If anything is moral in war, this technology is at the friendlier endby AC Grayling / July 18, 2013 / Leave a comment
Almost every technological advance in the means of warfare brings new ethical problems. In the mid-19th century, a Hague Conference outlawed newly-invented bullets that split apart inside a victim’s body to increase the incapacitating effect; in the 1890s—before heavier-than-air flight had become possible—another Hague convention outlawed aerial bombardment (it had in mind the throwing of grenades from balloons). After the First World War chemical weapons were outlawed. And since the Second World War much of the focus has been on limiting the spread of nuclear weapons.
Thus the vain attempt to limit the extent of harm that technologies of warfare threaten. Throughout history it has been technology that has made the chief difference in warfare—the spear, the metallurgy of swords and shields, armour, the crossbow, the arquebus, artillery, rapid-fire small arms, aircraft, missiles, the logistical equipment used in moving forces and supplies, all represent the inventiveness of urgency in times of danger, and whoever had the superior technology has had the better chance of prevailing.
Asymmetric warfare, in which small groups of insurgents can encumber huge military resources of an orthodox kind, bucks this trend. But the technologists are not wholly without answers. One is the unmanned drone aircraft, used for surveillance and offensive engagement in circumstances and terrains where conventional forces are at a huge disadvantage.
The badlands of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and what is currently happening there provide a classic example of where drones best do their work. Able to stay aloft for long periods, hard to detect and defend against, formidably armed, drones are chillingly effective weapons: and they put no operating personnel at risk. This is an important point for the home team using them. Insurgency-type conflicts apart, the world might be moving towards a situation where war mainly consists of robot forces doing the attacking and much of the defending, with civilian populations as the main front-line targets, and destruction of the morale of the enemy—meaning its willingness to continue the conflict—the aim.
What ethical considerations are raised by drones as currently deployed in theatres of conflict? The fact that they are unmanned, controlled from thousands of miles away by operators sitting safely before a screen, and that these operators are chosen for their Xbox gaming skills, somehow seems to make them more sinister, somehow less “fair” and right. In particular, the move from violent video games to the dreadful reality of killing actual human…