The Case for Drones

This is a research paper I wrote for a military ethics class I took while at Texas A&M in the Spring 2017 semester. The purpose of the paper was to take a current event and/or some military-related issue and create an ethical argument around it. As I knew that I could write a paper against drone warfare easily, I decided to challenge myself by taking the opposite stance. If I’m remembering correctly, I received an “A” on this paper:

“What’s the difference between a terrorist training camp and a hospital?” A man asks.

The other man responds, “How should I know? I’m just the drone pilot!”

The military use of drones has been a source of controversy in this nation. There are many people who approve of the use of drones to strike at targets. There are others who disagree. There have been a number of civilian casualties and accidents related to the misuse of drones, as alluded to by the previous dark joke. While both sides of this debate have valid arguments, one simple fact exists: Drones are not going away. Barring some calamity that sends all of humanity into a technological backslide, drones will remain in military use for a long time to come. As this is the case, this paper will attempt to formulate an ethical argument in favor of the use of drones. To do so, it would be best to begin with a short history of drones as well as current data and events surrounding them. This will be followed with some common arguments against the use of drones and their refutation. Finally, this paper will conclude with an argument that ethically allows for drone strikes.

While military drones may seem like something out of a science fiction novel, the United States has been experimenting with them since World War Two. The Radioplane Company built over 15,000 remote controlled “drones” during the war. These were small, propeller-powered planes that were used primarily for target practice. The 1940s also saw developments in guided bomb and missile technology, but these were rudimentary.[i]

After the war ended UAVs were still used, but still not as offensive military hardware. During the Vietnam War remote controlled aircraft were used for surveillance purposes. In 1995 video cameras were added to the Gnat (as the Predator drone was called back then) which saw use in the Balkans. In 2000 a drone was able to locate Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, after al Qaeda was tied to the World Trade Center bombing of 1993 and two 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa. However, he was able to escape due to concerns about conducting a raid and putting American soldiers and civilians at risk.[ii] According to author Mark Bowden, in a 2013 article in Smithsonian Magazine, it was at this point that national security officials thought of arming drones.

“Initial testing of beefed-up, missile-equipped drones was completed in 2001, and soon after the September 11 attacks the first weaponized Predators, armed with Hellfire missiles and designated MQ-1L, were flying over Kabul and Kandahar.”[iii]

Since then, the military use of drones has only increased in scope. Surveillance is still a key part of the UAVs’ mission, but now so is the ability to strike at designated targets. In 2003 the United States surpassed a billion dollars in spending on military drones.[iv] President George W. Bush oversaw 57 drone strikes during his presidency, largely in Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen. Under President Barack Obama these numbers jumped to 563 strikes.[v] Donald Trump, the 45th president of the United States, ordered over 20 drone strikes against al Qaeda in Yemen in early March of 2017.[vi] With President Trump’s many campaign promises to destroy ISIS and his current plans to beef up the military,[vii] one can reasonably expect a high rate of drone strikes in the coming years.

Now in the present day, where drone warfare is a reality, their ethical use has been a hot topic of debate. There are several arguments against using drones to strike at targets. While these arguments make good points, many of them can be refuted after some thought and research. This paper will examine two of the most common arguments: civilian deaths and lack of oversight.

The first argument against drones is the amount of civilian casualties they cause. According to a White House report from July 2016, between 2009 and 2015 there were between 64 and 116 civilian deaths related to drone strikes. The report listed civilian deaths in Pakistan, Yemen, and Africa. In contrast, the Director of National Intelligence stated that roughly 2,400 “enemy combatants” were killed in 473 strikes. 2,400 in exchange for 116, or a ratio of almost 21 to 1. While any collateral damage in war is sad, these are understandable figures. However, the report left out other nations like Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan.[viii]

According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, the actual numbers or civilian deaths are much more sobering. According to their reports, from 2009 to 2015 anywhere between 380 and 801 civilians were killed.[ix] This changes the ratio to, at the very worst, three enemy combatants for every one civilian. At best it is still a ratio of roughly six to one. Civilian casualties like that seem much less acceptable.

However, consider the purpose of drone strikes. Beyond surveillance, they are meant to strike at enemy targets without having to put boots on the ground. Having in-person military force leads to greater casualties than a targeted drone strike. The Vietnam War shares several similarities with the current situation in the Middle East, one of the largest being the military’s attempt to combat an enemy using guerilla tactics, terrorism, and blending in with civilians to hinder these attempts. According to military records of the National Archives, the Vietnam War saw 10,786 “non-hostile” deaths and 47,434 “hostile” deaths.[x] This is a ratio of about four to one. While this is slightly better than the three to one ratio of drone warfare at its worst, one must also remember that it is still worse than both the Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s lowest estimate of civilian deaths and the government’s official statement. Plus, it ignores civilian deaths caused by North Vietnamese forces and the Viet Cong.

Returning to more recent times, The Gulf War also saw its fair share of civilian suffering. A Human Rights Watch report from 1991 estimated “perhaps between 2,500 and 3,000 Iraqi dead” from the air campaign. Iraqi missile strikes at Israel resulted in a much smaller 12 to 14 deaths, but caused many injuries and infrastructural damage.[xi] The Gulf War, compared to previous wars, had a much smaller rate of civilian casualties. However, this can be attested to the use of drones for surveillance, as well as the increased precision of smart bombs and other guided weapon technologies.

The Obama administration saw a higher reliance on drone warfare as the president attempted to withdraw troops from the Middle East.[xii] This increase in the drone’s use, naturally, would lead to inflated numbers of civilian casualties. In short, the research is simply not there to state that drones cause more civilian deaths than conventional warfare. Collateral damage, as unfortunate as it is, is a reality of warfare. It is one that can be lowered through more precise strikes against enemy targets, which is what drone strikes are meant to do. As their development continues and technology improves, one can hope to see the amount of civilian deaths decrease.

The second argument against drones that will be examined is their supposed lack of oversight. One similar problem runs through every conflict against nonconventional enemies: how does one know who the enemy is? This problem was faced in Vietnam, it is faced in today’s war on terror, and those who fight against guerilla and/or terrorist organizations will forever face it. This is an especially tricky problem when drones are involved. On whose authority do drones strike at their targets? Who even decides what the targets should be? How can something so secretive as the use of drones be trusted?

Those who use this argument attempt to make out drone strikes as mindless and random. Their pilots are emotionlessly staring at a screen as they pull the trigger to destroy targets that were picked at random. This, however, could not be farther from the truth. There are admittedly problems with the drone program, as with any military program, but work is being done to tighten already strict controls as well as to pull back the curtain of secrecy cloaking the program.

In July of 2016 President Obama issued an executive order that requires the Director of National Intelligence to “obtain from relevant agencies information about the number of strikes undertaken by the U.S. Government against terrorist targets outside areas of active hostilities … as well as assessments of combatant and non-combatant deaths resulting from those strikes, and publicly release an unclassified summary of such information no later than May 1, 2017. By May 1 of each subsequent year, as consistent with the need to protect sources and methods, the DNI shall publicly release a report with the same information for the preceding calendar year.”[xiii]

This executive order also called for greater training and surveillance to ensure that only the proper targets are attacked. Furthermore, the executive order stated that all relevant agencies would work to develop better technology to lower the risk of collateral damage, and to take precautions such as warning the civilian population before a drone strike, circumstances permitting.[xiv] This comes directly from Barack Obama, the president who oversaw the largest increase in drone strikes to date. It is a terrific step towards greater transparency and precaution, and should easily dispel concerns that drones are being used with barely a thought.

It is not just the Commander-in-chief who is concerned with drone use, though. Not just anybody can fly a military drone. According to information gathered on the U.S. Air Force’s website, there are several prerequisites to becoming a Remote Piloted Aircraft (RPA) operator. An operator must be between the ages of 17 and 39. The very minimum education required is a high school diploma or a GED, and at least 15 hours of college credit. Flight experience is desired but not required. Normal color vision is also a requirement, as well as the ability to pass the Single Scope Background Investigation (SSBI.) They must also pass the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) test in the general and electronics areas. After all of that, operators must complete seven and a half weeks of basic training as well as “Airman’s Week,” followed by 31 days of technical training.[xv] In summary, these are not random recruits operating and maintaining these pieces of military hardware. They undergo a lot of training and are held to a high standard.

Finally, the very design of the drone itself hinders it from targeting people and objects indiscriminately. The drones are designed to strike at individual targets as precisely as technologically possible. The MQ-9 Reaper, the military’s current attack drone, has an impressive array of tools meant to strike with force and precision. The Reaper has many ways to view the terrain it flies over, such as an infrared sensor, a color/monochrome daylight TV camera, an image-intensified TV camera, a laser range finder/designator, and a laser illuminator. As far as attacking the enemy goes, the Reaper can carry several laser-guided weapons to ensure precise strikes, Paveway II guided bombs and Hellfire missiles among them. The Hellfire missiles provide high accuracy and low collateral damage.[xvi] This means that it is not a whole city block that is taken out by a drone strike. It is a single vehicle, for example, and the immediate area around it. Once again, collateral damage is an unfortunate side effect of warfare. The technology in play with drones, however, is specifically designed to minimize it.

To conclude this essay it would be best to show that an ethical argument can, indeed, be made in favor of the military use of drones. What is more, this argument can be done from a series of philosophical backgrounds. Drone use is allowed under the philosophical theory of Utilitarianism, the golden rule, and the Doctrine of Double Effect.

The Utilitarian point of view, in a basic summary, is that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Whatever is done must be done for the greater good. The “many,” in this case, would be the United States, her allies, and all the citizens of those nations. This could be expanded to say that the “many” are people all over the world who are threatened by terrorist acts.

Getting a shot hurts. It may make an especially young child cry and panic; it may even make him temporarily sick. However, the child’s parents and the doctors know that the pain of the needle is for the greater good. The child is now vaccinated and won’t suffer from deadly diseases later on. A drone strike, in this sense, is the shot. It causes pain, of course, but it is a necessary pain for the greater good. It will cause pain to a family, maybe even a whole town, but for the sake of international security and future peace it is a necessary pain.

Hypothetically, say that a terrorist can be killed via drone as he sits in his home building a bomb. However, there is an innocent civilian standing near the house and could possibly be killed. If the terrorist leaves with the bomb, however, a dozen more lives are at risk depending on where he plants the explosive. Would it not be the case that the death of the terrorist and possibly one innocent leads to greater happiness than a busload of innocents dying?

The second justification for drone warfare can be found in the golden rule. This is a rule that can be found in many different religions and philosophies. It states, in the Christian phrasing, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

This may seem counterintuitive at first. How are drone strikes “doing unto others?” No sane person would want robots from a far-off nation flying overhead with the capacity to blow them up with the push of a button. However, if one gives it some thought, the “golden rule” of drones becomes clear.

One must remember how drones are designed to be used: Precisely and with as little collateral damage as possible. This is preferable to the terror bombings of World War II, most people would agree. Hypothetically, if there were a terrorist organization within the United States dedicated to the overthrow of the government, and a foreign power was called in to restore peace to the area, drone strikes would be the better alternative to carpet bombings and troop deployments. It is nowhere near an ideal scenario. Then again, the “ideal scenario” would be a world where weapons such as drones were unnecessary. However, seeing as drones are designed to have the largest effect with the least collateral, they do technically follow the golden rule.

The final argument in favor of drones that this paper will discuss comes from the Doctrine of Double Effect (DDE.) DDE states that the negative outcome of an event, if unintentional, is justified if the action was taken for a good cause.

The cause of a drone strike is to eliminate a terrorist threat. This is undoubtedly a good cause. The negative side effect, however, is the occasional civilian death.

To look deeper into it, however, there are a few more stipulations of DDE. There are four questions one must ask to determine if an act is justified. Primarily, is the act permissible? The president of the United States has the authority to call for drone strikes, so the answer is “yes.” Secondly, is the bad effect avoidable? In warfare, as unfortunate as it is, innocent lives are taken. With drone strikes it is the same. It is not intentional, but it happens. The third question: Is the bad effect the means of producing good (i.e. is the bad effect intended?) As drones are not used for indiscriminate killings or carpet bombings, no, civilian deaths are far from intended. Finally, is the bad effect disproportionate to the good? Were it the case that four or five civilians died in every drone strike, it would be reasonable to say “yes.” However, this is not the case. Often terrorists are the only ones harmed in drone strikes. Collateral damage is avoided as best as possible, and is therefore not disproportionate. In short: the Doctrine of Double Effect grants the use of drones to attack targets.

Drones have been a controversial subject for many years. Some approve of their ability to strike targets from a distance without putting American lives at risk. There are others who feel that the hardware causes too much collateral damage and has too many flaws to be ethically permissible. However, through an examination of their history one can see that drones have been around for a very long time. Their offensive use is only a recent development. There are several arguments against the use of drones, but these can be refuted. Lastly, through the use of various philosophical ways of thinking, one can formulate strong arguments in favor of their use! In conclusion, there is one fact that must be remembered. Drones are here to stay, and therefore arguments for their ethical use are paramount.

[i] Rothstein, Adam, Drone. (Bloomsbury Academic, New York, London, New Delhi, and Sydney, 2015) pg. 27.

[ii] Bowden, Mark, “How the Predator Drone Changed the Character of War.” Smithsonian Magazine, November 2013. Accessed March 2017.

[iii] Bowden, “How the Predator Drone Chanced the Character of War.”

[iv] Newcome, Laurence R. Unmanned Aviation: A Brief History of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. (American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Virginia, 2004) pg. 128.

[v] Purkiss, Jessica, and Jack Serle, “Obama’s covert drone war in numbers: ten times more strikes than Bush.” Bureau of Investigative Journalism, January 2017. Accessed March 2017.

[vi] Stewart, Phil, and Mohammed Mukhashaf, “U.S. pounds al Qaeda in Yemen with more than 20 strikes.” Reuters, March 2017. Accessed March 2017.

[vii] Herb, Jeremy, “Trump Order Sets Military Buildup in Motion.” Politico, January 2017. Accessed March 2017.

[viii] “Obama Administration Discloses Number of Civilian Deaths Caused by Drones.” CBS News, July 2016. Accessed March 2017.

[ix] Purkiss and Serle. “Obama’s covert drone war in numbers.” Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

[x] “Statistical information about casualties of the Vietnam War.” National Archives. Last reviewed February 2017. Accessed March 2017.

[xi] “Needless Deaths in the Gulf War.” Human Rights Watch, 1991. Accessed March 2017.

[xii] Purkiss and Serle. “Obama’s covert drone war in numbers.” Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

[xiii] Obama, Barack. Executive order, “United States Policy On Pre- And Post-Strike Measures To Address Civilian Casualties In U.S. Operations Involving The Use Of Force.” Office of the Press Secretary, July 1, 2016.

[xiv] Obama, “United States Policy On Pre- And Post-Strike Measures.”

[xv] U.S. Air Force, “Remote Piloted Aircraft (RPA) Systems Operator,” Accessed March 2017.

[xvi] U.S. Air Force, “MQ-9 Reaper.” September 23, 2015. Accessed March 2017.


Bowden, Mark. “How the Predator Drone Changed the Character of War” in  Smithsonian Magazine, November 2013. Accessed March 2017.  

CBS News, “Obama Administration Discloses Number of Civilian Deaths Caused by   Drones.” July 2016. Accessed March 2017.

Herb, Jeremy, “Trump Order Sets Military Buildup in Motion” in Politico, January      2017. Accessed March 2017.

Human Rights Watch, “Needless Deaths in the Gulf War,” 1991. Accessed March 2017.

National Archives, “Statistical information about casualties of the Vietnam War.” Last reviewed February 2017. Accessed March 2017.

Newcome, Laurence R. Unmanned Aviation: A Brief History of Unmanned Aerial            Vehicles. Virginia: American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, 2004

Obama, Barack. Executive order, “United States Policy On Pre- And Post-Strike          Measures To Address Civilian Casualties In U.S. Operations Involving The Use     Of Force.” Washington D.C.: Office of the Press Secretary, July 1, 2016.

Purkiss, Jessica, and Jack Serle, “Obama’s covert drone war in numbers: ten times    more strikes than Bush” in the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, January   2017. Accessed March 2017.

Rothstein, Adam. Drone. New York, London, New Delhi, and Sydney: Bloomsbury       Academic, 2015

Stewart, Phil, and Mohammed Mukhashaf, “U.S. pounds al Qaeda in Yemen with       more than 20 strikes” in Reuters, March 2017. Accessed March 2017.

U.S. Air Force, “Remote Piloted Aircraft (RPA) Systems Operator,” Accessed March 2017.

U.S. Air Force, “MQ-9 Reaper.” September 23, 2015. Accessed March 2017.  



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