The first overused and under-scrutinized argument is the fear that drones make war “easier to wage” because “we can safely strike from longer distances.” Well, we’ve had that ability since the birth of air power and missile power, it just makes it a lot easier to hit certain kinds of targets at a certain tempo. After all, it’s only the pilots who are “far away,” the drones themselves still operate from bases with real, flesh-and-blood people who are potentially exposed to retaliation, and those bases are not necessarily any further away than bases for manned aircraft (in most cases they service both). It’s notable, actually, that the US actually requires significant international cooperation to maintain the bases it wants to launch drone strikes from, and only in Libya has the US ever used drones against a government it admitted to being at war with (as opposed to Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia, where the US strikes non-state actors with some degree of compliance from the local government).
This does of course make war-making easier to some extent, but why we should find this alarming is unclear. Similar effects could be achieved with advances to manned aircraft, stand-off guided missiles, advanced naval weapons, and so on. Drones are an incremental advancement in technology, so far they have no prevented a major alteration in the offense-defense balance, they have merely made military operations we already preferred to fight – such as the US targeting of al Qaeda with air strikes in 1998 – more effective, but without the acquisition of bases capable of generating large volumes of combat sorties, a sustained war would not be “easy” by any means – and those bases would also increase manned-aircraft sortie generation. The loss-of-strength gradient still applies.
....we get to one of my favorite charges against new military technology, that it will embolden our enemies because they will think we are cowards (emphasis mine)...
...Does anyone think it matters that soldiers of counter-insurgent or counter-guerrilla forces, think insurgent tactics are dishonorable? Do you think Taliban or Badr Brigade members wrote missives to each other worrying if Dragunovs, L-shaped ambushes and IEDs with explosively formed penetrators were going to cause them to lose the respect of the American occupiers? War is not won with style points. It is conducted with the maximum amount of lethal force a country feels appropriate for the accomplishment of its political goals, and policymakers must intervene to ensure it does not exceed that. Now, yes, avoiding being hated by the civilian population does matter, but if you replace “robot patrols” with “tank patrols” or “white men with body armor and wraparound sunglasses,” you get a similar answer – the problem isn’t unique to drones, because people tend to have a basic and healthy distrust of armed foreigners anyway.
As for winning the enemy’s respect, we should remember, as Betty White once put it, “I’m going to attack you with this, and you use respect to defend yourself.” The enemy already thinks American soldiers are cowards with expensive machines, this is nothing new. Beyond the tanks, the over-the-horizon artillery barrages, and the enormous bases, there is air power. To the average terrified insurgent soldier, there is little moral difference whether it is a Harvest Hawk or a Reaper slinging Griffins at them. In either case, it is a nigh-invincible machine which the Americans can dispense death from. To a guy with an Kalashnikov or a DShK, that Harvest Hawk’s crew might as well be in Creech – they can’t be stopped. It’s not that we’re killing people with drones that drives terrorist recruitment, it’s that we’re killing people. If we just sent American fighting men and women into hostile villages wearing nothing but loincloths and swinging heavy sticks, people would still be very mad at you when you beat somebody to death.
The additional disrespect that weapons technology earns soldiers is generally more than outweighed by the casualties and incurs and fear it induces in the enemy. To the extent that it causes anger, it is through collateral damage and the death of compatriots, but drones are hardly unique in doing so. The way in which weapons – any weapons – are used in war generally far outweighs the weapons themselves in the overall psychological effect.
An additional misplaced concern the drone program is disproportionately saddled with is that of collateral damage...
...How on earth is this a new problem because of drones? This was a problem when we were using manned aircraft and it is a problem with naval missile and gunfire support and artillery as well. We’ve never had a magic ratio that resolved this debate and never will. This problem, again, precedes drone warfare and will outlive it. But the concern is particularly strange since drones actually allow us to reduce collateral damage significantly compared to many alternatives, since it is easier for a drone to loiter and strike with greater precision than it would be for the pilot of a jet aircraft.
I would add that for each of these ethical worries one could provide an ethical obverse, as it were, and ethical 'benefit' of the new technology. Taking each in turn:
First and last considerations: Drones make 'easier' the more precise and targeted killing of combatants, rendering it less likely there will be collateral damage. Definitly ethically superior to lobbing missiles or carpet bombing, right?
Second, on the issue of respect, whose respect counts here? Consider the enemy, who uses terror as a primary modus, regularly targets civilians. Contrast that with ourselves. We use the drones, very concerned with avoiding civilian casualties, the technology having in fact grown organically from out of that very soil. Do we really expect that he will respect us for doing so, and what would we reap from it if it appeared? And, why should we care that they respect us? We should be more concerned with respect from the civilians, and winning them over. Tall order indeed.
In both cases, a concerted effort at education would obviate the negative side of the ethical considerations coin, and highlight, as well as bring about the positives.