Q. Are drones just an unmanned version of other platforms or delivery systems?
One line of argument suggests that the killing of militants should not be attributed to the drone platform but rather the policy of targeted killings of suspected terrorists. Indeed, prominent scholars such as Charli Carpenter maintain that the real problem in terms of violations of international law is the policy of targeted killings and that drones, in and of themselves, are merely the delivery system that could just as easily be a soldier or a manned F-16.59
A number of military leaders have similarly suggested that drones are just another platform. In 2012, General Norton Schwartz, the chief of staff of the Air Force, stated that "if it is a legitimate target, then I would argue that the manner in which you engage that target, whether it be close combat or remotely, is not a terribly relevant question." Canada's chief of staff, General Thomas Lawson, made a similar comment in 2013: "If a kinetic round is propelled toward a confirmed enemy for strategic purposes by a rifle, by an artillery piece, by an aircraft manned, or an aircraft unmanned, any of those that end up with a desired effect is a supportable point of view."60 Former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta makes a similar argument in his memoirs: "to call our campaign against Al-Qaeda a 'drone program' is a little like calling World War I a 'machine gun program.' Technology has always been an aspect of war ... what is most crucial is not the size of the missile or the ability to deploy it from thousands of miles away" but how the munitions are used.61
In assuming that lethal force is lethal force, what all of these assertions sidestep is the question of whether armed drones change the calculus surrounding the use of force. In other words, if a type of technology lowers the cost or risk of using force, then lethal force might still be lethal force, but there might be more of it. As a number of government leaders have acknowledged, drones have lowered the threshold for using force, and civilian and military leaders have been more willing to use force at times that they otherwise would have exercised more caution. As former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates noted, drones cause leaders to view war as "bloodless, painless, and odorless," allowing them to take liberties that would not be permissible were American casualties part of the calculation. As quoted in the Washington Post, he had come to see new technologies such as drones as providing an antiseptic form of warfare:
Remarkable advances in precision munitions, sensors, information and satellite technology and more can make us overly enamored with the ability of technology to transform
the traditional laws and limits of war____A button is pushed
in Nevada and seconds later a pickup truck explodes in Kandahar . . . [war is seen as] kind of video game or action
movie____In reality, war is inevitably tragic, inefficient and
The low risk to the operator and detachment from consequences on the battlefield make drones different. It makes them more tempting to employ than alternatives such as manned platforms or infantry, which involve more risk and bring individuals closer into contact with the tragic consequences of war. It is why targeted killings are conducted disproportionately by unarmed drones rather than manned aircraft or special forces and why the United States has killed rather than captured individuals even though capturing individuals can produce useful intelligence. The reason has to do with the fact that these vehicles are lower risk and will not incur casualties on the part of the state that uses them, and that they have high operational appeal in terms of their range, precision, and responsiveness. It is difficult then to disentangle altogether the technology and the policy, since the technology has advantages that allow it to be used in ways that lower the risk and in turn the threshold for using force.