In some ways, the seemingly unprecedented use of drone and remote-controlled weapons systems in the ongoing war in Ukraine have transformed war as we know it. Of course, drone warfare—or, better, so-called drone warfare—is not new. Remote Piloted Aircraft—the Predator and Reaper platforms—have been a staple of US military operations for much of the major combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq and the wider counter-terror operations across the globe.
But the scale and type of drone warfare in Ukraine does appear transformative. The Turkish made Bayraktar TB2, small enough to be carried in a flatbed truck, carries laser-guided bombs, is made at the fraction of a cost of a hellfire or cruise missile, and is so accurate that it can score a hit inside an infantry trench and so lethal that it has been used to take out Russia’s most advanced air-defense systems and armored vehicles. A pop-song has been made in Ukraine proclaiming the Bayraktar’s glory.
Since the Bayraktar’s early successes, Russia has somewhat managed to adapt its defenses to dampen the lethality of the Turkish drone. In response, Ukraine has turned to smaller drone platforms, including weaponizing small, hand-held drones. Even those with comparatively rudimentary video technology have proved their worth in identifying targets for artillery, surveillances and reconnaissance. Such commercial drones have also been rigged as drops for simple conventional munitions such as hand grenades. Still other drones—the so-called kamikaze drones such as the Switchblade—have proved their worth as killers on a one-way trip. Armed with a high-explosive they fly into a target, blowing up both it and the target. The US has supplied Ukraine with thousands of such weapons.
Of course, Russia has followed suit. Using Iranian made Shahed drones they send swarms of remote-controlled weapons far beyond the reach of their ground forces to target vital infrastructures. When used with the indiscriminate willfulness of the Russian commanders, the drones have been devastating. Beyond their sheer destructiveness, it costs Ukraine many more times the expense to defend against the drones than it costs Russia to deploy them. A good explainer video can be found here.
Ukraine has successfully used not just remote-controlled aircraft but remote-controlled sea-based drones as well. A swarm of essentially remote-controlled jet skis with bombs wrecked havoc on Russia’s Black Sea fleet.
Beyond the strategic and tactical transformations that are required to account for the number and types of remote-controlled weapons systems being deployed, moral philosophers and military ethicists are pondering whether and what changes drones have made to military ethics. Here, too, the transformation is really only one of degree. The ethical implications of autonomous weapons have, by now, been pretty well rehearsed.
Arguably, no new moral laws need to be crafted in order to account for new weapons systems or new ways of fighting. The just war tradition, for one, is perfectly capable of addressing new challenges using ancient wisdom. Human laws, too, have continually had to adapt to the changing character of war. Aristotle understood one of the values of procedural law was damage-control against human appetite. Law—essentially human wisdom without the passion—has always had to try and dissuade human cruelty and destructiveness.
We’ve been thinking about all this since the opening night of the Afghan War, just over twenty years ago, when America launched its first “drone” strike. It missed. But the Predator—and later Reaper—programs successfully began the current reshaping of modern war, offering greater precision, discrimination, and proportionality. These are goods for which Christians should be grateful. At the same time, as now, some observers then insisted the new weapons were moral failures. They’re wrong.
Still, such Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) were prone to misunderstanding from the start. They aren’t technically drones—autonomously flying aircraft. The human pilot has only been displaced, not removed. This seeming lack of humanity is amplified in the design: there’s no cockpit, no glass canopy, you never see the person. It’s a faceless machine that too easily conjures up images of Terminator-style robots. As one RPA piloted lamented, the creepy misgivings could have been avoided if only they had painted eyes on the thing!
Critics insist that RPAs have been used indiscriminately, or at least wantonly—as in the allegations made against the Talon Anvil special operations team. Others charge that the weapons’ relatively low-cost, low-risk way of killing from a distance has made killing too easy. RPA pilots, critics charge—based in the States but operating half-a-world away—are too insulated from what they are doing. It’s true that, unlike most combatants, an RPA pilot’s time between deployment, combat, and redeployment home is not measured in months or years but in hours. Aviators leave their house for their shift, fly a mission from a climate-controlled ground station, kill someone 7,500 miles away, punchout, maybe grab the kids on their way home, mow a lawn, make love to their spouse, and hit the rack to get ready for another day.
This cocktail of violence, distance from that violence, and regular life lived in between bouts of taking life is assumed by some to cause a “PlayStation mentality” that adds psychological and empathetic distance to the geographical. Not so.
RPA pilots are under no illusion about what they’re doing. First, many have combat deployments in traditional aircraft and find piloting either platform surprisingly similar. One F-16 veteran described experiencing the same heart-pounding, adrenaline-filled rush killing bad guys and protecting friendlies in a Reaper as he found manning his jet. Doing it at “one-G and zero knots” made no difference.
But even those without such previous experience cannot escape the gravity of their task. The technology doesn’t allow it. A Reaper can loiter above a target for some 14 hours. Tactically, this is indispensable. It affords flight crews the necessary time to confirm or deny the person they are tracking is a legitimate target. The video technology is claimed to be so sophisticated that license plates can be read or person identified from several miles away.
What this means practically, however, is that a crew might have tracked a man for hours or even days before killing him. In confirming his target’s identity, observing his routine, watching him live a human life, a strange intimacy can develop. After pulling the trigger, the pilot might watch his target bleed out, see his death spasms, witness his family rush out to find him, see them grieve. To gather intelligence, the aircrew may linger on target: who collects the body? Who attends the funeral? What other warfighter in all the world stalks, kills, watches die, and attends the funeral of his victim?
But it’s not all grim business. In a happier anecdote, an operator described the emotional high of providing security to a ground unit by keeping his aircraft parked protectively overhead. Over the radio, an operator with the ground team told him he was the only one awake because “everyone else is getting some sleep and it’s the first sleep they’ve had in days.”
RPAs, like any weapons system, can be a force for good or for evil. In highly trained hands—and the Reaper community is ever-increasing its professionalism—it can leverage tactics and technology to avoid many moral jams. Combat decisions are often made in seconds. The technical capacity of the RPA elongates the time between acquiring a target and firing on it. Mistakes can be avoided.
That they are not always avoided is owed both to the teething troubles endemic to any new system and to human fallibility. We can improve on both. It’s worth doing. If war must be, Christians should laud new weapons allowing us to fight with greater humanity while still winning the mission. RPAs have proved profoundly capable of both preventing terrorist safe havens in remote parts of the world and doing so discriminately.
In our own backyard, the men and women who make up the aircrew of America’s Reaper Force are owed our gratitude, not censure. They courageously shoulder enormous emotional burdens and moral risks. They perform nobly. And they do so with little acclaim. It’s a travesty. For over the last 20-plus-years they have formed an essential component of the outer perimeter of American security.
Incidentally, for more on this. Joe Chapa, Providence-friend and a U.S. Air Force officer who once flew the Predator, has written an outstanding reflection on the morality of the RPA program. Is Remote Warfare Moral? ought to be required reading.
In light of the strategic and tactical success of the US RPA program and the literal swarms of innovative technologies operating in the multiple domains of the Ukrainian battlespace, we miss the warning in all of this at our peril. In a prescient piece at The New European, Paul Mason reminds us that future war demands that we innovate or die. But, despite the glitz of modern technologies, this is nothing new.
Mason recalls the March 1862 naval engagement in the US civil war during which the Confederacy’s ironclad steamer ravaged the Union’s wood-hulled navy at Hampton Roads. In the immediate aftermath of the battle, the lessons were clear: navies would become powered by steam and made of metal. The strategic implications, Mason suggests, might have taken longer to digest, but they, too, were ironclad truths: those nations that could make a lot of steel and dig up a lot of coal would become powerful.
Today, and whether or not this is in any way unique is irrelevant, we face a similar lesson: those countries that can expand the battlespace through the revolutionary design and application of digital comms, cloud data, cyber assets, artificial intelligence, remote and automated systems, and other technologies will be more secure at home and more dangerous and dissuasive abroad.