In countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan, the sight of a sudden explosion that seems to come from nowhere has become an increasingly common sight. The use of unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) or drone technology has been in the headlines more frequently in the last few years as the Obama administration has increased its dependence on UAVs to attack and kill suspected terrorists. This has raised some complex questions about the morality of this technology and the effects it has on the way we both wage and view warfare.
The reasons for using UAV technology in war are obvious. UAVs are extremely precise when compared to other forms of air-based weaponry such as cruise missiles, bombs or mortars. Using unmanned aircraft also allows U.S. military servicemen to remain in safety. UAVs can reach areas that ground personnel cannot both because they can fly for long distances and because it is often too risky to send Special Forces teams on combat missions in places like Pakistan where their capture or discovery could result in serious breakdowns in diplomatic relations. In short, UAVs are perhaps the most efficient and effective tools in a war based on intelligence and fought against an enemy that can hide in both remote and populated areas.
Despite these advantages, many believe that potential downsides to UAV technology outweigh any strategic benefit they may bring. One of the most common arguments used against the military use of UAV technology is that UAVs are immoral because they result in civilian deaths. While it is true that UAVs do sometimes kill innocent civilians, evidence points to the fact that UAVs actually reduce civilian casualties. UAVs can loiter in the air for hours waiting for a time when their target moves away from civilians while simultaneously collecting intelligence that can be used in the future.
Why should our military and intelligence services be limited to using less precise technologies that put more civilian and military lives at risk? Surprisingly, one of the arguments made against UAVs is that they are actually too good at what they do. It sometimes gives people a bad feeling in their gut when they hear that the fighting has become so asymmetric that a terrorist can be blown up in Afghanistan by an Air Force pilot sitting in front of a joystick in Colorado. Opponents say that the development of this technology alone does not justify its use. They are right: the mere act of strapping hellfire missiles onto a Predator drone does not justify its use. The potential to save the lives of our military servicemen, the American people and innocent civilians on the ground justifies their use.
Yet another argument made against the use of UAVs is that, since they make it so easy to kill our enemies, the U.S. and its military will become lax in how they wage war leading to more civilian casualties. So far, it appears that the operators of the UAVs that have been deployed in Afghanistan and other Middle Eastern countries have not become lax in their duties. Furthermore, the question of classification of enemy combatants is one that affects all weapons technologies from cruise missiles all the way down to troops carrying M4s. Although it may be true that in some cases the bar for intelligence has been set too low resulting in civilian deaths, this has more to do with the military’s judgment than it has to do with UAV technology itself.
In contrast, I believe the arguments against UAVs that hold the most water are those that bring up the issues of terrorist recruitment and foreign relations. As many Afghans and Pakistanis see it, America’s use of drones is a sign of cowardice and is dishonorable. Add to this the stories about civilian casualties and you get a new group of people that may be willing to join the fight against U.S. and Coalition Forces.
Additionally, relations with some countries in the region — especially Pakistan — have become strained due to drone missions that often cross into these nations’ territory. These countries view this as a violation of international law. The U.S. must focus on resolving these issues going forward to avoid stirring up even more trouble in the future and enabling a never-ending conflict.
While UAV technology has enabled the U.S. military to more efficiently and precisely engage targets while simultaneously gathering intelligence, it has also raised questions that transcend military strategy. At this time, though, it looks as if the downsides of this technology are outweighed by the benefits it provides.
Matt Parman is a senior Mechanical Engineering major from Mountain View, Calif.
Editor's note: This article is part of a point-counterpoint series. Read Jacob Grunberger's article, "Let’s declare war on drones before it’s too late" from October 11.