Death by Remote

As the use of unmanned aerial vehicles expands, so has the discussion of the morality of killing people far away with the touch of a button.

Lieutenant Colonel Ido doesn't wait for the question. He takes up the question of morality at his own initiative, almost at the start of the interview.

"It's far from simple, when someone is in an air-conditioned trailer eating yogurt under fluorescent lighting, and within 30 seconds, with his help, another person dozens of kilometers away is dead," he says. To him, that sums up the dilemma facing operators of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, also referred to as "drones") in the Israel Defense Forces. It is one of the major issues Ido must address as commander of the school for UAV operators at the Palmahim air force base.

The UAV base - Nir Kafri
Nir Kafri

"This profession, of UAV operator, has brought new aspects to the army experience," Ido continues. "These fighters participate very intensively on the battlefield, decide fates in seconds, but are not themselves in any sort of danger. This would seem to make things easier for the Jewish mother, but the soldier himself faces far more acute conflicts.

"A soldier on the battlefield needs primarily to survive. He doesn't have to think very much when he opens fire; he is exempt from considering all kinds of issues. For UAV operators, survival is not part of the equation; all that remains are operational and moral considerations."

Lt. Col. Ido (censor's restrictions permit use of only his first name ) has been on the job for three years. Over that period, he greatly expanded the extent to which he addresses moral issues while teaching a course for "inside operators" - officers who operate airborne UAVs and command unmanned missions. ("Outside operators" are in charge of the drones takeoff and landing; once the craft enter a flight path, they are taken over by "inside operators." )

As part of the course, Ido leads the "Morality and Combat" workshop. He starts with the Kibiyeh operation in 1953, in which Israeli soldiers killed 60 civilians in the Jordanian village of Kibiyeh in retaliation for a terrorist attack in Yehud. The course participants read the seminal essay "After Kibiyeh" by philosopher Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz, who wrote, "Only the decision of one who is capable of acting and on whom rests the responsibility for acting or refraining from action can pass the genuine test of morality. We, the bearers of a morality which abominates the spilling of innocent blood, face our acid test only now that we have become capable of defending ourselves and responsible for our own security. Defense and security often appear to require the spilling of innocent blood." (Translated by Eliezer Goldman, the editor of "Judaism, Human Values, and the Jewish State," a collection of essays by Yeshayahu Leibowitz, published by Harvard University Press, 1995.)

"When people are killed by mistake, we are tormented, and that's how it should be," Ido says. "I've met some people who had a very hard time with it. Some coped, and others wanted to leave. I told them, 'This is dirty work. Who would you like to have do it? We would all like to be professors.'"

Legitimacy debate

The use of UAVs has also given rise to moral dilemmas in the U.S. military, especially in the past two years, since President Barack Obama decided to use them extensively in the war on Al-Qaida in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Sudan.

Fierce debates are underway in the American media and academia over the legitimacy of such attacks. Are they not actually extrajudicial executions? This dispute was exacerbated in September after the U.S. military assassinated an Al-Qaida cleric - and American citizen - Anwar al-Awlaki, in a drone attack in Yemen. The Obama administration has no doubts: Sending armed drones into confrontation zones is far preferable to sending in ground troops. They are far cheaper, American soldiers aren't killed, and they cause fewer diplomatic rows.

The Americans are developing and acquiring hundreds of new UAVs capable of carrying advanced missiles. The British, too, have recently begun to use them in Afghanistan, and there is no doubt that they will become increasingly prevalent, as other countries acquire them for assault missions.

Whereas in the West there is a lively public debate over the "robot wars," in Israel there is almost no discussion of the subject. There are various reasons for this. The debate over "targeted assassinations" was already conducted during the second intifada, and even reached the High Court of Justice.

The American drones can launch attacks on the other side of the world, where soldiers cannot go. In contrast, the use of unmanned aerial vehicles by the IDF takes place largely across the border, in the Gaza Strip and Lebanon, places where Israeli ground forces recently operated and where they will almost certainly return in the future. And there is also the military censorship that turns every report about armed drones - as opposed to those used for observation and intelligence gathering - into one based on "foreign sources."

This situation changed somewhat two months ago, when WikiLeaks released two U.S. State Department documents describing conversations between IDF generals and American diplomats. The former military advocate general, Maj. Gen. Avichai Mendelblit, told the Americans about an IDF investigation into the killing of 16 Palestinians in a Gaza mosque.

"Mendelblit said the facts were known," the diplomat wrote in his summary to Washington. "A UAV fired at two Hamas fighters who were standing in front of the mosque and the result was 16 casualties inside the mosque - due to an open door through which shrapnel penetrated during a prayer service," Mendelblit reportedly continued."

In June 2009, Human Rights Watch published a report based on testimonies of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. According to the report, Israeli drones wounded and killed at least 29 Palestinian civilians during Operation Cast Lead, a half year earlier. This, the report said, was a violation of the laws of war, because the operator can see civilians are being targeted and alter the missile's trajectory accordingly. At the time, the IDF Spokesman refused to respond to the report, but a senior officer in the UAV unit says, "It grieved me, because I know how hard we work to avoid cases like that. Sometimes, there is a UAV in the sky whose whole mission is to search and check that there are no noncombatants in the attack zone."

Says Lt. Col. Ido: "The asymmetrical confrontation against terrorist organizations in urban areas, the territories and Gaza takes us to the extremes. We operate in those places, and the key, above all, is professionalism. A professional generally does not make moral errors and achieves the goal with minimal collateral damage. When the terrorists send children to collect a missile tripod after an attack, it is professionalism to see that it is a child and not an adult, and to recognize this before someone attacks."

Triple D

Earlier this fall, the air force's first UAV squadron marked its 40th anniversary. The event was attended by air force commander Maj. Gen. Ido Nechushtan and senior figures from Israel Aerospace Industries, the manufacturer of the Shoval (Heron ), the main UAV used in intelligence-gathering missions.

The Shoval lifts off and lands two days later, and in that time executes a large number of missions in different regions. Operational orders come nonstop from a variety of "clients" within the IDF and the intelligence community. In the course of one such sortie, the Shoval might be sent to perform four or five tasks that were not planned before the liftoff. The operators in the control trailer are rotated every four hours.

"Many people are surprised that we have been around for 40 years already," says the squadron commander, Lt. Col. Zviki. "Originally, the UAV was intended for high-intensity warfare and less for routine security. Nowadays, the UAV accompanies every military mission from above." This means everything from gathering intelligence in what the air force calls the "third circle" - namely, the Iranian sector and its satellites - to assisting firefighters in the Mount Carmel forest fire and guarding worshipers at Joseph's Tomb in Nablus. It was also recently decided that drones would be a major part of the protection afforded the offshore natural gas rigs in the Mediterranean.

Lt. Col. Zviki, an F-16 combat navigator by training, says the term "unmanned" is not a good description. "It's just that the cockpit is on the ground," he says. "The aircraft is technically manned, even though we don't really fly a plane but rather operate an aircraft in flight. Instead of a stick and throttle, we have a mouse and a keyboard."

The range of the missions flown by the squadron and the two other, younger UAV squadrons reflects the transformation of the threats facing the IDF. The first, American-made UAVs, which were introduced into service in 1971, were quite awkward and took only stills. After the Yom Kippur War, it was decided to expand the use of drones, mainly to support manned warplanes, in order to address the threat of the Arab armies' surface-to-air missiles, which downed dozens of Israeli planes in the 1973 war. The first extensive use of UAVs was in the Lebanon War of 1982, in the form of smaller drones.

"These days it's no longer a drone - a model plane with a camera," says Col. Eli Ankori, head of the air force's UAV, Space and Intelligence Branch. "We are now talking about a very extensive portfolio, and there is a broad understanding these days that wherever we can execute a mission unmanned, we will do so. It is clear that this means every mission in which you don't want to risk lives and can execute without risking human life. There is a tremendous advantage to UAVs. They are also significantly less costly, as the per-hour cost of flight is far lower."

Col. Eli switches to English to sum up the missions where UAVs can take the place of manned aircraft: "Triple D: dirty, dull, dangerous."