At the end of March, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) published a 100-page document to “inform and prompt wider debate” on the use of military unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), commonly known as drones. The UK Approach to Unmanned Aircraft Systems examines technological and scientific issues related to current and future use of armed and unarmed drones and also sets out, for the first time, what the MoD sees as the legal, moral and ethical issues that arise from using such systems. The document focuses almost entirely on the future use of drones and there is, unsurprisingly, an implicit assumption that the current use of drones is both legal and ethical.
However, even while this document is framed as prompting a wider debate, there is a clear desire to limit and control that debate. As has been the case for some time, the use of the term “drone” is absolutely rejected by the military. While “unmanned aerial system” is acceptable, the preferred term is “remotely-piloted aircraft” – especially, the document suggests, “when talking to the media”.
While this may well in part be to avoid confusion, it is also to counter one of the key weaknesses for the future development of drones identified by the document: the “public perception issue”. By avoiding the term “drone” it is hoped that negative perception of “killer drones” can simply be avoided.
In a similar way, the MoD report also argues strongly against the idea that any drones currently under development could or should be called “autonomous”, suggesting instead that they are in fact merely automated.
Taking what could be said to be a maximalist approach to the issue of autonomy, the document argues that machines or systems can only truly be called autonomous when they are self-aware or their understanding is indistinguishable from humans.
This would be a substantially different definition of autonomy to the one that is being used by scientists and companies involved in developing such systems. While this may be partly to try to avoid possible legal challenges – the legal distinction between “autonomous” and “automated” is important – this use of language is also again to try to manage the public perception of drones.
Peace campaigners and others who criticise the use of drones will be strongly challenged: “Adversaries... may manipulate public opinion through the media with arguments that air power, in particular unmanned air power, is too much of a cruel overmatch or a blunt instrument. Air power proponents must prepare for, and rigorously counter, such arguments through the proactive and positive interpretation of international law; air power is, and will remain, one of the West’s own asymmetric advantages”.
Campaigners have argued for some time that the geographical and psychological distance between the drone operator launching weapons and the point of attack may in practice mean that the threshold for launching weapons may be lowered. In addition, the fact that remote war is undertaken at no risk to your own forces also may mean that there is a greater temptation to undertake armed attacks and assassinations.
The UK Approach to Unmanned Aircraft Systems raises this issue too in a section on ethical and moral issues:
“One of the contributory factors in controlling and limiting aggressive policy is the risk to one’s own forces. It is essential that, before unmanned systems become ubiquitous (if it is not already too late) that we consider this issue and ensure that, by removing some of the horror, or at least keeping it at a distance, that we do not risk losing our controlling humanity and make war more likely.”
However, the document also argues that this negative must be “tempered” by the fact that “the use of unmanned aircraft prevents the potential loss of aircrew lives and is thus in itself morally justified.”
The authors argue: “what is needed is a clear understanding of the issues involved so that informed decisions can be made.” Peace activists would, of course, agree, and would argue that in a democratic society it should not be a matter for military or legal experts alone to make these decisions but rather that there is a full – and genuine – public debate.