentiation between the treatment of soldiers and civilians. The third principle is the principle of proportionality, which states that the force used in a war must be proportional to the military objective. The final principle is the principle of humanity which states that the military must avoid causing suffering and destruction of military property if at all possible.

Jus ad bellum and jus in bello are very general and have a wide range of interpretation. Just war theory acts simply as a guide for morality during wartime, rather than as strict laws that must be followed. Most of the principles it provides are based on the notion of reciprocity, which is essentially the golden rule: one should treat others the way one wishes to be treated. Just war theory makes sure that ethics apply, even during war.

Traditional Military Ethics

There are a few aspects of traditional military ethics other than just war theory. One is a concept developed by Giorgio Agamben called effectivity, which is the idea of leading by effectively participating. An example of effectivity is when someone leads an army by fighting in the war and risking everything for a cause they consider worthy of killing others.

Ethics in general can be sorted into two categories: normative ethics and metaethics. Normative ethics center around what should be done. Metaethics are a clarification of moral concepts such as justice and equality. Military ethics are normative and consists of both theoretical and applied normative ethics. Applied ethics look at the ethics of certain situations, rather than just applying the rules to normal situations. One aspect of applied ethics is professional ethics which delves into the ethics of specific professions, one of which is the military.

Military ethics push many of normal ethical boundaries. Professional ethics allow for differences in ethical practices when one is ‘on the job’ versus when they are not. For example, in the military it is ethical to kill, which is something that is not ethical under general societal expectations. Military ethics focuses on the ethics of social warriors. Social warriors have one of the largest gaps between their professional ethics and general ethics because of the range of actions that are morally permissible while they are on the job that would never otherwise be ethically justifiable.

The Dilemma

There is much of discussion surrounding the ethicality of drone warfare. Drones are a powerful weapon and they eliminate the need for a pilot to be on location. For some, drones are an ethical military strategy, but for others they consider drones to be incredibly unethical. The debate on drones arises from the fact that drones are killing machines, but they also do not risk the lives of troops.

Potential Arguments

In Support of Drones

Some view the development of drones is viewed as morally right. The development of stronger weapons in general is supported ethically based on a variety of reasons, which also support drones. Designing more advanced weaponry acts as a deterrent. The saying ‘speak softly but carry a big stick’ alludes to the idea of using weapons simply as a threat. Having the capability to use a highly developed destructive weapon discourages other countries from starting a war. Because they encourage peace, the development of these weapons is morally permissible under most moral theories, as stopping a war means preventing hundreds or thousands of deaths.

One argument specific to the ethicality of drone warfare is that drones allow missions that do not risk the lives of the soldiers fighting on the side of the drones. Drones are primarily used for three reasons: flexible surveillance, greater precision and fighting without using pilots. Having a weapon that can improve surveillance reduces the risk for the soldiers that use the information gained via drones. Having greater precision allows drones to minimize extra casualties during attacks. Not having a person on board also reduces risk to human lives. A utilitarian argument, which attempts to maximize happiness, would support the ethicalities of drones because reducing risk through greater precision and lack of soldiers presents should increase the number of people who survive, while the mission is still completed, thus maximizing happiness. Using the utilitarian argument, drone warfare is ethically permissible.

Against Drones

While some support weaponized drones, there is also a large subset of people with a dissenting opinion. The International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) supports the use of drones for surveillance, but says that once they have been weaponized they are unethical. The American Civil Liberties Union agrees with IACP, and even sued Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and others for drone strikes that killed Americans in 2011.

Much of the justification for the stance against drone warfare stems from the removal of much of the human interaction normally associated with a war. Drone operators are the same as anyone else with a desk job: they go to work, do their job and go home to their families. They do not need courage because there is no risk associated with their job. They are technicians, rather than warriors, which changes the concept of traditional military ethics. A key feature of a traditional military community is a shared sense of moral values, much of which is determined by effectivity. Effectivity creates solidarity and thus a strong moral code that is shared between all the members of said community. Drone operators do not take risks and therefore the special actions associated with their job are closer to those of an assassin, rather than a soldier.

Because drone operators are outside the military community in the sense that they do not risk their lives, it provides an opportunity for the corporatisation of the military. When the war becomes corporate it allows for a higher probability of violence outside an official war, also known as force short of war. Corporatized wars are more susceptible to force short of war because there are less tactical structures, lower level decision makers and less transparency. All of the outcomes of corporatization of war go against just war theory and provides evidence for the immorality of drone warfare.

Brandon Bryant, a former Air Force officer turned whistleblower, sent drones to Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, killing around 1,626 people. He considers the drone program to be a wasteful abuse of power and thinks that it is promoted on lies. He also stated that drones kill a huge number of civilians, most of which are not reported. One of his concerns with the morality of drone warfare is that it does not allow the target a chance to surrender. Drones also do not spend much of time figuring out if a person is an actual enemy or just a civilian with a weapon. Drone policy is often to treat anyone that looks like a combatant as a combatant.


Drone warfare is not ethical because of its violation of just war theory. Using drones eliminates risk for the side of the war using the drones. By eliminating risk, effectivity is also eliminated and goes against traditional military ethics, as most of that code of ethics is based on the assumption that the soldiers are putting their lives at risk for the cause they are fighting for. Furthermore, drones are often not a last resort after trying to make peace, and they do a poor job of following the principle of distinction and the principle of humanity, thus violating just war theory. Because it violates so many ethical theories drone warfare is unethical.


Drone warfare is unethical because of its violations of just war theory, traditional military ethics and utilitarianism. Drones have been developing into the precise military tools that they are today since World War I. As drone technology has become infinitely more advanced, the debate around their ethicality has grown. Drones are unethical based on evaluations of all ethical theories involved and that opens up an interesting question about the future of other developing technologies. As a society, we must be careful that in developing technology to simplify things for ourselves, we do not overlook the ethical implications of these new developments.

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Drones Warfare An Emerging Ethical Dilemma. (2022, Jan 13). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/drones-warfare-an-emerging-ethical-dilemma/

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