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Last week's poll: Drone warfare ethics

The use of unmanned aerial vehicles (aka drones) in warfare is now an established fact for many nations. Which option is closest to your feelings on this?

Our readers seem to have no ethical qualms about the use of drones in warfare. The largest group of our 603 respondents, 40 per cent, said that there were no ethical issues with current drone technology; 37 per cent thought it acceptable to use UAVs for reconnaisance and observation. Only 6 per cent thought drone use was never acceptable, while 7 per cent thought they caused too much collateral damage and 1 per cent thought they missed the target too often; 9 per cent declined to pick an option.


Please let us know your opinion on these results.

Readers' comments (23)

  • Believe drones with smart projectiles of greatly varied power can surgically complete missions. Compared with manned aircraft with immediate actions w/o as much oversight as 'drone control central' has as much chance of 'too much collateral damage' of targets using schools and hospital as shields.

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  • "All is fair in love and war"

    If the enemy fight with suicide bombers at home and IEDs in the field, then we have a moral duty to our armed forces not to send them into battle with their arms tied but to give them all possible means to fight on our behalf.

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  • The Engineer should stay away from politics and stick with the task of engineering.
    The editorial staff have stepped beyond there remit with this survey, this is very worrying.

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  • Which part of our remit have we overstepped? Do you think that engineers should never consider the ethical implications of their work? That's very worrying.

  • Using drones incurs a special responsibility to ensure that the drone accomplishes the objective exactly with no residues.

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  • There are no ethical issues with using current drone technology if both sides are in a no-holds-barred fight.
    If they want rules, agree on them, Geneva convention style, under which they probably operate.

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  • Your poll seems to have missed the point causing collateral ethical confusion. Ethics are bound up with the nature of the conflict as well as the methods adopted. If the conflict is 'justified' the pursuit of its aims will be best met by minimising loss of life on all sides. In this case yes - use drones and don't miss the target. If there is no 'just cause', using any weapon is wrong.

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  • This argument is nearly as old as warfare. People argued about the ethics of the longbow in the middle ages and submarines 100 years ago. One thing that does concern me is that drones are predominantly used by rich countries against poorer ones. Any foe with a reasonable air defence would soon render the sky a very hostile place for drones. But the status quo will not last - I imagine that engineers in these countries that are being preyed upon by drones are working flat out on ways of bringing them down or perhaps even hijacking their controls. And while drone operators thousands of miles away from their targets may feel safe, the perceived powerlessness of their targets will only serve to swell the ranks of terrorists.

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  • War and any armed conflict guarantees collateral damage on the civilian population. We,civilians, become a part of the conflict.
    The questions regarding drones are not any different than aircraft bombing and 'smart' missle strikes . Collateral damage is a byproduct of war, sadly.

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  • Ethics really have nothing to do with the argument, it is almost completely financially founded. Drones are cheaper than fast jets, they use the same, or at least very similar targetting technology (nor do they risk the lives of aircrew) so why do we think collateral damage is any higher than with conventional aircraft?

    IMO the question of collateral damage is irrelevant and whipped up by the do-good brigade because they can convey the perception of armchair warfare. If there were no drones, the strikes would still happen but by conventional means and the casualties would be just as high.

    I hate the thought of innocent people being killed in the pursuit of terrorists however this is the nature of modern warfare. Are the Taliban and the rest of the fanatics criticised by their 'public', damn right they are, but they take no notice and kill and torture indiscriminately.

    The price of freedom is high, tragically the terrorists victims won't stand up and be counted, but they are quite happy to accept everything civilisation provides them, including the freedom and democracy they are all crying out for.

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  • if the drone doesn't do the "job" then you have to send a pilot in and risk his/her life.war is a terrible thing but whose life are you going to put at risk your own people or your enemies?

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  • Since when was it acceptable for so-called civilised democracies to carry out extra-judicial assassinations?

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  • Who sets the options in these surveys? I often agree with more than one option, or none of them. They are too simplistic.

    In this case I agreed with none of the propositions. Of course war has ethical implications, but that does not mean that the use of any particular weapon is never justified (except those outlawed by the Geneva Convention). Is conventional bombing any better or worse when you drop multiple bombs from thousands of feet in the air onto an area that almost certainly has civilians in it? Or use of artillery from miles behind a front line?

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  • I agree with unmanned drones to be used in warfare, why risk human life when there are alternatives?

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  • No ethical issues using drones. Same issues arise with armed individuals.

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  • Having spent a large amount of my life in the military and especially the airforce (RAF), and been deployed to several 'war zones' I feel a little educated in this matter. I am not a pilot but was an engineer and had weapon system responsibilities and weapon loading responsibilities.

    During my time I have seen a step change in air to ground combat, not only in weapons but also the technology and methods used. In days of yore pilots (and navigators / Weapon SYstem Operators) were almost autonomous in their actions but in any case had to follow the 'Rules of Engagement' relevant to their country. Please note different countries have different rules of engagement (i.e. what is allowed and when to shoot/drop weapons etc).

    In more recent times this has changed slightly as enhanced avionics allows cockpit to operations centre live feeds. And now in many operations centres sits a panel of military legal confirming the decision of weapon release or fire, in addition to the 'Rules of engagement' in the cockpit. IMPORTANTLY this also applies for unmanned aircraft or drones. The remote pilot still has to follow their own ''Rules of Engagement' and this has to be backed up with confirmation from the operations centre.

    Unfortunately, for some, I have to state I have never heard of (nor seen classified video of) an engagement where a weapon was fired or dropped outside of the rules of engagement. More-over I have seen more videos/encounters where weapons were not released for fear of collateral damage which resulted in enhaced risk to our troops on the ground. Usually it was the crew of the aircraft that made the decision 'not to fire /drop'.

    Many may have the opinion of aircraft flying around dropping weapons 'willy-nilly' on the first avialable and semi-credible target, but this is simply not the case. Before any weapon firing or release a large chain of command and decision making process has to be made. Ultimately the person pressing the button has to be able to stand up in an international court and justify that decision if required.

    Regarding accuracy, a drone is no more or less likely to hit or miss the target than any other weapon platform. In actuality a real problem is weapons that malfunction, predominantly bombs that don't explode. These have to be located and then disposed of safely, bearing in mind this is by nature in a hostile zone, but is always carried out.

    I can not speak for other nations, but certainly the UK, from my personal and front line experience, has a very proceduralised and strict method for engagement of the enemy and protection of innocents. Allied to policies every weapon release is recorded by on-board video systems, which is incidentally not a new process (remember the footage from WWII spitfires often seen in archives).

    The political reasons and places the forces are asked to engage is a whole other argument which I will not get into, but as far as weapon systems and releases are concerned there is more to it with manned and umanned aircraft than initially meets the eye.

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  • All is fair in Love and War

    This type of thing has been used for years, it's a war, you don't get the choice whether you are involved or not, like victims of suicide bombs or ied's don't. Its a sad world but unless everyone plays fairly, why restrict capability?. .....

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  • Drones are used to sustain the power of the haves. Mostly they are aimed at the have-not's. This goes for other weapons as well. With drones there isn't any personal threat for the party acting with them. This lowers the treshold for using them.
    I think drones should not hold any weapons

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  • Has anyone noticed that when people communicate with each other through emails or comments or tweets or posts on the internet they often write things they would never think of saying during human to human interactions? I think this is due, in part, to the understanding that there is more at stake when communicating at arms length.

    I wonder how sitting behind a console far from the field of battle might influence the behavior of someone who is operating a drone.

    This is just the sort of thing I believe engineers ought to be thinking about and discussing publicly as they develop tech.

    If we must have drones, then perhaps engineers can find a way to make them behave ethically -- even if their human operators can't or won't.

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  • Every little advantage counts, and drones allow less risk to the owner's soldiers. However, I would predict an empoverished country might get a low-powered nuclear bomb to blast it just behind its own frontiers to nullify all the high-tech equipment of the enemy via EMP. Without comm, a drone is just a zombie.

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  • There are no ethical issues with using current drone technology.

    Prevention of damage to civilians, is the biggest deterrent; and therefore, one has to think many times before launching an attack.

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