War by Remote Control: The Controversy of Using Drones in Warfare

  • Posted on: 11 September 2019

With recent advancements in technology, more and more countries are choosing drones in warfare and conflicts. This trend has been most prominent in the MENA region, as Israel has used it on multiple occasions against Hezbollah and Hamas, Saudi Arabia used drones in the war on Yemen, as well as the US and Russia's use of drones in Syria. Drones use varied from kamikaze style to surveillance and intelligence. 

Related: Increased Tensions Between Israel and Lebanon Elicit Fear of Direct Conflict

Hezbollah field commanders recently announced on August 31st that they were ready to take action in response to an attack by Israeli drones the previous week. The Secretary-General of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, announced that all options will be considered to counter Israeli drones that violate Lebanon’s sovereignty, after Israel has targeted Beirut with drones that had explosives attached to it, which resulted in the death of two Hezbollah members. He went on to state that drones like the ones used in the Beirut attack last weekend “open the door to assassinations” if left unanswered. Nasrallah's statements are based on reported incidents of the US Army and the CIA carrying out assassinations through the use of drones in the past decade in Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Libya. 

The rise in the use of drones in combat prompted a global debate since 2001; the main issue being a moral one:  what are the moral consequences of using drones in conflict zones? 

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Impact of Drone Usage in Areas of Conflict

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones, as they are more commonly referred to, is an unmanned aircraft system that is remotely controlled, and which can be used by the military, civilians, and by businesses. this system has been under the spotlight for the past few years by the media, lawyers, diplomats, military, governmental and nongovernmental reports. 

In general, there are two different schools of thought regarding drones. One side draws attention to how drones are unethical in warfare as they distant the army from the damage they cause, while the other believes that unmanned aerial vehicles are inoffensive due to their operational limitations. These limitations include low flying speed and vulnerability to air defense systems. 

However, there are more factors to take into account. To weigh the pros and cons of drones, we must first have a realistic understanding of what drones today can and cannot do in order to determine how drones affect military affairs and world politics. 

The first drone was launched in 1917; the Ruston Proctor “Aerial Target” was the first pilot-less aircraft in the world. The drone was created to equal a flying bomb. However, the aircraft was not used in combat at the time. The most prominent use of drones was reported by the United States in 2001, where the CIA used drones over Afghanistan and conducted the first drone-based assassination in 2002. The drone was used to target a person thought to be Osama Bin Laden, however it was revealed that it was an innocent civilian who was collecting scrap metal. Reports of such nature prompted concerns over the use of drones in conflict zones.

Drones lower the costs of using manned vehicles because they eliminate the risks imposed on pilots. Following this logic, if the aircraft is hit or wrecked by enemy fire, the cost is measured only financially, and not in the number of lives lost. Moreover, drones are useful when used as a reconnaissance tool for monitoring disputed territories and borders. For example, during the Xinjiang protests in 2014, China used surveillance drones to monitor the situation. 

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The Challenges of Remote Warfare

First world countries that have advanced technological capabilities are now able to commit acts of war without mobilizing recruits, occupying territories and conducting vast land operations.  

From a legal point of view, the halt in using ground forces could and already does make using force on peaceful states problematic. This is because the traditional disincentives of attacking an enemy outside the combat zone is pretty much eradicated. The perceived lack of barrier to entry makes it appear that the battlefield is “global” when it really isn’t. While people are still debating about the geographical scope of the application of International Humanitarian Law, most agree that the use of drones outside of an armed conflict are not governed by IHL but by international human rights law standards of law enforcement, which impose stricter restrictions on when such force may be used.

From an ethical and psychological standpoint, it is argued that keeping the party operating the weapons off the actual battlefield reduces their stress and fear, thereby decreasing errors as a result of emotional factors. However, the greater the physical distance between the parties in conflict, the greater the moral distance. Therefore, attacks conducted by remotely piloted drones fuel a debate around a video game mentality that affects the morality of drone operators and intensifies dehumanization of the enemy on the battlefield. However, the mental picture that video game players form where law ceases to exist and anything is permitted to defeat the enemy does not equate to the reality of modern wars.

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