Armchair assassins enter ethical minefield

Modern warfare: The UK launched 172 drone strikes on Iraq and Syria in the first half of 2017.

Are drone pilots morally indefensible? With a click of a button, they can kill dozens. Now, the British Army is training ethicists to teach them about the morality of remote-control killing.

In many ways it is a normal life.

You live in the English countryside, in Lincolnshire. You drive to work. You sit down at your desk.

But it is one of the most secretive locations in Britain. And your job is killing people.

This is RAF Waddington, one of two places where Britain’s Reaper drone squadrons are based. Their operators attack with 500lb bombs and Hellfire missiles. After carrying out deadly operations in Raqqa and Mosul, the crews return home every night.

Although squadron members are keen to emphasise that they are professionals, some have described the disconnect between work and home as a “parallel normality”.

In response to this, the British Army has announced that it is training ethicists to teach all soldiers about the complex morality of remote-control killing.

The Ministry of Defence’s concerns over the ethics of drones can be traced back to 2011. In a report it asked: “If we remove the risk of loss from the decision-makers’ calculations… do we make the use of armed force more attractive?”

It added: “It is essential that… by removing some of the horror, or at least keeping it at a distance, we do not risk losing our controlling humanity and make war more likely.”

Most people can sympathise with the act of physically shooting and killing an enemy combatant on a battlefield. The theme of honour and bravery in conflict is key to almost every culture.

But there is widespread unease about the use of drones in warfare. In 2010, the UN’s Philip Alston warned that they could create a “PlayStation mentality to killing” that strips war of its moral gravity. The sanitised terms that are used about drone strikes — “surgical”, “pinpoint” — add to this perception.

However, the evidence shows that operators are deeply affected. In the US, three quarters reported feeling grief, remorse and sadness. According to a recent study conducted by the US Air Force, they are exposed to more graphic violence — such as witnessing “dead bodies or human remains” — than most forces on the ground.

Are drone pilots morally defensible?

Drone rangers

As American General Robert E. Lee once said: “It is well that war is so terrible, or we should grow too fond of it.” This, say critics, is what makes drone use wrong. By removing the terror and the danger of war, they make it a clinical exercise at best — and at worst, a game. How do they sleep at night?

It is clear that they do not see their job as a video game, reply others. And why should there be any moral difference between various ways of killing people? In fact, drones might even be more humane than humans: most atrocities are fuelled by battlefield emotions like fear and bloodlust, not precise calculation.

You Decide

  1. Is there a moral difference between killing someone in person and killing them via a drone strike?
  2. Could you be a drone pilot?


  1. Write a diary entry of an ordinary day’s work for a drone pilot.
  2. Although drone strikes are generally very precise, they sometimes kill innocent people. Write 500 words on whether the risk of innocent people dying affects your view of war.

Some People Say...

“The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”

Sun Tzu

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Drones are effective in war. A study by the Long War Journal found that drone strikes in Pakistan between 2006 and 2011 had killed 2,018 militants and 138 civilians. The UK are currently using drone strikes to target Islamic State terrorists in Syria and Iraq. The US are also using them in Afghanistan, Pakistan and several other countries.
What do we not know?
Whether, one day, drones will entirely replace ground forces. After several mistaken interventions over the last two decades, many Western countries are growing more sceptical of putting boots on the ground. Perhaps governments will see drone strikes as a reasonable compromise between doing nothing and risking the lives of thousands of troops.

Word Watch

One of two places
The other is the Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, US.
The General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper is the main drone used by both the British and American armed forces. The entire programme has cost £8.9 billion, with each individual unit costing £12.8 million to build and maintain. Reapers have a maximum speed of about 300 miles per hour.
Hellfire missiles
These missiles are 1.63 metres long and are designed to destroy armoured tanks. They have also been used in a number of targeted killings of high-profile individuals.
Raqqa and Mosul
Raqqa in Syria and Mosul in Iraq were Islamic State’s two key strongholds before they were retaken by the Syrian and Iraqi armed forces respectively. Both cities suffered terrible damage during the battles to reclaim them.
Robert E. Lee
The commander of the Confederate Army during the American Civil War. The removal of several statues of Lee has been a cause of huge controversy in the US in the last few years.

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