It's a scorching hot day deep in the Nevada desert. Inside a US military installation a pilot gazes into one of five computer screens which surround him. Hours before, he launched the sleek, glider-like black Reaper drone on its mission from the US-controlled Kandahar airbase to the remote tribal regions of Pakistan. With an unblinking eye the Reaper follows its target who is travelling in a vehicle through the rough, mountainous terrain. The vehicle contains a suspected terrorist leader and his driver. With no visible sign of emotion, the pilot presses the button on the joystick in his right hand, launching a missile that strikes the vehicle through the closed front passenger window killing both occupants.
Whilst the above story is fictional, as they say in the movies it's based on real events. There has been a major shift in the US 'War on Terror' away from conventional warfare to the use of drones (unmanned aerial vehicles or UAVs). The question arises: is drone warfare ethical?
Let's begin with some facts, if we can find any. About once every four days a drone strikes a suspected al-Qaeda target in Pakistan's tribal region. The New America Foundation suggests the strike rate has increased from 80% of total deaths being militants and 20% innocent civilians during 2004 to 2010, to 95% militants in 2011. This contrasts to the Pakistan body count which believes there are 50 civilian deaths to every militant death.
Two powerful reasons explain why the US has switched to reliance on high tech drone warfare; the reduced risk to their own military personnel and the much lower cost compared to a ground offensive. Whilst we can argue the facts as to how many innocent civilians have died, we can't deny the economic reality that America can't afford an occupying force and every nation prioritises, perhaps selfishly, the welfare of their own citizens ahead of citizens of other nations.
It's difficult to condemn the switch to drone warfare based on an analysis of the expected consequences to the US. However the weakness of the consequential (utilitarian) approach is its focus on the end result which can mask the immoral actions required to achieve it.
The other major school of ethics (Kant's duty ethics) would pose the simple question; 'what if everyone did that?'
What if every nation launches UAV strikes outside their own national borders? Pakistan is not at war with the US; in fact they are meant to be allies in the 'War on Terror'. Given different cultural perspectives we know that a freedom fighter in one country is a militant terrorist in another. If it is ethical for every nation to launch UAV strikes on foreign soil against suspected terrorist targets, every government that has an enemy somewhere in the world becomes a legitimate target for attack. This is contrary to the principle of national sovereignty and the fundamental human right to live in peace.
The US invokes the self defence principle to justify their military strikes in Pakistan; that is they say their pre-emptive strikes are defensive actions against further terrorist attacks within the US. It is 11 years since the 9/11 attacks and hundreds of thousands of people have died in Iraq and Afghanistan, being the collateral damage from the US response.
Rather than self defence, this is essentially a 'might is right' policy where the US continually develop increasingly deadly weapon systems with which they attempt to protect themselves.
However the more fundamental question does not involve a choice between drone and conventional warfare, but whether or not to engage in war. Drone attacks are destabilising the Pakistan Government, breeding hatred towards the US and breeding further extremism. Any country that wants lasting peace and security must fight to increase human well being and that includes the poorest and most vulnerable, specifically in the breeding grounds for the next generation of terrorists.
Geoff Lamberton is a senior lecturer in ethics and sustainability at Southern Cross University.