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The Implications of Drones on the Just War Tradition

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 September 2011


Increasingly, the United States has come to rely on the use of drones to counter the threat posed by terrorists. Drones have arguably enjoyed significant successes in denying terrorists safe haven while limiting civilian casualties and protecting U.S. soldiers, but their use has raised ethical concerns. The aim of this article is to explore some of the ethical issues raised by the use of drones using the just war tradition as a foundation. We argue that drones offer the capacity to extend the threshold of last resort for large-scale wars by allowing a leader to act more proportionately on just cause. However, they may be seen as a level of force short of war to which the principle of last resort does not apply; and their increased usage may ultimately raise jus in bello concerns. While drones are technically capable of improving adherence to jus in bello principles of discrimination and proportionality, concerns regarding transparency and the potentially indiscriminate nature of drone strikes, especially those conduced by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), as opposed to the military, may undermine the probability of success in combating terrorism.

Copyright © Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs 2011

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2 While the military employs a wide range of unmanned aerial vehicles, this paper will focus exclusively on Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles, which we refer to as drones. Drones are different from robots, which denote completely autonomous machines, whereas “unmanned” systems are remotely controlled by human operators either prior to and/or during their flight. There are currently three kinds of drones: fully autonomous (preprogrammed before flight), semiautonomous (requiring ground input during critical portions of flight, including weapons employment), and fully ground-controlled.

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12 New American Foundation, “The Year of the Drone”;; accessed March 29, 2011. Information about drone attacks in Pakistan is often contradictory and widely divergent. The New America Foundation research “draws only on accounts from reliable media organizations with deep reporting capabilities in Pakistan, including the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal, accounts by major news services and networks—the Associated Press, Reuters, Agence France-Presse, CNN, and the BBC—and reports in the leading English-language newspapers in Pakistan—the Daily Times, Dawn, the Express Tribune, and the News—as well as those from Geo TV, the largest independent Pakistani television network”.

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43 This logic may not always be the case; for instance, during the hunt to kill Baitullah Mehsud, a Taliban leader in Pakistan, it allegedly took sixteen missile strikes over a fourteen-month period during 2008–09 that killed between 207 and 321 additional people; see Mayer, “The Predator War.”

44 Bellamy, “Is the War on Terror Just?” p. 289.

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