Ethics of Drones, Remote Weapons and Robots

Remote weapons have been around at least since the bow and arrow, and were taken to new levels by missiles, artillery and aerial bombing.

However, the advent of pilotless drones able to stay in the air for long periods, and to be directed from thousands of miles away, and of precision- guided long-range missiles, has raised new questions about the boundaries between peace and war, and the nature of future conflicts.

Their advantages include the lack of direct risk to the operators, the ability to target relatively precisely and to have greater certainty about the identification of targets, and the opportunity to strike targets anywhere in the world without having boots on the ground.

The rapid elimination of known and apparently dangerous enemies has helped western opinion to turn a blind eye to the risks associated with such strikes. There are also precious few acceptable alternative means of action in large areas of ungovernable space. The long shadow of Iraq means little enthusiasm for sacrificing soldiers' lives to secure deserts.

However, the sense of action without direct consequences for the power using such weapons is seen by some as an illusion. The operators themselves may still suffer psychological stress from killing.

Moreover, however precise modern remote weapons may be in theory, the risk of associated civilian casualties is always present. Faulty intelligence can lead to serious mistakes. Even a completely accurate strike can set up a strong political reaction.

The resulting resentment by local communities may be toxic, and act as a recruiting sergeant for others supporting the cause of those hit, or seeking revenge. The government of the country on whose territory attacks are conducted by a third party can suffer political consequences for condoning or at least not preventing them (for example Pakistan).

More broadly, remote attacks may become a substitute for the kind of political strategy which alone can defeat over time groups using terrorist tactics.

The use of such weapons against individuals or groups in territories which have not been declared combat zones also raises difficult legal and ethical questions.

Can such attacks be justified under international law, especially when they are preventive in nature? Are the views of the government in control of such territories of no relevance? Does it make a difference if nationals of the country using the weapons are targeted in the kind of extra-judicial killing which would not be contemplated or condoned at home? How would countries using such weapons respond if another power used them to eliminate those considered enemies on their own territories, as the technology spreads and becomes cheaper? Are stricter controls needed on the sale of such technology?

Even more difficult long-term questions arise over weapons systems which could operate and kill autonomously, with no specific human decision involved. What are the moral and political issues if miniaturisation of weapons and guidance systems eventually allows delivery of bullet size payloads to kill single individuals at will?

Armed drones are designed for lethal action, but as terrorists have shown many times, machines of any kind can be hijacked or adapted to become weapons capable of inflicting significant casualties and severe damage on societies.

Commercial drones now being considered for many purposes would create new opportunities for this kind of attack. Vehicles and robots are increasingly operated by software which opens up the prospect of remote hijacking or ransom demands through offensive cyber-attacks.

Moreover, what would happen if robots or drones, or autonomous cars, had to choose between greater and lesser evils: crashing into a school or into a hospital for example. Who would bear the responsibility for the choice?

image: California Air National Guard unit is primarily involved in Predator unmanned aerial vehicle missions

Ditchley:

Technology, Multilateralism, War and Peace:

Tanks To Have Remote-Control:             A New Autonomous Tactical Drone:

Drone-Visuality: The Psychology Of Killing:

 

 

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