Our military relies heavily on a technology known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, otherwise known as UAVs, in the current Global War on Terror. This technology has many benefits. For example, with no need for life support systems, a UAV is much more lightweight and cheap to produce than a manned aircraft. When a UAV is shot down, no human life is lost. Also, piloting a UAV is not as traumatic as piloting a manned craft or fighting on foot.
However, despite the benefits, there are several problems, risks, and ethical debates associated with these machines. Firstly, I believe it to be unethical to employ machines for killing. This is because they make war, a horrible but sometimes unfortunately necessary act, seem much more pleasant and bearable than frontline combat as a foot soldier, which makes people more numb to the horrors of war. Also, there is an increased risk of the pilot of a UAV mistaking a civilian for a terrorist. This is a bad thing, because civilians should not be killed in war. Something I had not thought of before doing research is an invasion of privacy. It is unethical to watch a person whom you do not know to be an enemy without their knowledge. A final problem that is not so much an issue right now but due to developing technology is a risk of the UAVs turning on us. Currently, they are remotely operated by human pilots, but the technology is being developed for them to be autonomously operated. With no human control, there is a risk of the UAV deciding to kill us instead of our enemies.
I believe that it is unethical to employ machines for killing. It is detestable and unfortunate but necessary that sometimes one person must kill another. However, it is never necessary for this grim responsibility to be put onto a machine. I believe that it is a just use of the technology of UAVs to keep an eye on the land so that you will know if something happens, to watch enemies in secret so that you will know what they are doing in order to stop them from doing it, or to scout out the area for enemy activity which they will then mark as an area to be besieged by human soldiers, but for the UAVs to be doing the actual killing is unethical.
The reason I believe it to be unethical for UAVs to be employed as killing machines is that they take much of the sting out of war. As mentioned earlier, it is an unfortunate when we must go to war, but it is sometimes necessary. However, even if it is a just cause, war is still a terrible thing. When war can be waged from an air-conditioned room an ocean away, it becomes less of a bloody, nightmarish affair. A veteran of World War II or Korea or Vietnam will never forget the horror of being shoved onto a battlefield with bullets flying in all directions and the cries of the dying filling the air. He will never forget what it was like to see his best friends die, to be afraid that he will die himself. He will never forget the horror of being forced by necessity to put a gun in a man's face and pull the trigger.
On the other hand, a UAV pilot will grow old without these unspeakable memories. His war stories will consist of sitting in an air-conditioned room ten miles from his wife and children pushing buttons. Although he kills people, the same as a marine or an army man on the battlefield, his job does not seem like killing people.
As much as this sounds like an improvement, the disadvantages outweigh the advantages. Although it is better for the mental health of the soldier, it causes a major problem. The World War II veteran who remembers war as a living nightmare knows that, although it may be at times just, war is never good. When we have conflicts with other countries and some will call for us to go to war with them, this man will know what war means. He may choose to agree with the decision to send American men to their deaths and to take the lives of other men in a foreign land, but he will not like it. Because of this reluctance, his decision will be more careful, he will not so impetuously commit to a war without carefully considering whether or not it is right. Men like this will help to keep our country out of unnecessary and unjust wars that will hurt the world and will hurt our country by making us into the bad guys.
The UAV pilot, on the other hand, will remember fighting in war in his old age as just another job, not too dissimilar to any computer job. He will not feel at all conflicted about the possibility of another war. To him those words will just mean another generation of computer-screen soldiers. He will only think of his son pushing buttons in an air-conditioned room ten miles from home, the same way he did. What he does not realize is that on the other end of his computer screen, real people with faces and thoughts and feelings are dying and that on the other side of the screen, the situation is hell. He has no problem with a violent war, because he was away from the violence. The horror should always stay in war to remind us that it is a terrible thing when we have to kill in order to defend our own security.
Another problem with UAVs is the danger of the devices accidentally killing innocent civilians that they mistake for terrorists. An unknown author claims that this occurs much less frequently than the talk on the streets indicates (The Wall Street Journal-Eastern Edition 255.7 (2010): A12), but this author seems to me to be deliberately vague in backing this claim, and even if the number of civilian deaths is very low, it is still unacceptable. If another country were tracking down terrorists within U.S. borders who were a threat to their national security, we would raise no objections to their defensive actions, but if they killed innocent American civilians in the process, it would be seen as an act of war. Similarly, it is not right for us to kill civilians in Middle Eastern countries, even if we are justified in hunting and killing terrorists. For the most part, these civilians have little understanding of the war and furthermore they have no desire to harm Americans, therefore we are not justified to kill them for what their country does.
Something that I really did not expect that came up in my research was a concern that UAVs were violating the privacy of civilians by constantly watching them day and night. According to one article I read, the UAV operators get to know their potential targets in a strangely intimate way, without the targets even knowing they're being watched. One passage from this article was especially striking to me in which the author, Mockenhaupt, claims, "Indeed, they see many things meant to be secret, like men having sex with sheep and goats in the deep of night." (145) I'm as horrified and grossed out as anyone else by the idea of a person doing such a thing, but I am even more against the idea of U.S. soldiers watching it from across the ocean without the perpetrator's knowledge. If this had been a U.S. citizen and the soldiers police officers seeking to arrest the pervert for his actions, I would be all for it, but as it stands, it would be unethical to watch this act being done. A person's private life is not meant to be made available for complete strangers to be aware of.
Currently UAVs are remotely operated by human crews, so no machine is employed in the decision making process. However, according to an article I found in my research, the technology to change this is being worked on right now. Kurnaz, the author of this article, states that "The main purpose of the autonomous flight is to enable the UAVs to accomplish their mission autonomously, without any (or with minimal) input from the ground operator." (1233). This is a dangerous idea. With a machine, rather than a human, calling the shots, there is a great likelihood of these weapons turning against their wielders. There is no guarantee that the machines will target the enemies that we want them to target, instead they may decide that we are the ones who must be destroyed.
So, in conclusion, these are the major debates surrounding the use of UAV technology. There are the ethical problems associated with the use of machines for killing. Also, there is the danger of accidental civilian deaths as a result of UAV operators mistaking them for terrorists. Unexpectedly, there is the violation of privacy associated with the technology. And finally, with the development of autonomous control, there is the risk of our assets becoming our enemies.
Illarionov, B. V., et al. "Military-Technical and Information-Program Support in Training Operators of UnmannedAerialVehicles." Military Thought 14.4 (2005): 169-172. Print. In The Public Domain. Greg Goebel. Web, 2010. 8 April 2010.
Kurnaz, Sefer, Omar Cetin, and Okyay Kaynak. "Adaptive neuro-fuzzy inference system based autonomous flight control of unmanned air vehicles." Expert Systems with Applications 37.2 (2010) 1229-34. Print.
Mockenhaupt, Brian. "We've Seen the Future, and it's Unmanned." Esquire 152.5 (2009): 131-162. Print.
Sharkey, Noel. "Death Strikes from the Sky: The Calculus of Proportionality." IEEE Technology & Society Magazine 28.1 (2009): 16-19. Print.
"The Drone Wars." The Wall Street Journal-Eastern Edition 255.7 (2010): A12. Print.
"UnmannedAerialVehicles/ UnmannedCombatAerialVehicles: Likely Missions and Challenges for the Policy-Relevant Future." Air & Space Power Journal 19.3 (2005): 45-54. Print.