Drone Strikes

Drones or unmanned aerial vehicles are used not only for surveillance but also, when armed, for lethal strikes in armed conflict. Examples of combat drones include General Atomics’s MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper. Perhaps the most well-known drone strikes are the ones conducted by the United States in its counterterrorist operations in Afghanistan and the tribal areas of Pakistan (Federally Administered Tribal Areas, or FATA—especially North Waziristan). In this entry, the use of drone strikes as a means of conducting targeted killings and the settings and circumstances in which they are employed are examined from both practical and moral perspectives. The differences between targeted killings, surgical strikes, and signature strikes are then revealed, with a discussion on the morality of the latter two in theaters of war.

Drone strikes are sometimes referred to as targeted killings. Roughly speaking, targeted killing is the premeditated, freely performed, intentional killing of a uniquely identified individual who does not pose an imminent threat. The targets do not pose an imminent threat since they are typically killed in circumstances in which they are, for example, asleep in their domiciles (e.g., Osama bin Laden).

It is not necessary to use drones to perform targeted killings; indeed, compared with handguns, rifles, and other weapons, drones are a blunt instrument. Nevertheless, drones can be used for targeted killings. For example, the firing of a rocket from a U.S. drone in Yemen in 2002 that killed six al Qaeda operatives was an instance of targeted killing since it took place in a relatively sparsely populated geographical location (so that there was little or no chance of the loss of innocent life). However, drones can also be used for nontargeted indiscriminate killing. For example, a drone operator could deliberately activate a drone to destroy school buildings known to be occupied by children. Moreover, even when carried out with the best of intentions, drone strikes have killed innocent bystanders. Accordingly, the moral controversy in relation to targeted killing, although it overlaps with the moral controversy over the use of drones, is different in important respects; one might support the targeted killing of terrorists under certain circumstances but argue that the use of drones in counterterrorism operations should be banned.

There is a need to make a threefold distinction between theaters of war (e.g., battlefields), well-ordered civilian jurisdictions existing under the rule of law (e.g., London), and disorderly jurisdictions that—although not well-ordered—are, nevertheless, not theaters of war (e.g., the FATA).

The controversial cases of drone use, and indeed of targeted killings, are in disorderly jurisdictions—areas that are neither theaters of war nor well-ordered civilian areas.

The term targeted killing should not be confused with the notion of a surgical strike or that of a signature strike. Surgical strikes include ones conducted against individual high-value targets and also to inflict relatively heavy casualties. The latter is clearly not targeted killing, because the targets may well be anonymous combatants. However, neither is the former necessarily targeted killing, because such surgical strikes against uniquely identified high-value targets may well involve the unintended but foreseen killing of innocent civilians (so-called collateral damage). Signature strikes are strikes on individuals who have not been uniquely identified in our sense but who exhibit a pattern of suspicious behavior. As such, they are not targeted killings.

As is the case with targeted killings, surgical strikes and signature strikes are, at least in principle, morally permissible in a theater of war (in the overall context of a just war). Likewise, they are morally impermissible in well-ordered civilian jurisdictions. However, the morally problematic cases are disorderly jurisdictions and, in particular, counterterrorist activity in areas such as the FATA.

Signature strikes are morally problematic in counterterrorist operations in civilian areas of disorderly jurisdictions in which terrorists are active because, in effect, the definitions on which they rely are regarded as too permissive. They are too permissive by virtue of not being sufficiently reliable indicators as to whether or not a given terrorist suspect is in fact a terrorist. Accordingly, they inevitably lead to the intentional killing of suspects who turn out to be innocent civilians. In short, the notion of suspicious behavior is arguably too epistemically weak to underpin a moral justification to take the life of a person otherwise known to be only a civilian, albeit in an area in which there is terrorist activity.

In counterterrorist operations in disorderly jurisdictions, such as those engaged in by the United States against al Qaeda in the FATA, surgical strikes are frequently lethal drone strikes against terrorists living among innocent civilians and not readily distinguishable from those civilians. Notwithstanding that they are intended to minimize innocent civilian deaths, surgical strikes bring with them the distinct possibility of collateral damage and, therefore, given multiple surgical strikes, the likelihood of significant loss of innocent human life. By contrast, targeted killings do not imply any loss of innocent human life on any occasion or, indeed, on multiple occasions taken in aggregate.

Arguably, therefore, surgical strikes cannot be morally justified in counterterrorist operations in disorderly jurisdictions but, rather, only in theaters of war in which the principles of military necessity and proportionality—rather than more restrictive principles, such as those governing the use of lethal force by the police—are applicable.

This view is consistent with maintaining that targeted killing is morally permissible, at least in principle, in counterterrorist operations in disorderly jurisdictions. This is because targeted killings do not, at least in principle, necessarily or typically involve collateral damage. By contrast, surgical strikes involve significant collateral damage, hence the significant loss of innocent human life arising from drone strikes in the FATA. Although the numbers here are in dispute, according to a recent Council on Foreign Relations report, the loss of innocent human life in FATA alone from 2002 to 2012 was in the hundreds.

Seumas Miller

See also Drones, Commercial Applications of ; Morality ; Terrorism

Further Readings

Amnesty International.Will I Be Next? US Drone Strikes in Pakistan. London, England: Author, 2013.

Finkelstein, C., et al., eds. Targeted Killings: Law and Morality in an Asymmetrical World. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Medea, Benjamin. Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control. London, England: Verso Books, 2013.

Miller, Seumas. Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism: Ethics and Liberal Democracy. Oxford, England: Blackwell, 2009.

Miller, Seumas. “The Ethics of Targeted Killing: Osama bin Laden, Drones and Counter-Terrorism.” Public Affairs Quarterly, v.28/3 (2014).

Strawser, Bradley Jay. “Moral Predators: The Duty to Employ Uninhabited Aerial Vehicles.” Journal of Military Ethics, v.9/4 (2010).

Strawser, Bradley Jay.Killing bin Laden: A Moral Analysis. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

Zenko, Micah. Reforming U.S. Drone Strike Policies. New York, NY: Council on Foreign Relations, 2013.