Should Robots Fight Wars?

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Science fiction is replete with fantasies of wars being fought by droids, bio-enhanced commandos and indestructible cybernetic killing machines. Thankfully, we do not yet live in the world of Star Wars, Universal Soldier or Terminator. But modern warfare is not far off science fiction.

If you think I am being fanciful, consider this.

The US military today sends about 7000 so-called unmanned aerial vehicles into the skies over Afghanistan and Pakistan, including Predator and Reaper drones capable of firing missiles at ground targets.

According to warfare expert Peter W. Singer, such technology is merely the equivalent of the Ford Model T. The next generation of military arsenal is likely to include, for example, drones capable of air-to-air combat.

The attraction of unmanned vehicles for military planners and civilian political leaders alike is obvious. Unlike fallen soldiers, drones are not sons and husbands, or daughters and wives, who return home in body bags. Indeed, having drones may mean that infantrymen and pilots are committed to fewer treacherous missions and sorties.

Drones in this sense are a highly effective means of waging war. The US has enjoyed success in hunting down top Taliban and al-Qa'ida leaders.

For American troops, drones have arguably made their tours of duty a little safer.

Yet the ethics of resorting to risk-free machines are rather ambiguous. However precise missile technology may be, drones can nonetheless inflict "collateral damage" at minimal human cost to the military powers who deploy them.

In this respect, drones do not always help the cause of peace and stability. In settings where counter-insurgency strategies are more appropriate, using drones may do little to win the hearts and minds of civilians in combat zones.

Just ask Hillary Clinton. During the US Secretary of State's recent visit to the subcontinent she was rebuked by Pakistanis for using drones as a form of "execution without trial".

We should have no truck with apologists for the Taliban or al-Qa'ida, but it is hard not to sympathise with Pakistani complaints. Given that drones are operated by soldiers placed hundreds if not thousands of kilometres away from the action, there is a real risk that war can become dehumanised. The ethical problem with drone technology essentially concerns this distance.

At best, the lack of proximity may mean that military combatants grow complacent about avoiding or minimising damage inflicted on civilians while pursuing legitimate targets (thereby increasing the likelihood of violating what philosophers call the doctrine of double effect). At worst, the freedom to send fleets of drones instead of regiments of citizen soldiers into battle may lead political leaders and their publics to lose sight of the gravity of war altogether; to forget that just wars are precisely those for which we must be prepared to make sacrifices.

The luxury of waging war via remote control has the potential, then, to encourage political cowardice and military adventurism. To paraphrase Albert Camus, it can be easy to turn a blind eye to bloodshed when it involves someone else's blood. It is not necessarily a good thing that drones do not bleed.


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