Armed Drones Part Two: The ethical issues


MQ-9 Reaper drone.  Photo: General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc.

MQ-9 Reaper drone. Photo: General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc.

by Emma Fieldhouse, a graduate student in Public Ethics at St. Paul’s University, Ottawa and a Progressive Public Policy Intern at the Rideau Institute. 

This commentary focuses on the ethical issues that arise with the use of armed drones. Please see Part One for more information on the legal issues and on efforts from within the Canadian military to acquire armed drones.

Although the Royal Canadian Air Force has said that armed drone capabilities would only be used to support ground troops, there are concerns about mission creep. Once the capacity to strike is acquired, it is likely it will be used, and the use of weaponized drones has significant ethical implications.

One argument in favour of arming drones has been that drone strikes can be targeted more precisely than conventional bombing, and are thus able to significantly reduce the amount of collateral damage. Supporters use this as evidence that drones are the more ethical choice.

However, the high number of civilian casualties incurred in many drone strikes demonstrates that drone-targeting is not as precise as officials often claim. A 2009 New York Times article reported that 700 civilians were killed during attacks on 14 intended targets.

In 2014 the human rights organization Reprieve determined that

even when operators target specific individuals… they kill vastly more people than their targets, often needing to strike multiple times. Attempts to kill 41 men resulted in the deaths of an estimated 1,147 people…

The U.S. has further blurred the issue by defining ‘militant’ to include all military-age males in the area, whether or not there is any evidence of them being involved in hostile activity. All of these factors, plus the high level of secrecy around the American drone program, make it very difficult for analysts to independently verify the accuracy of the strikes and their impact on civilian populations, or determine how often targets are missed.

The strategic value of drones is thus unproven, because the high number of civilian deaths in drone strikes may have fueled anti-American sentiments  and sympathy for the insurgent groups in the affected areas.

In Just War Theory, one of the most common philosophical theories dealing with the ethics of the conduct of war, there are certain criteria for moral conduct within a conflict known as jus in bello. In this framework an attack is ethical if it is directed at legitimate military targets, will result in a distinct military advantage, and if any harm done to civilians is proportional and not excessive.

Legitimate military objectives are also defined in Protocol I additional to the Geneva Conventions. Article 52 says:

Attacks shall be limited strictly to military objectives. In so far as objects are concerned, military objectives are limited to those objects which by their nature, location, purpose or use make an effective contribution to military action and whose total or partial destruction, capture or neutralization, in the circumstances ruling at the time, offers a definite military advantage.

Ethicists have therefore asked whether we should consider drone operation facilities to be legitimate military targets. Using current definitions, the answer would be yes: they are military installations that are actively controlling bombing, and halting their ability to attack would be of military advantage to the opposing forces.

The situation becomes more complex when drone operators are no longer located in the combat zone itself. For example, if armed drones in Iraq were being controlled from North America, should opposing forces be able to retaliate against those drone facilities? This is an ethical question that many philosophers are grappling with, and it is issues like these that make the ethical use of armed drones problematic.

Although one would expect a Canadian weaponized drone program to look a lot different than the covert CIA program, there are still many important ethical questions which need to be answered before any decisions are made about whether Canada should acquire an armed drone capacity.



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13 Responses to “Armed Drones Part Two: The ethical issues”

  1. Priscilla JuddMarch 24, 2016 at 6:02 am #

    just wondering why your blog doesn’t tell me that you have received my comment and cleared my info from the form? Might be nice to fix your program – tx for your interesting posts #peace

  2. Priscilla JuddMarch 24, 2016 at 1:56 am #

    after learning about the possible acquisition of armed drones under the Harper Regime I wrote a song about drones:

  3. Barbara BambigerMarch 23, 2016 at 10:05 pm #

    Thanks again to Dimitri for his well expressed, informed opinions. We must keep questioning, keep challenging, keep thinking.

    • Another PersonMarch 24, 2016 at 7:07 am #

      True, but I’m not a big fan of dimitri’s insult the military and America thing.

  4. Mary GrohMarch 23, 2016 at 2:27 pm #

    If we seriously would like to see an end to war our government(s) will have to pivot away from the production of killing machines and direct our human skills and our material resources into producing what will make peace.

  5. Don KerrMarch 23, 2016 at 10:58 am #

    Dropping a bomb or firing a missile in another nations’ territory is an act of war whether from a drone or a manned vehicle. The US program of “targeted killings” is illegal and should be declared so by our government..

  6. dimitriMarch 22, 2016 at 6:08 pm #

    From the getgo, let’s just say that Canada should NEVER operate any drones weaponized or not.

    In trying to understand the insane logic of the CIA drone program, I have come to understand that the issue is of economics.

    If I declared that a “terrorist” was living in the mountains of Waziristan, Pakistan, and I wanted to kill him for whatever self-justified reason, I would have two choices. One is to send a platoon there with all their armour, their transport and all the logistical planning and ancillary equipment to make the mission a success. There may be wounded soldiers who may have to be evacuated, and some of the soldiers may return home with PTSD and will have to be treated for years.

    The other option is to send in a drone to “surgically” kill the nasty person and fly back to its home base. There may be substantial civilian deaths in the operation, but they are just Muslims who should have known better than to hang around with this questionable individual. This may engender much hate and desperation, but it’s no big whoopee. We can call these dead people “collateral damage” so it sounds like buildings and such and the folks back home won’t be sensitized as much.

    Get the drift? Can you see the economical advantage here? It’s all about cost effectiveness. More bang for our buck. It takes the human element out of the equation too. It’s just a video game that’s far away so don’t get your knickers in a twist folks. We’re gonna win this “war on terror” even if the plan is for perpetual war. We don’t really want it to end. It’s good for business…

    Meanwhile, you can bet your sweet bippies that the Canadian Armed Forces want to have the latest bomber jets to play with as well as all the modern equipment this war business has to offer. It helps make their existence more meaningful (for them) and if you accept the latest promise to not ever use drones that are armed, then these “mission creeps” may have a bridge to sell you too.

    For ethical and moral reasons, Canada should never have them. NO DRONES, NO WAY!

    • Another PersonMarch 23, 2016 at 3:44 pm #

      Two things. ONE, Canada wants the newest ‘toys’ because of their attempt to keep up and be modern because that’s what militaries have to do, not because they want to feel more meaningful or join a “war business”. That’s VERY disrespectful to our men and women in uniform. TWO, despite what you might believe, the US trys hard NOT to cause civilian casualties, but that’s inevitable in a war. I’ll admit that there are ethical concerns with drones that need to be reviewed, and that the US may have been hotheaded when they did the war on terror, but that’s no reason to piss on the military or the military industrial complex (BTW no I’m not in the military or the military industrial complex).

      • dimitriMarch 24, 2016 at 3:55 pm #

        AP, you are assuming that when I mention ‘the military’, I’m including the men and women soldiers. Not true. My comments are directed to the ‘top brass’ who are in control and giving the orders.

        TWO, I want to love and respect our American neighbor, but because of the actions taken in the last 15 years (since 9/11), I am deeply troubled by their aggressive tactics on the world stage. I have taken the initiative to find out what is really going on because like you, I dislike being wrong. This business of ‘war on terror’ is creating the terror. All the money they have spent (and it’s a lot!), could have been directed towards much better causes that would’ve actually helped the American people, in jobs, infrastructure, environment, their standard of living, and much more. Instead, it’s squandered towards endless wars that are not at all necessary, and causing the deaths of millions of people and the destruction of whole countries! America has become sick with power and it is disturbing to see it pushing its weight around internationally (over 750 military bases wordwide!).

        With regards to the Military Industrial Complex, it’s all about profits before people! How can you defend their virtues if they don’t have any?

        note: every time I post here at Ceasefire, I make an effort to be brief, but believe me, there’s so much going on that I could easily spend all day going over the details and showing my displeasure towards the follies of this human existence.

        • Another PersonMarch 26, 2016 at 9:20 am #

          First, thanks for clarifying what you meant when you commented on the military. I have mixed feelings on the brass, myself. Second, I’ll admit that the US took brash actions that could be deemed unjustified after the 9/11 attacks, which are definitely devastating. Even the Republicans, who has constantly been deemed as supporting the military too much, will admit that the Iraq war was a total waste. They spend a lot when it comes to dollars, and I think that they can afford to cut the spending a little bit and still remain number 1. Military industrial complex? Yes, profit is most likely involved and prioritized. However, cant you can say the same about any company, like Apple, for example?

  7. Guy St HilaireMarch 22, 2016 at 5:45 pm #

    Unfortunately ,Canada is deeply entrenched into the matrix of war . Once we have the drones it will be just a small step away in weaponizing them for criminal ,IMHO ,purposes . I am not sure what the answer could be ,short of , instilling compassion and common sense into our military leadership.


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