America’s problematic remote control wars

July 8, 2011

Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

The United States is deploying missile-laden remotely piloted aircraft to kill enemies in six countries, scientists are working on ever more sophisticated military robots, and there are a host of unanswered questions on the future of warfare. Some of the more intriguing ones are asked abroad.

Such as: “Is the Reaper operator walking the streets of his home town after a shift a legitimate target as a combatant? Would an attack (on him) by a Taliban sympathizer be an act of war under international law or murder under the statutes of the home state? Does the person who has the right to kill as a combatant while in the control station cease to be a combatant on his way home?”

This comes from a study by Britain’s Ministry of Defence and refers to the air war waged by U.S. pilots who operate, from bases in the United States, heavily-armed drones flying over Afghanistan or Pakistan 7,500 miles away. The Reaper is the workhorse of the drone fleet, which has grown from around 50 a decade ago to more than 7,000 today. It is increasing at a fast clip, unaffected by defense spending cuts in other areas.

Most of the drone missions for the military are flown from Creech Air Force base near Las Vegas. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has a separate, covert, program that critics see as targeted assassinations. The CIA’s drones are operated from northern Virginia. The pilots, sitting in cockpits in front of television monitors, run no physical risks whatever, a novelty for men engaged in war.

Debate over the remote-control air wars — drones are now in action over Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Iraq, Libya and Somalia – has been largely confined to academia and think tanks, both civilian and military. But reports this week that the CIA had extended drone strikes to Somalia have prompted calls for a closer examination of where war ends and assassinations begin.

It is not an issue, however, that strikes a chord with the public and U.S. politicians are largely in favor of drone strikes. They are seen as an inexpensive way of targeting enemies, with no risk to the lives of American personnel. The downside to the seemingly risk-free elimination of Taliban fighters, al Qaeda militants and assorted other anti-American elements is of little apparent concern in the U.S.

What downside? High technology and precision weapons notwithstanding, the “surgical strikes” drone enthusiasts like to talk about are on occasion anything but, resulting in “collateral damage”, the euphemism for dead civilians.
Collateral damage tends to create more recruits to anti-American causes. Even without civilian casualties, remote-control warfare tarnishes the image of the United States, and the few close allies who use drones, in the countries where they are fighting.

“The West … is seen as a cowardly bully that is unwilling to risk his own troops but is happy to kill remotely,” the British study noted.


Such sentiments are unlikely to sway public opinion in the West, nor will they stop weapons developments that bring to mind an observation by the late science fiction writer Isaac Asimov more than four decades ago: “The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than science gathers wisdom.”

Which brings us to aspects of 21st century war that go beyond the pros and cons of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), as drones are also known. While they are frequently referred to as “killer robots,” they are “human-in-the-loop” weapons, so named because a human being navigates the aircraft and pushes the button that fires the missile.

If and when to cut the human out of the loop – and open a new era of warfare – is a matter of debate between scientists. “It … would be only a small technical step to enable an unmanned aircraft to fire a weapon based solely on its own sensors, or shared information, without recourse to a higher, human authority,” according to the British study.

That would mean, in effect, outsourcing life-and-death decisions to computer programs controlling both aerial and ground-based robots. Questions yet to be answered are complex and varied: How do you get a robot to tell an insurgent from an innocent? Can you program the Laws of War and the Rules of Engagement into a robot? Can you imbue a robot with his country’s culture?

If something goes wrong, resulting in the death of civilians, who will be held responsible? The robot’s manufacturer? The designers? Software programmers? The commanding officer in whose unit the robot operates? The U.S. president who gives the green light?

A number of scientists alarmed by such unanswered questions last September formed a group, the International Committee for Robot Arms Control, that is pressing for an international debate on the regulation and control of armed military robots. The prospect of that happening looks remote.

(You can contact the author at Debusmann@Reuters)


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see

I enjoyed the article.

Posted by M.C.McBride | Report as abusive

I think they’ve watched ‘the Terminator’ one too many times when they start talking about NOT having a human in the loop… military commanders would never go for it.

Posted by CDN_Rebel | Report as abusive

I believe the time has come to consider, as a society, if our Government has been given immunity from prosecution and consequences for too long. Why must we tolerate killing outside of the framework of a formally declared war? Especially systematic Government killing in a prolonged action opposed by a strong majority of American citizens? Why do we have to submit to corrupt and packed courts that refuse to enforce the law and refuse to force legitimate representation in Government?

The perpetrators of these actions should stop assuming that “obeying orders” in the USA is a more valid defense than in Germany. Bad legal structures can be changed and suddenly. Why do American Government employees get automatic exemption from the international courts in Holland?

Posted by txgadfly | Report as abusive

How would the drone program be any different with manned aircraft that intentionally flew into perceived enemies? The death and damage on the ground would be the same. The possibility we killed ‘legitimate targets’ would be at least as good. The only difference would be the voluntary death of the pilot. We had derogatory names for the Japanese who excelled at this while we were at war with them. The practice has been legitimized by the US, complete with marketing the results. There is a good reason our military never owns up to the death caused by the flying weapons, stating “it’s against policy”. The American public might have to face our complicity with a very un-American technique

Posted by auger | Report as abusive

I think the lack of a moral hazard (loss of life on the side of the offensive force) in the decision to pursue military action will increase the likelihood of military commanders to take more aggressive strikes.

If strikes can be made with out expending political capital then where will the checks and balances be to address over use and real cost.

This article is very very informative and frames the debate brilliantly. What would happen if a rogue military power like Israel who has a history of massive disproportional use of military force suddenly started to use drones.

It is very important that the powers that be equip the democracies of the world with a convention on the use of rov’s. Too often these structures and protections after an event on a wave of popular disgust.

The US needs to lead the way and curb its own agenda for the greater good of the world, albeit act like a true super power

Posted by StephenStephen | Report as abusive

“The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than science gathers wisdom.”

Very Credible and wise Column.

Posted by Ismailtaimur | Report as abusive

Where I live in SW Virginia, one hears about a growing unease among actual fighter pilots about the direction that aerial warfare is going. The drones have become so good so quickly that some fear that in another 20 years precision bombing runs may be conducted by remotely piloted jet aircraft. It’s difficult to envision drones being effective in a dogfight, but one never knows. With the right cameras and sensors one can picture men sitting at video game consoles taking on enemy fighters 5,000 miles away. We could be witnessing the beginning of the end of human pilots.

Posted by IntoTheTardis | Report as abusive

Regarding the concerns of replacing human pilots, this is not a “jobs” issue, this is a human ethics issue, and secondarily an international legal issue. The U.S. position is that “We can reach you, but you can’t reach us. That is war. But if you DO reach us, then it becomes terrorism.” Were this a matter of domestic policy, it would constitute an outrageous violation of the Equal Protection clause to our Constitution.

I’m an American, and I’m listening. I do not believe I’m alone in my desire that our people conduct themselves morally, regardless of where the conduct occurs.

Posted by BowMtnSpirit | Report as abusive

The truth is the majority of people real don’t care who dies unless it affects them personaly. That is the country we live in.

Posted by Dave1968 | Report as abusive

I love drones, they are effective weapons and we don’t need to expose American lives. Let the lawyers and intellectuals play with the wisdom and recite poetry. One thing is true nothing can’t stop productivity. No matter how strong are your ethics or human sensibility we are allways going for the systems that will work best. If drones are going to get the work done better than sending people, guess what!! We will send drones, even if you are mother Teresa.

Posted by axiom321 | Report as abusive

It’s all well and good right now because nobody else has drones capable of hitting the US. For now. What happens as this technology spreads (and it will) when drones begin hitting targets within the US? It might only be five years away as I type this. We ought to not be promoting these assassination policies and we ought to be setting a new standard for diplomacy and decorum in the world instead of this lowball, redneck shootout with brown people which just keeps defense contractors rolling in money.

Posted by BDB111 | Report as abusive

Mouse over the drone photo to reveal … “A supporter of religious and political part Jamaate-e Islami gives the victory sign…” Be careful whom you believe is benefiting from the use of any force. Our history in this area is quite checkered

Posted by auger | Report as abusive

What happens when our gov’t turns the drones on us?

Posted by poggy | Report as abusive

What downside? High technology and precision weapons notwithstanding, the “surgical strikes” drone enthusiasts like to talk about are on occasion anything but, resulting in “collateral damage”, the euphemism for dead civilians.

The enemy uses civilian homes, mosques, hospitals, anything to conceal himself. Civilian casualties are going to happen.

The fact is, civilian casualties are no where near the levels we’d see if we waged a nuclear or conventional war.

All those that would like to see us using Mustard Gas again, raise your hands.

Posted by The_Traveler | Report as abusive

So, the part of the dialog I see commonly glossed over; This looks to the world like nothing more than extrajudicial assassination. This horrifies and appalls my American sensitivities, and should offend yours as well. Yes yes – drones are certainly killing militants and insurgents, and probably even some actual terrorists… but under the current ROE we are seeing this UAV pilots firing heavy missiles at groups of people they have decided resemble their definition-of-the-week for “bad-guys”. Except that if these are enemy combatants, then we aren’t allowed to do this (by our own treaty obligations) when they happen to be attending a wedding full of civilians or in a village square with children all around them… That’s a war-crime. And yet we do. However, if these are ‘terrorists’ (exempt from the Geneva Convention) then we are obliged to attempt to arrest them (because under US and international law, terrorists are criminals, not enemy soldiers), and it’s using deadly force if they resist… but as you could expect with any police arrest in your neighborhood, they aren’t allowed to use high explosive and missiles if school children are standing around the suspects. So…. why the F&^# are we tolerating CIA operatives deciding who to kill without a the benefit of due process?! If it’s a military operation, why aren’t there military lawyers publicly defining the ROE, in accordance with UCMJ and US law?
What would Jefferson or Lincoln say if asked “Is it OK to purposefully choose to murder civilians when they happen to be standing near people we think *might* be a member of a ruthless adversary?”.

All we are accomplishing is our own ethical self-destruction, and creating a self-fulfilling prophecy out of Al-Qaeda’s claim that we are an immoral country that should be opposed. We should be trying to undermine their moral validity, and not lend it more credence. Trying to rationalize this kind of conduct is an exercise in self-delusion and tarnishes everything for which American is supposed to stand.

Posted by Tamooj | Report as abusive

No one is advocating ‘mustard gas’ (except Saddam Hussein, and we see where that got him). But to say that civilian casualties are lighter when we use drones is silly and not supported by any real facts. Yes, militants move amongst civilians, although probably not because they want shields as much as because they LIVE in these villages and go home to eat dinner and bring in the goats. Does that mean we have the legal or moral authority to interrupt their family dinner by ramming a Hellfire missile through the wall, killing man, women and children? I call bullsh&# on any moral argument that claims this is a legitimate way to conduct a war – At least in a firefight with ground troops every soldier gets to make the call; do I pull the trigger when I see a civilian running for cover? The missile’s seeker head doesn’t have this ability to discriminate, and the CIA shift manager who gives the firing green light has no incentive to care. It’s Vietnam ‘body-counts’ all over again… Just watch CNN or Fox and see how the biggest part of the Pentagon’s press release is “X number of insurgents killed” without regard to any discussion of EVIDENCE, PROOF, etc. We’re just fulfilling the bizarre need of Americans to simplify complex issues and to rationalize away our not-so-secret desire to drop bombs on any little brown people who get mad enough at us to pick up a gun. This is a losing proposition on every axis – Counterinsurgency is about removing the validity of the enemies cause, not about making more insurgents who hate us because we killed their mothers and little sisters during dinner.

Posted by Tamooj | Report as abusive

Throughout history, militaries during times of order have fought according to cultural rules and norms. When you go outside those rules then we have “atrocities” or “barbarians”.

Warfare had to adapt to the industrialization after the civil war. And treaties were written around it.

The point of the article is not pro or anti drone. Its just that before where a drone would replace a fighter/bomber mission – now they are so many, so cheap and so accurate they have created their own drone specific missions. We would never have ran so many targeted sorties before. The nature of the mission has changed.

So the question is should there be rules or conventions. Should the US lead in creating limits and legal law or just do as they wish. You can argue whatever you want but it will only be 30 years before drones are available to almost every major military so better to codify rules when you are ahead. One drone attack on the US will have 1000 times the economic impact on us than 1000 attacks will have on Somalia. Same applies to cyberwarfare, space warfare, etc. If you run roughshod, eventually it will catchup with you.

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Posted by George Bush’s lone foreign policy win « Shahid Soomro | Report as abusive

Law enforcement agencies and their ruling elected bodies around the U.S. are seeking legal authority and appropriations to purchase drones. What purpose could they have in mind with such a devastating weapon of destruction.

I thought the U.S. was a God fearing Christian nation. Those who live by the sword will die by the sword. Does such wisdom apply to nations as well as individuals?

The American People are unaware of the terrible deeds against the People of other lands perpetrated by our government for over sixty years now. Our leaders have not been honest with us. Our government has kept the People in the dark as to what is really done with our money(tax revenue). Those who sow a foul crop must eventually reap that harvest.

Posted by coyotle | Report as abusive

If “the enemy” is seen as beneath contempt – what hope does the victor have of winning “hearts and minds” when in his own heart and mind there really isn’t anything human to convert to his own point of view?

I used to think the Roman empire was brutal but the modern weapons. starting with the Nukes, and now child’s play drone warfare, mean not even the operator should feel all that secure that the machine that sends these aircraft will not turn against it’s temporary operators.
That the plot of many Sci-Fi shows I could footnote – if I knew how to footnote these comment boxes.

The history of modern warfare since the latter half of the 19th century, has been one of larger and more indiscriminate total war – where formerly civilian production capability was converted to military use. It admits to itself that warfare is based on the desire of whole populations and there are no innocents. There were far more civilian dead after WWII then there were military casualties. The Vietnam war seemed to be one where civilians were seen as nothing but “gooks”. There was a lot of collateral damage.

If Cayotte is really seeing civilian police budgets to purchase drone and other military hardware, he might not want to get too worked up over it. Cities and towns can’t balance their budgets now. How excited will they be to start taking on the staggering costs of the high tech toys the Pentagon likes to play with?

I for one don’t think mankind will ever be wiser than his inventions because it is very difficult for one person to pass wisdom on to another, let alone to make a mass of people wise. It is also difficult to know everything that an invention will do until it’s done it.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

Same story, different characters. The US is morally equivalent to the Taliban and Al-Queda. Except when the US is shirking its duty do go into Syria, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia(!) just to name recent examples of Europeans and/or Middle Easterners calling on our help. At some point (possibly soon) the US will be unable to protect Europe from without (example: Russia) or within (example: Kosovo) because we are going to be broke. Meanwhile China bides its time. Hopefully, the aristocratic class who runs China will not start a war over Taiwan when they realize we can’t/won’t defend the island democracy. If they do attack, guess who will get the blame?

That’s right, the bad bad evil horrible Sauron of nations, the United States of America.

I’m a liberal American and I’m aghast at the disintegration of our previously rational conservative half into raving lunatics. They caused a lot of death and destruction with George W. Bush.

But we didn’t deserve 9/11. And we have to protect ourselves from another one. We have to stop them every time, they only have to succeed once. There are loose nukes entering the fray now. Not just leftovers from the Soviets, but Pakistan is making 20 more a year and Iran can probably now at least build a dirty bomb. If we disengage again (like we did in the 90s) they will get through. They may get through anyway. And here’s a special note to all the Europeans, they very well may decide to hit you. The logic behind their attacks is no logic at all. Doesn’t matter if you sympathize with them, doesn’t even matter if you’re Muslim. They will kill whoever they can, as they’ve shown over and over and over.

Yet we are the bad guys because Europeans don’t care for Americans. I don’t even much care for Americans (I’m equally misanthopic in my estimation of homo sapiens, we all are pathetic). Maybe without this terrorism we secular liberals would have been in a stronger position to keep our country from re-electing GWB and/or prevent the Iraq invasion. So much has been lost. But never forget the guilty ones. The ones who even know are racking their brains over how to intentionally kill mass civilians. And its not the US.

The fact is that drones and robots are here and they will become used in vastly more advanced ways before you would believe it. In ten years the state of the art will be almost unrecognizable compared with what we see today. Iran gave Hezbollah drones which they used against Israel way back in 2006. Drone warfare is cheap and accessible. It has already filtered down to the terrorists. It will be a terrifying new world soon.

Posted by BajaArizona | Report as abusive

I’m going to go way out on a limb here and suggest old turtleneck Bernd doesn’t like Americans very much. Can’t say I don’t empathize, I’m American and I don’t like us much either. Yet I’m not so blind as to think other peoples are any better. Sure, the Dutch are very nice people. So nice they didn’t lift a finger as thousands of people were murdered while they watched in Sbrenica. People were shot and women raped right in front of their compound while the Dutch soldiers just sat around. But otherwise, they’re perfect and we should all try to be more like them.

Switzerland, ah what a beautiful peaceful, haven’t gone to war since 1648. What a wonderful place. Especially if you want a bank to put all the wonderful stolen paintings, gold taken pulled from the teeth of prisoners, and other loot acquired while exterminating 12 million civilians in death camps. (Pet Peeve: Nazis killed 6 million Jews, but you almost never hear quoted the actual number of systematic civilian exterminations including Poles, Chechs, Gypsies, Slavs, Homosexuals, etc.)

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