The use of unmanned aerial vehicles, also called UAVs or drones, has attracted great criticism around the world as technological safety enters a new decade. Western powers, including Great Britain, prefer drones in combat situations to minimize the risk of soldier casualties and collateral damage on the ground. Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson said the government plans to invest £ 7m in a brand new drone squadron after leaving the European Union to bolster its global presence and increase our lethality. How do these “deadly” drones contribute to a more precise and ethical way of waging war? We often view the use of drones as part of the natural advance in the technological modernization of warfare. As long as they have the “intention” to destroy IS fighters, the general public consensus about the drones used by the military is fairly passive. In this paper, the theory of precision ethics is used to discuss various cases where the Royal Air Force (RAF) has deployed drones, mainly focusing on Iraq and Syria. In particular, Reyaad Khan, a British ISIS fighter who organized a terrorist attack on Britain.
First, this paper will give a brief analysis of those who are in favor of drone warfare. The argument is that all of the positive aspects of drone warfare are usually short-lived. Second, it examines what is meant by “ethical warfare” and defines it normatively, precisely and with the newly established “necroethics”. Drone warfare is not seen as a struggle, but as an action of certainty leading to the impending death of your target and possibly other civilians. Third, it is argued that the psychology of distance, language, and “drone vision” affect the operator’s moral ability to act as a human when dealing with the enemy. The paper will then compare the use of drones between the RAF and the American Air Force. It does so following UK fears, which follow a similar narrative to the US by making huge investments in weapons.
There is an argument that the use of UAV robbery drones makes the attack on a foreign enemy more precise and therefore a positive step for future warfare. Some scientists studying drone strikes say that it is a moral obligation of the West to use drone strikes because they are obviously safe and accurate. The historian Strausser asserts: “There is no disadvantage. Both ethically and normatively there is enormous value. You do not risk the pilot. The pilot is safe. And all empirical evidence shows that drones tend to be more accurate.”. Proponents of drone attacks often compare the UAVs to alternative modern weapons to make their point clear. For example, air strikes by the RAF’s new F-35 Lightning II jets carry more missiles with a larger explosion radius and therefore cause greater collateral damage. Proponents also note that in the reality of warfare there will always be collateral damage. It’s just the unfortunate burden of living in a combat zone. The theorist Zehfus opens her article with the statement:
War necessarily means destruction. Buildings are blown up, important infrastructures destroyed, life ended. Some of this damage is very deliberate: the destruction of a given target is a military success, after all.
The unfortunate reality is that these “positives” are usually short-lived and further problems can escalate. The most recent attack of international interest was the drone attack on Iranian General Qasem Soleimani on January 3, 2020 in Baghdad. While this was an American attack by the Trump administration, it helps highlight a timely and significant example that shows the need for discussion on the global impact of drone strikes. Speaking in Congress after the incident, Democrat David Price said: “We are under no illusions about … the atrocities committed by Qasem Soleimani. However, President Trump’s order to assassinate Soleimani is an escalation that threatens the lives of thousands of Americans, including our soldiers. ” .
Predator drones have changed the whole complexion of the precision ethics debate about modern warfare. The definition of precision on which this paper relies is based on the idea that “Accuracy means the ability to hit the right target while minimizing collateral damage. Precise targeting requires technological skills supported by good intelligence. “. In this sense, the new warfare represents a different way of thinking than the struggle of the 20th century or the “normative combat theory”. That said, technology has eliminated the need to physically face your enemy. However, it is difficult to argue that these types of unmanned weapons are more “ethical”. This is because what one person defines as “ethical” another does not agree with.
The ethical theory of the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas helps define the moral code in combat. For Levinas, ethics must be reinterpreted and understood as a primary philosophy and not just as an extension of ontological, epistemological or political narratives. Therefore, this article places the theory of precision ethics at the forefront of criticism of the use of drones in the Middle East. His theory “refers to the fact that” I “cannot refuse responsibility for the” other “”. In short, the ethical source at which this essay criticizes the use of drone attacks is based on the lack of face-to-face encounters with aerial warriors and the resulting (insufficient) responsibility. Hence, it is seemingly impossible to make comparisons between drone wars and war in the 20th century like Vietnam. Instead, we have two confused genres of conflict, namely traditional warfare versus drone warfare. In this case, drones can no longer be called a combat ethic, but rather the ethic of bringing someone to certain death. The theorist Chamayou argues:
It transforms the war from a possibly asymmetrical relationship into a one-sided relationship of death in which the enemy is deprived of the opportunity to defend himself. It [drone warfare] is secretly slipping out of the normative framework that was originally intended for armed conflict.
In defining ethics in relation to this type of modern warfare, this analysis coined the new term “necroethics”. This theory allows you to examine the possible murderous functions of the state, in this case Britain, as it denies the idea of state-orchestrated terrorism. Furthermore, it condemns the state for allowing the murders to remain unspoken within a reductive formulation of ethics. This applies to the case of Reyaad Khan, who was killed on August 21, 2015 together with two other ISIL employees in the Syrian city of Raqqa. David Cameron argued, “We took this action because there was no alternative. We had no way of preventing his planned attack on our country without taking direct action.”. This successful airstrike has helped the argument to view drones as the more ethical weapon of choice and therefore made it increasingly acceptable to use them in the future. Unfortunately, this type of drone attack is not always as successful, which suggests that collateral damage can always be expected. According to the 2013 International Technology Conference in Pakistan, 18 militants and 87 civilians died as a result of drone attacks in October 2008. The resulting losses show a major mistake in the use of weapons. In addition, the AGM-114 hellfire missile fired at Khan by the predator drone has a radius of 15 meters and an injury radius of over 20 meters. This “collateral damage” is often at the expense of human life, which means that there is a critical difference between achieving your goal and “just” achieving it. The theorist Pugliese points out “in what way the Iraqi citizens killed by coalition forces and insurgents cannot be seen as collateral damage … but as murder victims of an imperial war”.. The argument that the success of major strikes justifies the accidental killings of civilians.
The drone that launched the 2015 strike against Reyaad Khan was operated from an RAF Waddington control center in Lincolnshire. The traditional principle of warfare that you can only kill if you are ready to die or see without being seen cannot be applied to drone warfare. The superior technological capabilities of the RAF cannot be matched by their opponents for economic reasons. So is it ethical to attack your enemy without putting yourself in the conflict? Hence the concept of perception through distance is important. It has been shown that the further they are from the person they are causing pain, the more likely that people, in this case, drone pilots, are more likely to act recklessly. The psychology of difference and distance changes one’s perspective on another person, civilian or not. When drone pilots only look from above, they encounter what is known as a “drone vision”. This begins with achieving a state of strength by increasing the altitude from an aerial perspective with the intention of showing dominance and force projection. The balance of power between the pilot and the attacker is further disrupted, thereby distorting the effectiveness of the operator in establishing, regulating and determining how to deal with the target.
By doing this, you also remove all of your vital senses of what it means to be human. When you look from this perspective, instead of seeing the actual bodies themselves, you see houses, vehicles, and groups with body shapes. A former American drone operator revealed the following to the Guardian:
You never knew who you were killing because you never see a face, you only have silhouettes and it’s easy to have this detachment and lack of empathy for human life as it’s easy to see it as something else.
Hence, precision seems to be geared towards the safety of the western soldier rather than the life of the non-combatant. On the one hand, this reduces the volume of bombs used in modern warfare and protects the RAF pilots. However, this must be combined with better intelligence. No matter how precise a drone attack may be, it cannot cancel out the inaccuracy of bad intelligence. The historian Bishop shows that “Drones as weapon platforms have eliminated the possibility of operator losses altogether. However, precision and lethality only have value when directed towards the right goals. “.
The rhetoric of precision is clearly visible to the public. As a word, it connects to the advancement of military technology and creates the intent to enforce imperial ambitions in order to create legitimacy. On August 23, 2018, the UK Ministry of Defense documented that “a reaper was patrolling the Euphrates Valley in Syria. A building occupied by Daesh was identified and hit with a single hellfire missile. “. There was no indication in this report that civilians were killed or not in the attack. However, it is the language used on the Department of Defense website that offers only a limited and censored vision of the use of drones. The theorist Vanges argues that “the visual equivalent of rhetoric of precision becomes a form of abstract, adjusted imagery in which we only see images of drones hovering in the air over unspecified areas”.. This argument in no way indicates that the measures against IS fighters in the Middle East can be carried out without any problems. The only thing is that the number of civilian casualties caused by the use of drones must be more open.
Previous analysis of the ethical nature of drone attacks has typically turned to American military policy in the Middle East. Since the first drone attack in response to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, the United States has received increasing criticism, particularly in Pakistan, for using UAVs. Although the United States and Pakistan are not at war (under international law), the CIA has continued to use drone strikes in Pakistan since June 2004. Between 2001 and 2018, an estimated 23,300 civilians were killed as a result of U.S. military action in Waziristan, northwestern Pakistan, mainly due to drone strikes.
The sheer number of drone strikes by Americans on Syrian, Iraqi, Iranian and Pakistani soil means that there is more evidence to criticize their actions compared to the RAF. In 2013, and for the first time in American history, a family traveled to Washington to speak in front of Congress about a specific drone attack. The Rehman family, who live in North Waziristan, spoke to Congress about the death of a family member. Momina Bibi Rehman was picking vegetables in a field when a rocket for a nearby house hit her right in front of her grandchildren. A Washington newspaper commented at the time that “sixty-one percent of Americans support drone strikes … but only five members of Congress came to hear the story of a family suffering the consequences of this method of war”.. This case helped bring the receiving end of American drone strikes to life. Her thirteen-year-old grandson Zubair Rehman explained: “I don’t love blue skies anymore, in fact I now prefer gray skies. The drones don’t fly when the sky is gray. “. So drones have created a new fear of the unknown. We no longer wage war with a uniform and a fighter can no longer be identified by a characteristic conventional sign. This returns to the theory of the “drone vision”. A drone removes the differentiation requirement and robs the fighter of showing whether he is an enemy target. The theorist Boyle says so;
Many of the targets of drones do not wear uniforms and are part-time fighters who fight one moment but engage in peaceful civil activities the next. The fact that many insurgent and terrorist groups lack a clear structure of command or distinction between political and military leaders creates a number of important moral dilemmas.
There are fears that the RAF is following a narrative similar to the US. As can be seen from the American case studies above, there is more evidence to start an ethical debate about the precision of US military drone strikes. In response to the Reyaad Khan air strike, a full parliamentary inquiry was launched not only into the ethical practices of strikes against non-combatants, but also into the legality of the strike. At the time, Britain had only been approved by Parliament to conduct reconnaissance missions in Syria, not drone strikes. Drones were used in other parts of the Middle East, including Iraq, where over 250 drone strikes against ISIL and Al Qaeda fighters were carried out before Khan’s death. However, documents from the investigation indicate that because of the “precise” nature of this particular attack, the rules for engaging the RAF apply as in a traditional combat zone. It stated: “If the UK determines that it is exposed to an impending armed attack by ISIL, it is entitled to use the necessary and appropriate force to repel or prevent that attack in exercise of the inherent right to individual self-defense.”. This shows how important it is that an air strike is actually “precise” and “proportionate” to its target. When strikes kill more citizens than militants, a full ethical investigation of precision can be conducted. But was the extension of the right to kill Khan in a country where the RAF had not yet had to declare war beyond the classic legal limits? The above document also suggested that:
The other occupants of the car traveling with Khan may have been legitimate targets … they were traveling with a well-known ISIL attack planner, after all. Even if they were not targets in their own right, they could still have been viewed as acceptable collateral damage in relation to expected military advantage.
This part of the committee document sheds a different and more uncertain light on the deaths of two other “suspected” militants traveling with Khan in the car. There seems to be a constant revision of the definition of the document as a “legitimate” target. Those who control the drones move from an epistemology of facts through observation to a suspicion in which the aiming is based on a certain behavior or pattern of life. Strikes conducted on such high priority targets are usually answered quickly by the RAF and are based on two types of information. One who focuses on a highly valued target like Reyaad Khan known as a “personality strike”. The other is judged on behavioral patterns, like the employees with Khan in the car. This is known as a “signature strike”. Fear of escaping your target means that such decisions will be made under great pressure. Because of the short time constraints, it is therefore difficult to make an adequate estimate of the collateral damage. Chamayou goes on to argue, “The fact that your weapon allows you to more accurately destroy who you want doesn’t mean you can tell who is a legitimate target and who is not.”.
In conclusion, proponents of the use of drone strikes in the Middle East have argued that it is the moral obligation of the RAF to use their superior (precise) technological capabilities to attack ISIL militants at their source. However, the use of the term “precise” has been used far too casually to praise drone strikes. As seen above, this type of warfare does not completely rule out the possibility of civilians being killed as a result of drone strikes. In fact, there is an even greater lack of understanding among noncombatants that you could be in a war zone because of the hidden nature of drones. ISIL fighters without a uniform mean that they do not conform to the normative distinction of classic warfare. The ethical theory of Necroethics and Levinas shows that such comparisons to “old wars” are pointless, as the economic and technological superiority of the RAF’s drones means that it is more of a certain death than a normal fight. In the case of Reyaad Khan, there is no question that measures had to be taken to prevent him from inflicting terror on home soil. In this case, however, the drone hit other targets that may have been IS fighters. This leads us to wonder whether pilots encounter “drone vision” and, under considerable pressure, can make correct and accurate decisions to rescue non-combatants. At present, the British drone program is not even comparable to the scale of the American one. However, if Britain is to remain exposed to terrorist attacks, the use of drones in the Middle East will increase sharply, following a similar portrayal to the US.
Afza. Ul and Mahmood. T, “Using Predictive Analytics to Predict Drone Strikes in Pakistan”, IEEE, (2013), ieeexplore-ieee-org.sheffield.idm.oclc.org/stamp/stamp.jsp?tp=&arnumber=6732785, accessed January 17, 2020.
Cameron. D, “Drone attack kills British ISIS fighters in Syria”, Channel 4 news, (2015), www.youtube.com/watch?v=o76xIMUi_Yc, accessed January 12, 2020.
“Cost of War: Pakistani Civilians”, Brown University: Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, (2018), watson.brown.edu/costsofwar/costs/human/civilians/pakistani, accessed January 14, 2020.
Guardian, “Drone Wars: The Players Recruited to Kill,” Guardian Docs, (2015), www.youtube.com/watch?v=bGA8RFB0VSw, accessed January 5, 2020.
Mourn. D, “UK Fatal Drone Strikes in Syria”, Parliament’s Secret Service and Security Committee, National Archives HC 1152, (2017), pp. 1–31.
Department of Defense, British Forces Air Strikes in Iraq and Syria: Monthly List, Gov UK online, (2018), www.gov.uk/government/publications/british-forces-air-strikes-in-iraq-monthly-list/raf-air-strikes-in-iraq-and-syria-august-2018–2 , accessed on January 13, 2020.
Price. D, “Congressman Price Issues Statement Concerning Targeted Strike Against Iranian General Qasem Soleimani,” Congress documents and publicationsNAICS: 921120 (2020), pp. 1-2.
Radnoor. A, “Drones: One Eye in the Sky”, The guard, (2014), www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/jun/07/drones-eye-in-the-sky, accessed on January 5, 2020.
Sabbagh. D, “Britain will deploy a drone squadron after Brexit, says Secretary of Defense”, The Guardian, (2019), www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/feb/11/uk-will-deploy-drone-squadrons-after-brexit-says-defence-secretary-gavin-williamson, accessed January 4, 2020.
“The Wellesley News Staff Editorial: Nabila Rehman’s testimony against US drone strikes deserves as much attention as Malala’s endorsement,” Social science premium collection, (2013), search.proquest.com/docview/1460573291?accountid=13828, accessed January 25, 2020.
Bishop. P, Wing: The RAF in the war 1912-2012, (Croydon, 2013).
Boyle. M.J., “The Legal and Ethical Implications of Drone Warfare,” International journal for human rights19: 2 (2015), pp. 105-126.
Chamayou. G, Drone theory, (London, 2015).
Chamayou. G, “The Fahndungslehre”, Radical philosophy169 (2011), pp. 1-6.
Keene. S.D., Deadly and Legal? The ethics of drone attacks (Carlisle Pennsylvania, 2015).
Malenfant. G, “Emmanuel Levinas an Introduction”, Oxford Bibliographies,
www.oxfordbibliographies.com/view/document/ob-9780195396577/obo-9780195396577-0244.xml#firstMatch, (2014), accessed January 19, 2020.
Pugliese. J, “Necroethics of Terrorism”, Legal criticism21 (2010), pp. 213-231.
Strauser. J in Keene. S.D., Deadly and Legal? The ethics of drone attacks (Carlisle Pennsylvania, 2015).
Cleaned up. J, “Visual Regimes and the Politics of War Experience: Rewriting War from Above in Wikileaks” “Collateral Murder”, Review of international studies, 43: 1 (2016), pp. 95-111.
Vanges. O, Drone Vision: Towards a Critique of the Rhetoric of Precision, Journal of Contemporary Philosophy1: 1 (2016), pp. 8-17.
Toe foot. M, “Targeting: Precision and Production of Ethics”, European Journal for International Relations10: 5 (2010), pp. 1-24.
 D. Sabbagh, “Britain will deploy a drone squadron after Brexit, says Secretary of Defense”, The Guardian, (2019), www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/feb/11/uk-will-deploy-drone-squadrons-after-brexit-says-defence-secretary-gavin-williamson, accessed January 4, 2020.
 J. Strauser in S.D. Keene, Deadly and Legal? The ethics of drone attacks (Carlisle Pennsylvania, 2015), p. 18.
 M. Zehfuss, “Targeting: Precision and Production of Ethics”, European Journal for International Relations10: 5 (2010), pp. 1-24, p. 1.
 D. Price, “Congressman Price Issues Statement Concerning Targeted Strike Against Iranian General Qasem Soleimani,” Congress documents and publications, NAICS: 921120, (2020), p. 1.
 S.D. Keene, Deadly and Legal? The ethics of drone attacks (Carlisle Pennsylvania, 2015), p. 24.
 G. Malenfant, “An Introduction to Emmanuel Levinas”, Oxford Bibliographies, www.oxfordbibliographies.com/view/document/ob-9780195396577/obo-9780195396577-0244.xml#firstMatch, (2014), accessed January 19, 2020.
 G. Chamayou, Drone theory, (London, 2015), p.162.
 D. Cameron, “Drone Strike Kills British ISIS Fighters in Syria”, Channel 4 news, (2015), www.youtube.com/watch?v=o76xIMUi_Yc, accessed January 12, 2020.
 U. Afzal and T. Mahmood, “Using Predictive Analytics to Predict Drone Strikes in Pakistan”, IEEE, (2013), ieeexplore-ieee-org.sheffield.idm.oclc.org/stamp/stamp.jsp?tp=&arnumber=6732785, accessed January 17, 2020.
 G. Chamayou, Drone theory, (London, 2015), 141.
 J. Pugliese, “Necroethics of Terrorism”, Legal criticism21 (2010), pp. 213-231, p. 219.
 G. Chamayou, “The Fahndungslehre”, Radical philosophy169: 1 (2011), pp. 1-6, p. 4.
 J. Tidy, “Visual Regimes and the Politics of War Experience: Rewriting War from Above in” Wikileaks “” Collateral Murder “”, Review of international studies43: 1 (2016), pp. 95-111, p. 102.
 Guardian, “Drone Wars: The Players Recruited to Kill,” Guardian Docs, (2015), www.youtube.com/watch?v=bGA8RFB0VSw, accessed on January 5, 2020.
 P. Bishop, Wing: The RAF in the war 1912-2012, (Croydon, 2013), p. 365.
 Department of Defense, British Forces Air Strikes in Iraq and Syria: Monthly List, Gov UK online, (2018), www.gov.uk/government/publications/british-forces-air-strikes-in-iraq-monthly-list/raf-air-strikes-in-iraq-and-syria-august-2018–2 , accessed on January 13, 2020.
 O. Vanges, Drone Vision: Towards a Critique of the Rhetoric of Precision, Journal of Contemporary Philosophy1: 1 (2016), pp. 8-17, p. 9.
 “Cost of War: Pakistani Civilians”, Brown University: Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, (2018), watson.brown.edu/costsofwar/costs/human/civilians/pakistani, accessed January 14, 2020.
 “The Wellesley News Staff Editorial: Nabila Rehman’s testimony against US drone strikes deserves as much attention as Malala’s endorsement,” Social science premium collection, (2013), search.proquest.com/docview/1460573291?accountid=13828, accessed January 25, 2020.
 Radnoor, “Drones: An Eye in the Sky”, The guard, (2014), www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/jun/07/drones-eye-in-the-sky, accessed on January 5, 2020.
 M.J. Boyle, “The Legal and Ethical Implications of Drone Warfare,” International journal for human rights19: 2 (2015), pp. 105-126, p. 113.
 D. Grieve, “British Deadly Drone Strikes in Syria”, Parliament’s Secret Service and Security Committee, National Archives HC 1152, (2017), pp. 1–31, p. 27.
 D. Grieve, “British Deadly Drone Strikes in Syria”, Parliament’s Secret Service and Security Committee, National Archives HC 1152, (2017), pp. 1–31, p. 20.
 G. Chamayou, Drone theory, (London, 2015), p. 143.
Written To: University of Sheffield
Written for: Dr. Benedict F Docherty
Date written: March 2020
Further reading on e-international relations