Last week the Oxford Union debated the motion 'This House Believes Drone Warfare is Ethical and Effective'.
Speaking for the proposition were Benjamin Wittes, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution; Kenneth Anderson, law professor at the American University, and journalist and author David Aaronovitch. Opposing the motion were Chris Cole of Drone Wars UK; Naureen Shah of the Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute, and Jeremy Waldron, legal and political theorist of Oxford and NYU.
Konstantinos Chryssanthopoulos makes the case for the motion.
As humanity has evolved so too have the methods with which we wage war. From the longbow, to the gun and even the nuclear bomb, every development has been about being able to inflict more damage to our enemy at a lower human cost. Now in the 21st Century there is a new weapon that governments have at the disposal, namely, the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or more commonly referred to as drones. Although instead of causing mass damage, these drones have the accuracy to carry out assassinations on foes thousands of miles away.
Indeed, their use has been surrounded by numerous criticisms which stem primarily from the belief that they are different to all weapons that have preceded them. When this very debate was held at the Oxford Union on Thursday 25 April, the opposition rightly indentified that drone strikes come with a lower the cost of engagement and they argued that this leads to their more frequent use by distancing the actors from the physical attack. They also referred to a 'PlayStation mentality' that makes using a drone strike easier for any person that the killing should be because of how disconnected they are from the result of their act.
However, this latter thesis does not have sufficient evidence to be fully proved and furthermore, as the proposition highlighted several times there is a very thorough and clear process that occurs before any drone strike is used preventing a 'trigger happy' approach. Moreover, the former argument concerning the lower cost of engagement is in fact an argument that does a lot more to support drone warfare rather than undermine it. By having a lower cost of engagement, high risk missions can be performed without putting at risk the lives of military personnel. This is certainly no bad thing; after all if even a single life of a serviceman can be saved during a war then surely it is a nation's duty to choose that course of action.
Another point that must be considered is that if we were to ban drone warfare what the alternatives would be. The opposition in this debate drew attention to the idea of non-intervening or attempting to capture the targets however in reality, neither option is usually viable. The high profile targets are simply too far into hostile territories for soldiers to capture and often in areas surrounded by civilians making an air strike too risky. It has been suggested that diplomacy might be the right answer but it must be remembered that the enemy whom is targeted by governments using drones are not nations; they are extremist individuals who themselves do not abide by the laws of war and would not be open to negotiate.
The opposition in this debate also will question the accuracy of this technology; they question the pinpoint nature of the weapon and quote various numbers of civilian deaths to prove this point. However, what must be made clear is that while drones are not perfectly precise they are far more precise than nearly all other weapons. This is largely due to the longer 'loiter time' they can sustain. What this means is that they can hover over a target for hours on end waiting for the exact moment when there will be no collateral damage or at its lowest. Compared to a pilot in a plane or a soldier on the ground their ability to survey is unparalleled. Moreover, it must be remembered that there is no weapon out there that is totally accurate but drones are far more effective as they only strike when they have the best chance and can never be rushed into acting.
Additionally we must consider the result of using drone strikes, it cannot be disputed that the leadership and weapon factories of organisations such as Al Qaeda and the Taliban have been severally damaged as a result of their use. Many key figures that were hidden deep in the tribal regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan would have been totally inaccessible to any other form of attack and yet are always susceptible to drone strikes. Surely this argument highlights just how efficient drones are as they have effectively destroyed these groups' leadership and weapons without risking a single soldier's life.
The final issue that must be addressed is that of legality, in the current theatre of war the line between combatants and non-combatants has been severely blurred. The enemy no longer is a nation, nor do they wear a uniform. They hide out of reach of any army and use anonymity as a weapon. Therefore, the traditional method of warfare can no longer be used, to win such a war nation's armies and weapons must adapt. Drone warfare is one such evolution, it allows nation to strike its enemies where they hide. As the battlefield has become delocalised so too must the weapons' reach and drone warfare achieves just that.
In conclusion, while the technology is far from perfect, drone warfare is not only a legitimate and legal weapon but also a necessary one given the circumstances of conflicts these days. For the opposition to suggest it is neither ethical or efficient is both false and naive as no other alternative could adequately achieve the success seen through the use of drones.