A U.S. Predator drone flying above southern Afghanistan, in 2010. The use of such weaponry has emboldened armies to act in populated areas and to increase the exposure of a civilian population to risk Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP

The Most Ethical Weapons Ever Known? Not So Fast

Do drones and other guided weaponry protect civilians in war zones – or pose a greater threat to them?



Modern democracies face tough life-and-death choices in armed conflicts. A central dilemma in this context stems from the tension between two principles. The first is that of respecting the immunity of the enemy’s civilians, which entails not only refraining from deliberate strikes at them but also limiting so-called collateral damage – unintentional or unexpected harm to non-combatants during a military attack. One of the imperatives of the just-war theory is that soldiers are even required to undertake a special risk, if necessary, to avoid such damage. This principle was established in the West after World War II, and in particular after the Vietnam War, and legally enshrined in 1977, in the first Additional Protocol to the Geneva Convention of 1949.

The second principle involves minimizing harm to one’s own soldiers. It, too, took root after the Vietnam War, as the syndrome of casualty sensitivity developed in Western societies. This sensitivity challenges a country’s ability to deploy force, because of concern that losses among one’s own troops will stir opposition in public opinion, and it encourages states to invest resources to protect their soldiers’ lives.

The ostensible optimal solution to this dilemma emerged after the first Gulf War in 1991, a conflict that gave rise to the concept of “Revolution in Military Affairs” adopted by Western armies, including the Israel Defense Forces. One of the linchpins of this revolution – which was influenced by developments in information technology – was the increased use of precision-guided munitions, which can be operated from afar and beyond the adversary’s strike range (“standoff fire”). The use of such weaponry was accompanied by the increasing deployment of drones in the 2000s. Advocates of the revolution emphasized the importance of precision-guided munitions both as a means to curtail the risks soldiers face, because they are able to strike targets from afar, and as a way to reduce collateral damage owing to the precision of these munitions, which makes it easier for troops to distinguish between enemy combatants and noncombatants.

For its part, Israel, a source of inspiration for this revolution and also a pioneer in the development of drones, has used precision-guided munitions as a means to achieve both goals. The IDF has set an example in this realm, mainly since it has been waging wars in densely populated urban areas of the Gaza Strip, and in response to growing sensitivity in Israeli society to casualties among its own, in the wake of fighting in Lebanon. Similarly, decision makers in Israel have emphasized, primarily for reasons of international legitimacy, the reputation of precision-guided munitions for reducing harm to noncombatants. The announcement this week by the Office of the Prosecutor at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, to the effect that a basis exists for investigating suspicions that Israel committed war crimes in Gaza, subjects these justifications to new scrutiny.

Khalil Hamra/AP

In the wake of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, military and ethics experts have begun to question whether the use of precision-guided munitions actually reduced enemy noncombatants’ exposure to risk. The conclusion is that it does not – for several reasons.

First, the advent of the technology made it possible to lower the threshold vis-à-vis the use of force, principally because it helped calm domestic opposition to the use of violence. The use of precision weapons enhanced the public’s belief that their armies were acting with determination to reduce harm to enemy noncombatants. The assurance of precision contributed to the ability to drum up domestic support, or at least to reduce resistance to the use of military force, particularly if that force could be activated remotely and with virtually no risk to troops. As early as 1999, the technological promise of precision weapons enabled the leaders of the United States and Britain to persuade skeptical publics in their countries to allow NATO to launch air strikes in the former Yugoslavia, in order to stop what was perceived as the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo’s Albanian civilians. The results of that intervention remain controversial – for one thing, some experts believe that the aerial attacks only intensified the ethnic cleansing – but one thing is clear: NATO troops did not suffer losses in the war, but they killed almost 500 Yugoslav civilians in their sorties. This was not the result that had been anticipated when a precision technological war was promised.

Drones were also frequently deployed in the wars that followed. According to the French philosopher Grégoire Chamayou, the drone is “the most ethical weapon ever known to humankind,” one that allows for “humanitarian” combat. This approach has become part of the new American ethos of “military humanism” – an oxymoron that made it possible for the Americans to use drones against suspected terrorist targets in Pakistan for years without interference at home. Only Pakistan’s protest at the harm being inflicted on non-combatants compelled Congress to intervene, forcing the Obama administration to initiate a codification of the rules of strike, albeit in a limited manner (the United States continues to use drones today in a host of arenas worldwide).

Smart weapons have not only lowered the threshold when it comes to the use of force, they have also made it possible to lengthen the duration of combat and to increase the volume of the munitions being used – after all, operations employing them are ostensibly being undertaken with no undue risk to the attacking forces. But because civilians are sometimes hurt, if only because of defective intelligence, the multiplication of attacks necessarily heightens the risk to civilians. As noted by the sociologist of war Martin Shaw, who analyzed American attacks in Iraq, U.S. attacks were more precise than they had been in the past, but they were also more intensive, more destructive and closer to civilian population concentrations. As such, they also exacted a heavy civilian toll. To illustrate, between 2013 and 2018, about 8,000 men and women in Iraq – almost half the number of civilians who were killed as a result of direct attacks by the American coalition (without Iraqi forces) – died in aerial attacks, which were generally mounted as support for ground forces.

Indeed, trust in precise munitions has encouraged statesmen and generals to approve offensive campaigns against targets that there was no possibility of attacking, in the past, when armies did not have such weapons at their disposal. Without these weapons, the number of civilian casualties would have been higher, so the bar of the decision to employ force in urban areas would likely have risen. Alternately, as the example of Iraq shows, if they had forgone aerial support in order to avoid harming civilians, the troops themselves would have faced higher risk, which is also problematic.

The same statesmen and generals tend to justify the use of drones on the grounds that other means are less exact and therefore inflict more damage. However, this comparison is not relevant, because it’s unlikely that other means would have been used in that case. The outcome, in Chamayou’s words, is that “in a situation of moral hazard, military action is very likely to be deemed ‘necessary’ simply because it is possible, and possible at a lower cost.”

It is reasonable to suppose, for example, that the United States would not have waged drone warfare in Pakistan from 2004 to 2015 if that had entailed putting boots on the ground. That would have constituted an intolerable risk to the soldiers. It’s also likely that the United States would not have tried to eliminate terror suspects by way of imprecise aerial attacks, which would have endangered civilians – a situation the American public, and of course the Pakistani public, would not have accepted. As an alternative, the administration deployed drones that were operated by the CIA (not the army). It was explained to the public that these were “humanitarian weapons” that would endanger neither American troops nor Pakistani civilians. This warfare reached its peak during the Obama administration, and the results were devastating: Between 2,700 and 3,500 people were killed during those years in the strikes, among them between 160 and 2,600 civilians (different agencies vary in their estimates of the number of civilian casualties). It is safe to assume that about half of all those killed were civilians. Without the drone option, the attacks might not have been conducted and those victims would have been spared.

A similar argument can be raised in connection with the “targeted assassinations” that Israel carries out in the Gaza Strip by means of helicopters or drones. A detailed report compiled by Human Rights Watch following Operation Cast Lead (December 2008 to January 2009) documented six drone attacks that caused the death of 29 noncombatant civilians in Gaza. (The estimates of several agencies had been that the total number of civilians killed in targeted assassinations was higher.) All these incidents occurred in densely populated areas, including the center of Gaza City; five attacks took place in broad daylight, when people were going about their regular business. In Operation Protective Edge, in the summer of 2014, the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem documented the killing of 49 noncombatant Gazan civilians as a result of targeted assassinations.

OMAR SOBHANI / Reuters

The translation of technological ability into warfare disconnected from considerations of morality in combat is relevant here as well. The philosopher Michael Walzer wrote, “Drones not only make it possible for us to get at our enemies, they may also lead us to broaden the list of enemies, to include presumptively hostile individuals and militant organizations simply because we can get at them – even if they aren’t actually involved in attacks against us.” That approach, he noted, included an attempt to add drug dealers in Afghanistan to the target list.

Furthermore, the promise of precision is not always fulfilled, especially when the very trust in that promise allows armies to reduce the safety range between the target and civilians. Even small miscalculations or mishaps in using precision weapons can have devastating implications for civilians located in proximity to the intended targets; such mistakes were especially common in Pakistan.

There are also outcomes that are even less intentional. By stepping up attacks on populated areas, Western armies effectively encouraged their enemies to deploy in those very locations and thus to use civilians as human shields. That phenomenon is well-known from Israel’s wars against Hamas in Gaza, but also in other regions of the world. There are different ethical approaches for dealing with the use of a human shield, but given that armies often tend to blame their adversaries for the presence of civilians in combat zones, and at most to warn them and call for their evacuation before the attacks are launched – the result is liable to be lethal.

The myth of technology has also given rise to rhetoric surrounding “accidents” that occur when, despite the use of precise munitions, civilians are hurt. In the words of the head of IDF Southern Command in Israel, Herzi Halevi, after nine members of the Sawarka family were killed in an Israeli air force attack on Dir al-Balah, in the Gaza Strip, in November, “Such things can happen. We weren’t surprised by it, while on the other hand this was not the result we wanted.”

The use of precision weapons imposes greater responsibility than usual on the attackers, but at the same time also grants them absolution from responsibility. After all, if the weapon is precise and its use reflects an intention to avoid harming civilians – although civilians are nonetheless harmed – the incident is considered to be an accident for which the armies cannot be held to account. Perhaps there was even a technical failure and not necessarily an error of judgment or negligence on the part of the attacker?

The “promise of technology” has thus become one of the bases for legitimizing the use of force in densely populated areas. The use of these munitions has emboldened armies to act in such areas and thereby to increase the exposure of a civilian population to risk. But because, at the end of the day, the “shooter” is not the weapon but rather the political system that activates it – the use of these munitions should also be subordinated, in a more significant way, to civilian oversight, questioning the way the state wields the weapons at its disposal.

Prof. Yagil Levy’s book “Whose Life Is Worth More? Hierarchies of Risk and Death in Contemporary Wars,” was recently published by Stanford University Press.

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